Criticism vs. Reviewing
Back in April, I recommended people read Cynthia Ozick's article "Literary Entrails" in the April edition of Harper's Magazine. In that article Ozick differentiates between "literary criticism" and "reviewing" as two distinct activities. Ozick is not alone in making this distinction; The Reading Experience, for instance, recently pointed out the frequent conflation of the two, calling reviewing a "genre of arts journalism." He even accuses the National Book Critics Circle of "deliberately (dishonestly?) blurring the lines between book reviews and criticism." Yet he doesn't quite give a definition of criticism, or tell us how, exactly, to recognize the one from the other. On our own website I once called New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani a "major critic" and had one of our readers comment "Kakutani is not a major critic -- Kakutani is a major reviewer. There's a big difference." At the time I thought this was a good point, but then the more I thought about it the more confused I became.
You see, Michiko Kakutani once won the Pulitzer prize. For criticism. Specifically for "Distinguished criticism". Now, granted that the Pulitzer is a prize given by journalists, and so they may have a stake in aggrandizing the newspaper reviewer, one of their own. But regardless, the fact that the Pulitzer committee could give a dyed-in-the-wool book reviewer like Kakutani an award for "criticism" indicates to me that a distinction between reviewing and criticism isn't quite a forgone conclusion, and that the NBCC might not be so much blurring the lines between book reviews and criticism as unaware of them.
Kakutani, I think, is an interesting example since she's not only a reviewer but a particularly terrible one, and the fact that she did win a Pulitzer for what she does is evidence that awards really are meaningless and unimportant (despite the emphasis our culture places on them). This is Kakutani who loads up on adjectives, who uses the word 'limn' constantly. Kakutani who complains about Philip Roth writing about old, womanizing narcissists. Kakutani who complains about The Ruins' alien plants being "ludicrous". (Which is sort of like calling Superman's powers ludicrous. It just misses the point.) A reviewer, in other words, completely incapable of taking books on their own terms, with only a very narrow idea of what makes for good work. (And, sadly, a narrow vocabulary to boot.)
I have a similar complaint about the narrowness of the aesthetic of James Wood, who writes chiefly for the New Republic and The Guardian, but no one would ever write him off as a mere "reviewer." In fact he's routinely considered one of the best critics today; Wood writes long, intense analyses of Don Quixote and Flaubert and famously called novels by David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and Salmon Rushdie "hysterical realism" in a lengthy appraisal of the modern "ambitious" novel.
And yet, if Wood is a critic and Kakutani is a reviewer than why has only the latter won an award for "criticism"? It would be tempting to call this yet another example of awards being meaningless and unimportant, but I'm not sure the problem can be written off so easily. Yes, Wood generally goes into greater depth than Kakutani, and Wood certainly has a keener sensibility than she does; he is capable of startling me with new interpretations of fiction in a way that Kakutani never has. In fact, he is simply a better, smarter writer. But these seem like statements of quality rather than of genre. On a basic level they seem to be performing the same task, that is evaluating fiction.
But, one could argue, there is a difference of function. Reviews are there as a reading guide, to recommend books to readers and also tell them what to avoid. Criticism, on the other hand... well what does criticism do? Change the way we look at fiction? That seems a little grandiose. Perhaps reviews tell us what to read while criticism tells us how to read? This sounds good until you try to pin down the difference between "what" and "how"—doesn't Wood's writing on Flaubert implore us to read him? Doesn't Kakutani's review of Everyman tell us how to read Roth? If you interpolated that review into a longer piece by Wood about twentieth century writers, would it stand out in any way but stylistically? Or would it somehow cease to be a review? In fact Kakutani's review, as wrong-headed as it may be, reads exactly like criticism to my mind, and "what" and "how" become words that signify nothing.
So then is any evaluation of fiction literary criticism? Is Joe Blow on the street saying "The DaVinci Code rules!" literary criticism? How about "Only stupid people like that Mitch Albom crap"? How about "Batman is a fag"?
The answer, as with many attempts to define things absolutely, may be "who cares?" This might rumple a few feathers, but I would argue that the question "What is literary criticism?", like the question "What is art?", is unhelpful, unnecessary and ultimately unmeaningful. It is the wrong question. The right question is "What can you tell me about this book?"
And the truth is "critic" and "criticism" are routinely used to mean reviewers and reviewing; heck, there once was a television show called The Critic about a movie reviewer whose catch phrase was "It Stinks!" "This is literary criticism and this is not" rubs me the wrong way for the same reason that "this is literary fiction and this is not" rubs me the wrong way. It's a form of snobbery.
Forgive this digression as it's important to my point: what is the difference between Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz? Yes, they have different plots and one may in fact be a better book than the other, but are they different genres, if we must talk about genre? No, in fact they're exactly the same genre: post-apocalyptic fiction. But then, this blurring of genre is something critics have been slowly unpeeling for the last forty years or so, and it's the reason why these days you can find studies in journals of Philip K. Dick's use of androids as representing the way people in the 20th century felt dehumanized. It's also the reason why books that might in the past have been considered pulp fiction, like Frankenstein or The Time Machine, are now considered classics. In fact, the illusion of "high" and "low" culture is really just a way for people who like Beethoven to feel that they are somehow better than people who like Mos Def. And for people who like James Wood to feel superior to people who like Ed Champion. It is not enough for them to say that James Wood writes longer, more in-depth pieces than Ed Champion; that would simply be stating the obvious. Instead they must insist the James Wood is of a better class of people than Ed Champion, a class worthy of its own moniker. (A moniker apparently still untarnished by "It Stinks!") One belongs in the House of Lords, and the other in the House of Commons.
It's long since time we got past this nonsense. Yes, blogs tend toward shorter pieces than magazines or newspapers. Straight up reviews tend to be shorter than longer critical essays. I still expect all of them to deal with the subject of fiction (and poetry!) with the same sort of honesty, earnestness, intelligence, insight and passion. I want all of them to make me think about fiction in new ways, to expose me to authors I've never heard of, and make me reconsider the ones I have. And if you can do that, I'll call the work you do it with whatever name you want me to.