An American Editor

May 11, 2010

The Rarefied Literary Critic: Literary Criticism from One Author’s Perspective

Sue Lange, today’s guest writer, is a novelist and blogger on culture and technology at the Singularity Watch. Two of her published books of science fiction satire (Tritcheon Hash [2003, Metropolis Ink] and We, Robots [2007, Aqueduct Press]) are available at Amazon. Sue also has an ebook compilation of her published short fiction available in the Kindle Store or at Book View Cafe. Sue followed my articles about the downfall of literature and what follows is her take on the subject.

 _____________________

The Rarefied Literary Critic

by Sue Lange

Rarefied: lower in oxygen. Extend that idea to all gases. Extend it further to the world of literature and you get a critic who is not full of hot air. I have nothing against windbags, but when it comes to literary criticism, perhaps less is more. Less gas maybe means more substance.

According to the Microsoft dictionary, rarefied also means “very high quality in character or style.” We worry that the high quality in character and style publishers and critics have exhibited in the past will go away in the new, anything goes Internet models. Consider Ben Elowitz’s assertion in “Traditional Ways Of Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content Are Now Useless” that times have changed. The credentials, accuracy, objectivity, and craftsmanship of those presenting published materials no longer matter. Speed and relevancy matter now. Content is king and the people alone crown it. No high priests. No swearing in with the right hand on the Bible.

Can the Internet audience find a king, let alone the right one? The one that can pull the sword out of the rock? Or do we need a rarefied literary critic that can recognize blue blood and ensure that we don’t go down in history as a pack of ignorant, tasteless, illiterates? Further, does it matter if we can’t leave behind evidence of our scholarliness and ability to separate the wheat from the chaff? Civilizations have come and gone without a trace. I doubt the citizens of such races suffered because they left no record, let alone one of literary achievement. However, we maybe suffer having no access to the lessons those unrecorded civilizations learned. Perhaps what you leave behind is important.

Beyond that, though, I say, yes, there is need for accurate and intelligent comment on our published works. As an author I want to know I hit the target. Sure it’s nice to get a bunch of five-star reviews by writing to the lowest common denominator, but if you put more into the material than just sex and violence, if reviews are not detailed and thoughtful what good are they? I mean beyond all the money to be made from a runaway bestseller that speaks to the lowest common denominator. There is that. But I daresay, deep down inside, every writer wants a competent analysis of their work. Because without that, an author is simply the equivalent of the tree falling in the forest. No sound is made because no one is hearing it.

Does this low-gas, high-substance critic exist anymore? It’s easy to bemoan the fact that the Internet makes a democracy of criticism as Elowitz’ article implies. Every one of the unwashed others is a critic now: educated, uneducated, those with an ax to grind, those who have something to gain personally. Everyone has access to a platform on which to exclaim their judgment. How can we glean understanding from the opinions of such?

Not only is everybody a critic, but there is exponentially more material to wade through to find the good stuff. Where will our John Kennedy Tools, Zora Neale Hurstons, Herman Melvilles come from now that the playing field is not only level but overflowing with talent? Competition for readership is so fierce no writer is going to get more than a little sliver of the fame pie. How can the critics familiarize themselves with all that is out there in order to make an intelligent decision on who is worthy? In case you didn’t realize it the first sentence in this paragraph was sarcastic. All three of those now worshipped authors were at one point dissed by either the publishing industry or the critics of the day. I’m sure there are many other such tragic instances, not to mention thousands of genius authors whose work never even saw the light of day. The point is things were never perfect and maybe the art of kingmaking was never much better than it is today.

So we, the consumers of the Internet, are heirs to a system of criticism with a history of mixed results. Where do we go from here? Our tools are suspect, our present style ruled by the mob.

Take a look at our assets. We have a collective conscious comprised of a million voices communicating with a million keyboards. This appears to be a deficit: isn’t the democracy of the marketplace why pop music sucks? Pop music is not a genre, it’s merely music that is popular. And the banal always has the broadest appeal because no one is offended.

