What’s the point of book reviews?

The problem with literary criticism in the digital age.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Reviews don’t matter. “I never really trust reviews,” said Karl Ove Knausgaard in a recently published interview. In his story “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist”, the late Denis Johnson, writing from the perspective of an ageing poet, comments that since dropping his “poet’s persona” he has “masqueraded as a literary critic, and with a great deal more success, but criticism isn’t real – it’s not a real thing”. WH Auden, introducing his 1962 collection The Dyer’s Hand, wrote that: “There are people who are too intelligent to become authors, but they do not become critics.” When considering the criticism of criticism, you needn’t look hard to find equivalents to Michael Gove’s comment, from June 2016, that “the people in this country have had enough of experts”.

Of course reviews matter. That’s easy and predictable enough for someone writing a review to say, but it can be proven. Reviews matter in two ways: as filters, and as shapers of opinion. In his 1991 book, U & I, Nicholson Baker describes “book reviews, not books” as “the principal engines of change in the history of thought”; because no one has time to read all the books they want to, reviews must sometimes stand in for the thing itself. The more contentious point, about influence, can be divided into two questions: do they influence and if so is that influence beneficial or malign?

To prove the influence of reviews, gather some that mix things you know about and have formed an opinion on, and things about which you are ignorant – BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review, which considers a book, a film, a television show and an exhibition, is perfect for this. Listen to the programme and make a note of reviews you agree with, and reviews you disagree with. Repeat several times and a pattern will emerge: correcting for personal dislike (some critics just rub you up the wrong way), you will tend to agree far more readily with reviews of work that you have not experienced, than with those of work you know. I have shouted at the radio as a novel, seemingly wholly different to the one I read, is discussed. Equally, I have decided not to bother with a film based on judgements made on the same programme . This proves two things: reviews matter insofar as they have a concrete effect, and reviews are never simply “wrong” or “right”.

Despite the modern quantification of criticism – exemplified by the Tomatometer score formulated by the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes – which can give a false impression of objectivity, a review is only ever an opinion. This is why good criticism always refers back to the work under review to support its points. As Auden writes, “So long as a man writes poetry or fiction, his dream of Eden is his own business, but the moment he starts writing literary criticism, honesty demands that he describe it to his readers, so that they may be in the position to judge his judgements.” Bad criticism isn’t about getting a particular work “wrong”; it’s about failing to give a real sense of it, and replacing argument and justification with unsupported superlatives.

For some, criticism is the enemy of art. This was George Clooney’s position when he told a Turkish journalist, “I’d like to see you make a film first before you get to talk about [Solaris]”, and Samuel L Jackson’s when he attacked the New York Times film critic AO Scott’s review of The Avengers (which excoriated its “grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism”). The spat inspired Scott to write Better Living Through Criticism, an interrogation and defence of his practice that considers, in part, what Scott calls “anti-critical discourse”, which he traces back to Glaucon in Aristotle’s Poetics.

In a new essay published as a Kindle single, Nicholas Clee, journalist and former editor of the trade paper The Bookseller, develops his own anti-critical discourse, claiming the “assumptions that inform a good deal of literary criticism and that influence the decisions of prize juries are wrong, and have resulted in the underrating of many outstanding novels”.

These “outstanding” works are underrated because they are genre novels – primarily the crime novels Clee enjoys. The critical establishment is blind to the quality of certain books because they take place on a spaceship, or revolve around murder investigations. It is interesting that Clee was guilty of this himself – he admits that when he judged the Booker Prize in 1993 he damned one submission as “thrillerish” – and his essential point, that genres exist “but tell us nothing about literary value”, is sound. But while his essay is enjoyable, and some readers will support his disparagement of Andrew O’Hagan for slagging off the Richard and Judy Book Club, Harold Bloom for slagging off Stephen King, and Martin Amis for slagging off everybody, he ultimately fails to meet Auden’s stipulation that a critic must describe his Eden.

When he attempts to do so, and show the anti-genre snobs what they’re missing, he fluffs it. Quoting a paragraph from Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, which was awarded the 2015 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award, Clee praises her “expert” use of the rule of three. But this is a rule the lowliest advertising copywriter learns in their first week (as I did), and won’t do as evidence that a book is, as Clee claims, “a rich and affecting masterpiece”. Neither does the rest of the quoted passage: “Terry’s friends all had names like Bud and Mack and Red and talked about the good old days like preachers talked about heaven. They all had multiple ex-wives, angry mistresses, and grown children who wouldn’t talk to them.”

Serviceable stuff, but that “all of them” reduces these men to an undifferentiated mass, a group caricature, which seems to me the opposite of the specificity that great writing delivers (and which Clee praises elsewhere when he approvingly quotes passages by Dickens and Updike as “products of distinctive imaginations”). I haven’t read Slaughter’s book and I’m not saying it isn’t excellent, but  Clee’s argumentation doesn’t convince me. His Eden, on this evidence, doesn’t look so appealing.

But let’s say you agree with Clee that prize juries and broadsheet critics malign genre novels. Do their opinions still matter, when the advent of the internet has seen the media industry undergo wholesale reorganisation over the past 15 years? In The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, edited by Houman Barekat, Robert Barry and David Winters, an array of journalists, bloggers, academics and editors consider criticism’s position within the digital landscape. There are interesting pieces on the horizontality of the web (as opposed to the top-down structure of traditional media), the politics and practicalities of writing for free, blogging as a way of building a career, and, from Louis Bury, an analysis of “Topical Criticism and the Cultural Logic of the Quick Take”.

More than anything else in the book, the aspect of online criticism that might have a fundamental impact on the culture of reviewing is, as Bury describes it, “the expected response time in online critical discourse”, which has “accelerated to the point where the appearance of hair-trigger critical ‘takes’ seems normal, even desirable”. He supports this point with a detailed and enthralling account of the stages of critical response following Kenneth Goldsmith’s reading of his poem, “The Body of Michael Brown” at Brown University in 2015.

As with “Cat Person”, the New Yorker short story by Kristen Roupenian that chimes powerfully with the #MeToo movement and that went viral in December 2017, the stunning rate of online exegesis, debate, parody, revision of opinion, re-revision of opinion and so on, can turn commentary, “supposedly a secondary, parasitic form of discourse” into “an activity that eclipses the thing itself”.

Digital commentary, Bury writes, can cover the source text like kudzu vines, “until only its faint outline remains”. As with book reviews replacing the book itself, now succeeding waves of commentary can overwhelm the source more rapidly than can be kept up with, which has led to the rise of the “take of takes”: summarised aggregations of the responses so far. It can be oppressive to think about how much of the cultural conversation it is impossible to keep up with.

While the contributors to The Digital Critic identify many areas of concern, they appear certain of criticism’s inherent value. I am sympathetic, however, to AO Scott’s more anxious conception of critics as figures that “wander through a maze of stories, images, sounds, and tastes, haunted by doubts that are ultimately about the value of our own experience. Should I like that? Did I get it?” But is criticism really, as he believes, a noble and vital activity? Sometimes I feel closer to Auden’s viewpoint: “I have never written a line of criticism except in response to a demand by others… though I hope that some love went into their writing, I wrote them because I needed the money.” 

Chris Power is the author of the short story collection “Mothers” (Faber & Faber)

The Booker and the Best: Discrimination in the Book World
Nicholas Clee
Amazon Publishing, 67pp, £1.19

The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online
Houman Barekar, Robert Barry and David Winters
OR Books, 203pp, £14

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game