PDA

View Full Version : Critical Condition (William Skidelsky)



William Haskins
02-27-2008, 06:06 AM
Book reviewing may seem in reasonable health. But the authority of critics is being undermined by a raucous blogging culture and an increasingly commercial publishing industry. Literary journalism needs to get better if it is to survive

In America in recent months, there has been an outbreak of agonising about the state of book reviewing. Several long articles—and one widely reviewed book: Faint Praise, by Gail Pool—have appeared proclaiming the genre to be if not moribund, then at least in a condition of semi-decrepitude. These concerns have been prompted, most immediately, by the slimming down of book review sections in the US print media. In the last few years, the books pages of most major US papers—as well as a host of smaller ones—have had their word counts slashed, their commissioning budgets cut and their staff downsized. Only the New York Times Book Review appears unscathed. But the issue goes deeper than this. At play are anxieties about the vitality of literary culture, the relationship between print and digital media, even the long-term survival of book-reading itself. Throughout its history, the book review has occupied an uncertain position in relation to the body of literature, being perceived, alternatively, as a nourishing agent and a pest. Growing fears for the genre's survival in the US have, at least, gone some way to resolving this issue. Most people agree that if people stop writing about books, books will be worse off.

http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=9995

SpookyWriter
02-27-2008, 06:10 AM
What's your thoughts, Mr. Haskins? I read, critique, and appreciate the commentary of others who share similar tastes in writing.

William Haskins
02-27-2008, 06:15 AM
i think there's a historical link between writer and critic (and i mean serious critics) that, taken together (though perhaps not always in equal doses), preserved, perpetuated and propelled thought and writing.

the same can be said for serious music and film writers. our appreciation is often put into context, accentuated and furthered by the perspectives of critics.

SpookyWriter
02-27-2008, 06:26 AM
i think there's a historical link between writer and critic (and i mean serious critics) that, taken together (though perhaps not always in equal doses), preserved, perpetuated and propelled thought and writing.

the same can be said for serious music and film writers. our appreciation is often put into context, accentuated and furthered by the perspectives of critics.Damn, that's one fine analysis. Thanks.

William Haskins
02-27-2008, 06:41 AM
he's deputy editor for prospect magazine, a pretty well-respected journal.

sorry it didn't resonate with you. i found his argument compelling and, at the very least, of value in examining how a trivialization of literature robs it of some of its vitality.

dolores haze
02-27-2008, 06:53 AM
I find that blogs are the best place to go for reviews of genre fiction, but I will be one very unhappy lady if I don't get my NYTBR every Sunday. I was very unhappy when the LA Times dispensed with it's book section. I don't always agree with the critics, but I do want that level of criticism to continue.

William Haskins
02-27-2008, 06:55 AM
nevermind...

Cranky
02-27-2008, 07:05 AM
nevermind...

About the thread? Nah, Haskins, it's a good topic, I think. It was just hard to wade through this particular article. So, you'll have to settle for my opinion of the topic, hee.

Honest literary criticism is a net good for literature, imo. Sometimes, it even goes far enough to make good literature more accessible to people who might not otherwise read a very fine book. And, all the stuff you already said. :)

However...I think it's more relevant to literature itself, or writers and academics, and not necessarily the reading public. Personally, I don't read that many "professional" reviews when it comes to actually choosing a book. I go with my friend's/family recommendations, I make a random choice, or I go to blogs that have reviewed books I might be interested in reading.

So. There's my meager contribution. If I am off, well...okay. I can live with it. It's a common thing for me. LOL

Will Lavender
02-27-2008, 07:11 AM
What's happening is that there's a disconnect between what's reviewed and what people actually read.

There's also a general distaste -- blooming in from the film culture -- of critics in general. I don't know one person who actually reads film reviews or pays any attention at all to them. Of course this has probably always been the case, but as the blockbuster has begun to break out of its summertime cage, more people are wanting big, fast, exciting, mindless entertainment -- and the critics hate that stuff.