Although music and literature are both creative arts, the end products of their criticism have different effects. The common man’s voice is now the written word. When the common man voices his opinion on music, the musical continuum is unaffected. But in writing about writing, a lesson is learned and the lesson is about writing. What happens when you write? You get better at it. And then what happens? You recognize other people’s writing and what’s good about it. In other words the medium of the Internet actually teaches people about good writing by making them do it. It teaches them nothing about good music. Maybe there will never be such a thing as pop literature then. Wouldn’t that be something?

I don’t kid myself, people find greatness in opinions that they agree with. The form of the opinion doesn’t matter nearly as much as the content of it. But some amateur critics will learn from form, about the form. Something will sink in. A more educated public will produce better criticism and better recognition of criticism.

Will it ever produce a critic as enlightened as someone who does nothing but read and write all day? Perhaps. Unfortunately, though, our system does no more to nurture the budding critic than it does to nurture the budding author. Yes, the avenues are there for a would be writer or critic, but it does nothing to nurture them and nurturing is required for excellence. An author is nurtured not only by a three-book deal, but by an editor and a public that understands the nuance and gives competent feedback. How will the critic be nurtured?

Technophilic bloggers spend more time reading tips on how to garner readers than the latest, greatest writing. With their huge readerships, they appear to be viable tastemakers, when in reality they’re just good at the pop mentality. Serious criticism requires a knowledge of what has gone before and what is out now. Who’s reading all that literature? Certainly not the technophilic blogger watching visitor stats and thinking about search engine optimization.

There is one group that does educate itself on what has gone before: the authors. The self-respecting authors, anyway. The ones that deserve critical acclaim. True critical acclaim, not just best seller status. These are the serious writers that respect the art. The ones that voraciously read and study the competition. The ones who love a good book. And they will seek and support an intelligent critic.

Perhaps the industry will turn to self-policing then. It will judge itself. I’m sure that will work. Look how well it works for the military.

I believe we need competent, thoughtful critics to help us wade through the dross. We will find those that have educated themselves on what is out there, what has gone before. Much like scientists who once were knowledgeable in every field, but now specialize, they will not know every book in every genre. They will have a field in which they know every book. We will trust them. They will decide who the king of content is. We, the people, however, will decide who the critic is. Welcome to the world. Breathe. Lots of air, lots of oxygen. It’s healthy, but don’t be afraid if things get thin. A little less gas means a lot more substance.

______________________

As you can see, Sue and I have differing points of view. For those who would like to read my original articles, you can begin with this one: Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature? It was followed by a 4-part series that began with eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round I and continued over the following 3 days.

I know some of you weighed in on this discussion by commenting on my articles, but does Sue’s perspective change your mind? Do you agree with her? Have you something to add?

March 8, 2010

On Books: Deciding to Buy or Not Buy (I)

I have been thinking about what goes into my decision whether or not to buy a particular book. An ever-increasing number of books are available every year — enough to overwhelm any dedicated book buyer. I suspect that the only time the decision was (relatively) easy was in the days of scribal versions and the early days of the printing press and moveable type. I recall reading that even at the time of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, thousands of books and pamphlets were being written and published every year.

Books have always been a treasure for me. I remember, in my childhood, going to the library every week to borrow a dozen or so books to hold me until the following week’s trip. And when I began to earn money, I spent more money buying books than on anything else that was leisure related. Although book buying isn’t my most expensive outlay today, I still spend thousands of dollars every year on books. Some of those books are books I plan to read some day when I have time, but which in reality will never have the binding cracked because something else will take reading precedence — and eventually time does run out.

So how do I decide which book to buy and which to pass over? The process is really more complex than I had thought, especially considering that (according to The Economist) more than 400,000 books are now published every year in the United States and United Kingdom. Plus, I need to separate ebooks from pbooks because the process is different in several respects, not least of which is that ebook purchases are always fiction whereas pbook purchases are almost always nonfiction.

