But Who Am I To Be Critical? Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-08-27 13:00:00 No comments

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I have been reading Literature of the Lost Home by Hideo Kobayashi, a literary critic of Taishō-era Japan who has no reputation worth speaking of outside of his country. It's a shame, because this little volume has more quotable lines and more nuggets of insight worth mulling over per page than most anything I've encountered since my last tangle with Edmund Wilson.

There's a lot to mine from this book, and I plan to do that over a succession of posts, but one of the main insights gleaned from it is how most people no longer think of criticism as being distinct from reviewing. To review a movie means to assess its likely appeal to a given audience; to criticize a movie means to look at it in a penetrating and thoughtful way. Roger Ebert was the rare sort to write both kinds of texts. His first look at a movie was a review; his "Great Movies" columns were criticism.

I suspect part of why the two practices have become so freely conflated is manifold. For one, we have the delusion that most anyone can write a review, as GoodReads and Amazon's "reviews" attest. But not everyone can write a review that demonstrates understanding of the material, and not everyone can communicate their insights in a way that spur further insight on our part. Some of the best reviews I've read at GoodReads are the one-star reviews, not because they are mean-spirited (well, some are), but because they are the product of a less easily-deluded sensibility. They are not kind to their subject, but they don't have to be; the real purpose of such a thing is not just to say "Is this worth reading?" but "Why would this be worth reading?" They were not written to flatter either their subject matter or the prospective reader.

This is why blurbing, for instance, is for me one of the biggest blights on both popular and literary fiction. If I pick up a book and see words of approval on the cover from some author, that's less likely to make me think well of it, not more so. Authors can be possessed of astoundingly awful taste, and from all I've seen they're only too willing to debase their tastes all the further for the sake of speaking well of a crony. When a certain fantasy trilogy (well, duology -- currently only two books of three are out) hit the shelves replete with gushing praise on the covers from a whole slew of name-brand fantasy and SF authors, I was skeptical. By the time I'd finished the first book and shelved it with enough force to put a dent in the wall behind it, I was all the more convinced the practice of cross-blurbing is toxic to the taste buds and brain cells of both readers and authors.

If critics and authors were more upfront about their tastes and made that as much a part of their process of reviewing, let alone criticism, as they did any pretense towards objectivity, we might think less of them as authorities and more as fellow travelers. The only authority in such a field that matters is distance traveled, not absolute depths of taste (which is impossible to gauge anyway).

Tags: criticism literature