The Imperfections of Literary Criticism

In a workshop I was part of recently, various aspects of criticism were discussed including the style, structure, forms and motives of criticism. As much as I gained from the discussion, I also got the opportunity to reflect on some of the key things that have guided my own criticism of a literary piece or a book from any genre for that matter.

In a newsroom, everyone has the fair chance of becoming a book reviewer. As part of our work, we read and stay abreast of work in our fields or related fields, policy documents, expert opinions and fresh approaches in covering the issues. That is why, it’s easier to find a number of book reviewers in a newsroom, but book critics can be rare to find. This and other important distinctions in the practice of reviewing and criticism have occupied my thought over the last few days, which I am laying out below with an attempt to refine my own understanding and to critically engage in the key questions that must be answered by anyone engaging in literary criticism.

  1. What is the difference between a book review and literary criticism?

I have done book reviews as a journalist and also as someone who has specific knowledge of a subject by years of professional training. Now that I am an academic in training, I can safely navigate the spheres of academic criticism as well. However, largely drawing from my own experience of book reviews carried by newspapers, it would be safe to say that book reviews are mostly generalist in nature written by dilettantes. While they meet strictest of disdain in literary circles, I have to underline that newspapers are for mass consumption and hence, book reviews in the newspapers have to discard technical jargons or academic contexts to be easily digested. Having said that, literary criticism done by critics who hone their craft and expertise with years of reading and reviewing tend to appear in literary magazines (London Review of Books is a good example) and rigorous critiques of the work they are based on. Both, in my view, are important, and preferring one over the other will be a very classicist approach to reading literature which I argue will not just lead to the ivory tower syndrome but also cost the publishing industry a great deal, not just writers. Personally, I like both, and depending on the preference and appetite of readers, both forms must peacefully co-exist.

2. Why should we review / critique books? Who does a review serve?

The difficult question posed here would be – should we review a book because we want to help the publisher boost sales, or because we like the author, or because we owe it to the readers, or to enrich literature itself?

I’ll be straightforward here and say that a lot of reviews today are done to help the publishers achieve free publicity for their releases. That explains a lot of flattery in reviews or plain uncritical desperation to sell. Publishers routinely send releases to newsrooms and may personally see to it that they are reviewed by people they know well. Often, reviewers and writers may know each other well and no disclosures to this effect may be made while publishing reviews. Some reviews are done simply for the money and can therefore be lazy.

But these clearly shouldn’t be the reasons why we should do reviews. Should we then do this for the readers, or for the cause of literature? This should be tricky to answer but I would lay out my personal take on this. I think every time I have felt compelled to do the review is not because I feel a responsibility towards the readers. Readers no longer refer to one person or one publication reviews anymore; with social media explosion, they have diverse sources to tap into, and a lot of those could be pedestrian but fun nonetheless. So no, I don’t feel driven by the responsibility towards the readers.

My responsibility as a reviewer and a critic is primarily towards the work and to the field of literature. When I read something compelling, I feel the impulse to review that work. The book may underwhelm or overwhelm me and in both the cases, I have felt the need to critique the work, especially if it challenges my understanding of the subject in any way or moves me at a deeply personal level. I may be agitated or euphoric after reading a work but in both states, the only cause I want to serve is the demand of the work to be critiqued or reviewed in the most passionate manner as is possible. A good review enriches literature and furthers our perception of truth and for that alone, that review must be written.

3. What kind of review should be done?

Some reviews are funny; some downright condescending, some too afraid to make a point, and some are just too insipid to react to. Which one must we write?

I think when we decide to do reviews, we should be true to ourselves first and truly express how we feel about the work. Once we do that, how we write the review becomes easier. At no point in time would a good review sound like a personal attack, and that’s something I would be very careful about. Rest comes easy. Book reviews must also preserve the distinct voice of the reviewer. The reviewer must not serve second fiddle to the form or structure of the review; instead, the review must sparkle with reviewer’s distinct style that enthralls the reader and the writer both.

5. Can a review be judgemental?

“Making a judgement” is a poor choice of phrase to be used here. If you dispassionately argue for the merits or flaws of a book, it’s impossible to sound judgemental about the work. If you make an argument but don’t have the rigour to back it up, then I am afraid you are being judgemental. So, I guess, the phrase to be used here is, can a review make some “observations about the work that could be reviewers’ opinion” on the work? O yes, definitely! All reviews do that, and represent at least some part of truth that the work or the writer himself/herself may not have intended to convey but was perceived by the reviewer anyway. That’s why reviews, however rigorous, are subjective. Art and its reception is a subjective experience and reviews aren’t any different. Judgemental isn’t the right way to go about it, neither in practice nor in use of terminologies, neither does the word fully convey the purpose or essential character of reviews.

6. Must a review always either praise or dismiss?

A review can be balanced. Often times, we like a work but also find trouble with it. It can uplift and upset at the same time, and reviews can reflect the crests and troughs of our reading experience. I don’t believe in taking a stand on a piece of work. That’s rabid dismissal of a work that I am finding important enough to review. I may find problems with it and sometimes, the number of flaws may exceed the merits and that’s fine. But a review is not an opportunity for anyone to either praise or dismiss a work. Any reviewer with this as a starting point won’t do the job well.

7. How can we avoid echo chambers in literary criticism?

By not reviewing works of people we feel strongly about. If I love Ocean Vuong, I must not review his next. I am in love with his writing and chances are, I may cut him some slack even if his next work is not half as good. Secondly, by not reviewing works of friends or colleagues. These are potential conflicts of interest that reviewers have to routinely navigate but they must take the side of ethics and fairness here. Else, they will lose credibility — sooner or later.

8. Can a book review truly capture the essence of a work?

Again, reading a work is a subjective experience. A review can capture parts of a work, may be large parts of a work but to say that it can fully capture the essence of a work is like saying, a reviewer can feel like all the readers of the work in an instant and can convey it too in a piece!

9. All things considered, what is the role of a critic?

To appraise and uphold a work for what it truly is – a deeply personal work that can at once be universal with everlasting appeal, and if it fails to do so, to call out the flaws or the weaknesses so the writer gains from it and grows richer in his/her craft, which will enrich literature as a result.

10. Must we always rely on a book review before buying a book?

I don’t usually do that. I have learnt it the hard way. Reading glorious reviews only to feel let down by the work later. I rely on book release catalogues from the publishers when I pick what I want to read and review.

11. What are the ways to read better and independently, without being biased by reviews?

Don’t read reviews more than you should. Instead, get out there and browse through new releases. If you like something, you should give it a shot and see if it lives up to your expectations. And, always read first time, unknown authors!

This list may not be exhaustive for a topic such as this but it covers critical questions. Hope to return to this at some point later, with more learnings.

Read some of my book reviews here.

1 thought on “The Imperfections of Literary Criticism

  1. Excellent, this can be read over and over and every student of literature and writing needs to have this saved as a handy bookmark.

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