The Death of a Literary Critic

09/27/2012 at 5:58 am (Writing) (, , , , , )

On my facebook fan page, I posted this.

And then I said this: Dear readers, do any of you have an opinion on this? Love to hear it if’n you.  I certainly have one. Or three.

My wondering got me this from a good friend, a terrific writer, and a great editor.

“If literary critics had solid standards for a critic’s education, perhaps even certification, he might have a point.  But what is “traditional lit crit” except self-appointed experts who found someone to publish their opinion?  Now anyone can publish their opinion.  He says all opinions are not equally valid, and I agree.  Amazingly, most people can manage to distinguish between those that are and those that aren’t, given what they like to read.  For instance, I expect that Sir Stothard’s opinion of any particular book of fantasy fiction, were he to even bother to review one, would differ widely from mine.  Now I can go online and find lots of opinions on a fantasy book, some of which I will learn to trust as being similar to my own.  And this is a problem because…?  Silly man.”

To which I could not help but respond:

“Oh, good point!  We require certification for almost everything now, things that were once the province of wildcats.  Like making movies.  Used to be you grabbed a camera, some real cowboys, a pretty girl to tie to some railroad tracks, and you had a movie.  The internet has given us wildcats back and in, of all places, the world of books.  If you’re good enough, and work hard enough, you can get a successful blog going.  Of course, if I know human nature, successful bloggers will find a way to control their new “industry” just as this poor man fights to save his old industry.  But for now it’s a free-for-all. 

Then there’s your terrific point about what REAL literary critics actually read and write about.  Certainly not fantasy or sci fi or horror.  Genre fiction has been ignored forever.  Actually, they’ve been scorned.  I will admit I do try and read what wins the Booker Prize or the National Book Award each year, but almost always set it aside for something much more interesting. Like a good book.”

And now here, I ask: any thoughts?


  1. Ed Lute said,

    As a (Dutch) bookblogger myself I find that Mr. Stothard’s view simply doesn’t interest me. Interesting perhaps, at best, but overall as dismisable as an irritating fly.
    No doubt every critic, ‘real’ or ‘unreal’, has his or her own opinion and tastes. Anything new going on, here? I’m sure this increase of bookblogs will take its natural course. Like a language it is something organic, with an apparent unpredictable own will. First it shows that many people obviously have a passion for books, which is uplifting. Second it brings a variety of sorts that can only be welcomed. What can possibly be wrong with a more personal reading experience, next to the officially sanctioned scientific way of disecting a literary achievement? Where does it say book reviewers have to live in a cuckoo’s nest? Or for that matter, where does it say that there is only one reviewers doctrine?
    Don’t you find this internet era we are experiencing as thrilling as I do?

  2. kilongfellow said,

    Oh yes. A passion for books. Before the internet I had the sad impression that the love of books had gone the way of the dodo. And still I wanted to write. Then I thought perhaps all we had left were people reading about wizards and vampires. And still I wanted to write. Now I know, to my joy, that people still love and still read all sorts of books. Of course there’s the book-subject-du-jour. There always has been such a genre and there always will be. These things run their courses. They make people happy. They take them away to a place they feel unable to find in their “normal” lives. And yet, in the traditional book press, such books are not mentioned at all, or they’re disparaged as “popular.” We all know what popular means. It means, to those who never touch such books, poor writing and silly subjects. Remember when science fiction was so ignored it might as well not exist so far as a “real” critic went? Romance, westerns, thrillers, horror… all to be sniffed at. Then came Stephen King… who labored mightily before a critic would even deign to look his way. So yes, Mr. Stothard (whether he knows it or not) senses a loss of his “profession” now that anyone can comment on any genre, any book – and be heard. He’s not so much concerned with literary criticism as he is with his job.

    You know, I think I have a great idea for a completely different vampire book!

    • Amanda Johnson said,

      Seems to me in a world where Amazon and Goodreads post the reviews of average readers, and where the New York Times sells space for the best sellers list and the critiques that literary criticism is at an all time low. What interests me about buying a book goes to subject, book-jacket excerpts/synopses and what I know about the author. – Amanda

  3. kilongfellow said,

    On facebook, my friend (a retired editor of a massively important and erudite magazine) said this:

    For some reason, this whole question keeps coming back to me, and I finally realized why all the whining about bloggers not being “real” critics annoys me so much. Professional critics are tied to their image as critics. Which means they must be seen as discerning, and that always seems to translate more into finding fault than enjoying, cheering, or whooping and hollering about how great something is. In fact, any critic caught whooping and hollering will almost certainly lose a whole lot of critic-cred among the cognoscenti.

    Any given blogger may or may not be discerning, but it seems to me that they are, as a group, much more likely to praise, whoop, holler, and shout from the virtual rooftops when they like something. Professional critics are paid (either in coin, or in cred, or both) to be fault-finders, while bloggers just give their opinions. Personally, I prefer real opinions to paid fault-finding, even if that fault-finding is learned and sophisticated. Ideally, I would want a real opinion from someone erudite and informed, at least in in their subject. And I think I’m more likely to find that in the blogosphere than in the column of a professional reviewer.

  4. kilongfellow said,

    I replied:

    It occurs to me that the title of the actual article says it all, especially after reading what you’ve just written. In Mr. Stothard’s world, criticism means dissection. (Shudder. My poor books.) In everyday usage, criticism means just as you’ve described: to find fault with. A long time ago Dorothy Parker used to be a critic and she loved it. She loved it because she was allowed to show off her wit at the expense of others. I can only think of one wonderful man who also did this, and then realized what it cost the subject of his wit. A actor named Guido Natzo had appeared in something on Broadway. My hero, George S. Kaufman, wrote of his performance: “Guido Natzo was Natzo Guido.” Laughter? All of New York City split their sides laughing. Guido Natzo? His career was over. Behind the scenes, George supported the man and his family for the rest of his life.

    Back to bloggers. I don’t read them because I simply haven’t the time. But when I go looking for a new book to read, I don’t read professional critics. I don’t care if they’ve won awards. I read amazon or goodreads reviews. Much the best way to know if I too will like or be less than impressed by a book.

  5. kilongfellow said,

    Oh my god, Amanda. I had no idea that the New York Times list was based other than on legitimate sales. I’m still reeling.

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