Over the course of the next 3 articles, I plan to examine what goes into my book-buying decisions. Admittedly, this is a personal approach, but I suspect that many book buyers’ approaches mirror at least some of my approach. Let’s begin with reviews.

Reviews

Reviews as a factor do not need to be separated by the book’s format. The bottom line is a review is applicable to either the ebook or the pbook, unless the review is focused on formatting gaffes that are peculiar to one version rather than to both.

There are essentially four types of reviews: online starred reviews at the bookseller, independent online reviews, friend reviews, and magazine-type reviews, such as the New York Review of Books (NYRB), The Atlantic, and the New York Times Books Review (NYTBR). Each has its own credibility level. For me, I’ve listed them in ascending order, that is, least credible are the starred reviews, more credible are independent online and friends’ recommendations, and the most credible, for me, are the magazine-type reviews (including newspaper reviews).

A number of people have commented that when buying a book they look at the bookseller’s, such as Amazon, rating: What have other readers at this bookseller thought about a particular book? Some readers apparently give great weight to the online reviews, others scant weight. I give the reviews at the booksellers no weight whatsoever; I don’t even look at them.

Why? Because I believe that too few of the reviews are honest reviews of the content; instead, the reviewer has some other agenda (such as pricing or religious or political protests) and I have neither the time nor patience to weed through the reviews. If a book has 100 reviews, 95 of which are 1 star, how can you be certain — regardless of the review’s content — of the verity of the content review. Plus I have no idea who sallyfromarkana is or why I should care whether he/she liked or disliked a book: How do I know  sallyfromarkana really read the book? Or understood the book? Or isn’t bosom buddies with the author? Or isn’t a bitter ex-spouse? How knowledgeable about the subject matter is sallyfromarkana? Can sallyfromarkana really tell me how this book compares with the previous three books on the same subject, which is important in the case of nonfiction?

Then there is the “King” complication. I already know that hundreds of thousands of book buyers love to read Stephen King, James Patterson, Dan Brown, J.D. Robb, and many other authors. These best-selling novelists represent the King complication; that is, if sallyfromarkana reads these authors, how in tune with my tastes is she when I avoid their books? How do I know what other books he/she has read and/or reviewed and the quality of those reviews? Of how much worth is sallyfromarkana’s review of a Doris Kearns Goodwin book to me when sallyfromarkana gives Stephen King 4 stars, Dan Brown 1 star as a price protest, and Doris Kearns Goodwin 3 stars?

This problem also surfaces with the independent online reviews. Additionally, those reviews require searching to find and a lot of effort to discover whether the reviewer is good or bad, thorough or not. It requires a lot of time and work, something I am not desirous of expending looking for a review.

Friend’s recommendations have greater credibility for me, as I suspect they do for most book buyers. The problem is that our reading tastes rarely coincide; my taste in books doesn’t even coincide with my children’s. None of my friends have read, for example, Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. But they have read the new Dan Brown or Clive Cussler novel.

That really leaves me, as far as reviews go, in the hands of the professional reviewers, such as the NYRB and NYTBR. The reviews in the NYRB are my particular favorites. They are in-depth, tell me whether the author knows the subject matter well, and refer me to other books on the same subject or from which the reviewed author obtained information. I’ve bought several books that have been mentioned in a NYRB review that are not the subject of the review.

Alas, outlets like NYRB and NYTBR are limited, especially for nonfiction. There are only so many reviews that each can contain in an issue. So although these types of magazine reviews do influence my decision making, they do so on a limited basis, simply because of the limited number of books reviewed compared with the ever-expanding number of books published. But also worthy of mention, at least in the case of the NYRB, are the book ads placed by university presses. With all the books being published each year, one of the things I rely on to learn about a new university press book are publisher ads. They aren’t reviews but they at least alert me to something that may be of interest to me and that I should check out.

Part II, tomorrow’s article, discusses the role and importance of a well-designed cover. Part III, the final article in this series, discusses the final two legs of the decision-making process: content and pricing.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: