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.


Fundamentally I agree with

Fundamentally I agree with you, and you argue the case with great lucidity and elegance - the line between criticism and review is a meandering, broken one and there are more useful ways of slicing up the differing approaches to literary appreciation. But I always felt that a review was oriented around a personal value judgement, whereas I think that literary criticism (at its most admirable) is not. Literary criticism (for me) isn't bothered about whether readers will 'like' the book - it just wants to get under its skin. But in saying this, I am already gesturing towards different types of criticism...

Your essay suggests that it

Your essay suggests that it may boil down to semantics-- you circle around the idea that there may be a difference between critics and reviewers but that we have just given up on maintaining the distinction. Your essay certainly seems to advocate sacrificing the distinction on the altar of a mass feel-good approach to literature.

We ought to redistinguish between the two functions, by realizing that the difference does not lie in the function but in the writer. Kakutani isn't capable of what Wood is. A newspaper book reviewer with a BA doesn't have the expertise of a critic with a PhD. And a reviewer has less of a sensitivity to a novel than a novelist.

There is value in these differences and they ought not to be effaced. There is a point beyond which criticism isn't written for a general audience but for a specialized one-- and that kind of writing deserves to be recognized for its merits and not conflated with what Kakutani does.

The notion that I advocate a

The notion that I advocate a "mass feel-good approach to literature" could not be a more complete misunderstanding of what I was trying to say. (And anyone who's familiar with my writing on this site knows I advocate anything but.)

But I also find untenable the notion that a high college degree is what it takes to confer on someone worth as a critic. There's no reason that a talented autodidact with a high school education couldn't make valuable contributions to criticism. The notion that someone has to come down from the ivory tower to write criticism, in fact, strikes me as exactly the same kind of snobbery I was complaining about in the article.

And Wood isn't writing for a specialized audience, he writes mainstream magazines and newspapers. So I'm not sure where your notions of critics writing for specialized audiences comes from.

Mencken was an

Mencken was an autodidact...not sure about other critics...but look at some of America's best writers..Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Whitman...and Dickens and Tolstoy for that matter...if they're good enough to produce it...

Perhaps there is a simpler way to look at this

It would seem that if you wanted to nutshell the problem it could boil down to this.

What a review should be is a presentation for other- readers-viewers giving the opinion with hopefully some informed background that highlights merits or deficiencies in the enjoyment of the experience. So that others might know if it's worth their time and effort.

While a critique should be a delving into the structure, the content, the relevance. Hopefully using some accredited knowledge and perhaps references with a notion of informing the artist and other artists of the merit of the work with a notion of improving the art. So that these may know if it might offend the eyes and the mind. And attempt to correct that condition.

The problem child is the critical review that seems to meander over the lines of both of these admitting the uninformed into a discussion with opinion that is often blurred into the lines of absolute knowledge as though it is truth when in fact it only reflects what the reviewer feels with no more sound basis then the declaration of their own genius.

Book reviews vs. Literary Criticism

Thanks for your insightful essay. Yes, indeed, the lines can blur. I know it is a little fuzzy but I tend to think a book review runs about 4-10 paragraphs and DOES NOT include footnotes. For example, what one reads in the Book section of the New York Times, for example, Stephen King's review of The Goldfinch. Or an Amazon or Goodreads review -- I've written over 200 such reviews - and not a footnote in sight.

Literary Criticism is generally longer in length and INCLUDES FOOTNOTES, usually many footnotes to serve as evidence to support the author's claims. It is the footnotes that make all the difference. In that sense, literary criticism is a subcategory of academic writing, which, by definition, includes footnotes.

On a personal note, since I want my reviews to be as fresh as possible, I NEVER read other reviews/literary criticisms/literary analysis before I write my own. I don't particularly care how my take on a book squares with other scholars or critics or the historical record. I might be off base on my reflections of a work, but at least they are mine.