Will Lavender
02-27-2008, 07:18 AM
i think there's a historical link between writer and critic (and i mean serious critics) that, taken together (though perhaps not always in equal doses), preserved, perpetuated and propelled thought and writing.

the same can be said for serious music and film writers. our appreciation is often put into context, accentuated and furthered by the perspectives of critics.

I agree. No one could argue that Pauline Kael was any less of an artist than, say, Billy Wilder.

But the culture itself -- American culture anyway -- has made it hard for any Kaels to bloom. They've shrunk everything. The movie reviews, the book reviews, any sort of criticism at all about the arts. Books have especially taken a hit. Our paper here in Louisville, which is a pretty good sized city, has such a miniscule book review section that you have to have a sherpa to find it.

Cranky
02-27-2008, 07:23 AM
I agree. No one could argue that Pauline Kael was any less of an artist than, say, Billy Wilder.

But the culture itself -- American culture anyway -- has made it hard for any Kaels to bloom. They've shrunk everything. The movie reviews, the book reviews, any sort of criticism at all about the arts. Books have especially taken a hit. Our paper here in Louisville, which is a pretty good sized city, has such a miniscule book review section that you have to have a sherpa to find it.

My local paper has a pretty skimpy book review section as well. A couple of books get reviewed, and sometimes, they're simply books by local authors (not that there is anything wrong with that, seriously), etc. i'm sorry to say, they're not always terribly well written, either. It's hard to get excited about a book when the reviewer doesn't do it much justice.

Obviously, this isn't as much of a problem with more prestigious book reviewers, but...

SpookyWriter
02-27-2008, 07:27 AM
My local paper has a pretty skimpy book review section as well. A couple of books get reviewed, and sometimes, they're simply books by local authors (not that there is anything wrong with that, seriously), etc. i'm sorry to say, they're not always terribly well written, either. It's hard to get excited about a book when the reviewer doesn't do it much justice.

Obviously, this isn't as much of a problem with more prestigious book reviewers, but...So is this a business opportunity for some web developer (entrepreneur) to exploit?

ETA: I thought there were web sites already dedicated to book (other materials) reviews?

Cranky
02-27-2008, 07:44 AM
So is this a business opportunity for some web developer (entrepreneur) to exploit?

ETA: I thought there were web sites already dedicated to book (other materials) reviews?

Ha! Don't tempt me, Spooky. I don't have the mad skillz. :) But an interesting idea.

As to the other, if I'm not mistaken, I think that was what the article was more or less getting at...that the quality of reviews one finds on blogs just aren't "good enough" for whatever reason.

Personally, like dolores, I think they're pretty good for reviews of genre fiction at least. I haven't yet tried to find one that reviews strictly (or even some) literary novels. Maybe I should.

Scribhneoir
02-27-2008, 09:25 AM
I was very unhappy when the LA Times dispensed with it's book section.

The LA Times still has a book section. It's been much diminished, but it's still there. I flip through it each Sunday, but not being a fan of literary fiction, the reviews it offers rarely inspire me to seek out the books.

Will Lavender
02-27-2008, 09:54 AM
The LA Times still has a book section. It's been much diminished, but it's still there. I flip through it each Sunday, but not being a fan of literary fiction, the reviews it offers rarely inspire me to seek out the books.

This is how I am as well, and I would suspect that many (most?) people are the same as us.

Same with the Times. Unless Maslin reviews it or it's in that tiny box labeled "New Crime Fiction," I don't really care.*

* Okay, that's not really true. I read some nonfiction that's reviewed in the Times. But the literary novelists they often review? I could care less, and so that means I could care less about 75% of the Times' overall fiction reviews. Just not my cup o', and so I'm left to skim the reviews altogether. If you've got a nation of review-skimmers, then you've got a nation where the art and practice of criticism itself is diminished.