Posts Tagged ‘critics’

Book Links 8-30-2012

August 30, 2012

It returns!  The list makes it back today, as I’ve finally accumulated enough links that I found interesting to make it worth posting. It’s been pretty slim pickings for awhile, though.

Pop Crunch has a list of the best dystopian novels of all time. I’m not usually a huge fan of lists, but they have some interesting choices in there among the usual choices. Worth a look.

Apparently the whole good critics are lovely things bit is still raging. Over at The New Yorker Daniel Mendelsohn has thrown his hat into the ring with a critic’s manifesto. His passion and sheer damn giving are inspiring. At the same time, I wonder if the book critic thing has been sort of passed its prime for quite awhile now.  I know it’s what I spend the majority of my posts doing here, but I never actually consider that people read them. I just know that I’m not sure I have ever read a book because of a review. Ever. So I don’t entirely expect other people to. So all of the hubbub over it rings a bit pointless to me.  I do it because I enjoy it. And if someone else finds it helpful, awesome. With all of the competing noise, I find it a minor miracle that any voice pops through the static.

Dornob is a design site, its a bit of a side interest for me, and they have some thoroughly awesome ideas for a bookshelf. If you’re a DIYer, they don’t look like the most difficult things in the world, but they do look like the perfect built in for a literature lover.
PBS Arts has a short video essay about William Gibson. I just really like William Gibson, so I’m taking a chance to pimp him in some way.

And, finally, Open Culture is adding a new creative writing course…including advice from Toni Morrison, Nora Ephron and others.

Book Links 8-3-12

August 3, 2012

Over at Publishing Perspectives, they have a short article up about crowdfunding for used book stores. I like the idea. In a way, I see it as a voluntary tax. Right now, the DIA (Detroit Institute of Art) is pushing for at tri-county millage to be passed on August 7th, so that they can actually have enough funding to maintain their collection, building etc., and the case for it is being built as a preservation for one of the city’s foundational institutions. It’s something you want to fund and protect because of what it gives back to the community and to the culture. I think used bookstores can be modestly comparable in that they become places for a community to gather and foster conversation about something other than a TV show about women married to the mob.

Meanwhile, Jacob Silverman has an article up on Slate about how willing we are to criticism something (in this case books) when we “know” and like the person who created it.  I don ‘t live in New York. I’m not delusional in thinking I am the blogging equivalent of the NYT Book Review. Still, I know I am careful in what I review. For me it’s not so much about liking the person who wrote whatever I’m reading (despite someone’s presence on the web, or if someone made a nice comment about me for some reason on Twitter, I’m not also delusional enough to think we know each other). It is more about whether I am doing more harm than good. This has changed a bit over time. If you dig, you can probably find a few titles that I took to like a body bag and beat up on a bit, but it was something I’ve never felt truly at ease with.  I now take my stance on reviews from Roger Ebert and what he has professed to do with independent or small studio/budget films. I look at first books as those small budget movies that people had to fight and claw to get made.  It’s a miracle that it made it to the market and into my hands, and I shouldn’t slam miracles. If I like it, I’ll put it up on the site. If I thought it was horrible…well, I just set it aside and give the author a try with their second book. If their second book is awful, though, all bets are off. Now, all of that is a bit off from where Silverberg went with his article, but it’s what connected for me.


And here’s an article about the importance of indy bookstores from the Huffington Post. I’ll admit it, I’m not a huge indy book store fan, I’m a cheap book store fan, but I still value the places.  We have one around the corner from us, and while I couldn’t find anything to read there, I still like it being there.
The last post today isn’t entirely lit based, but teachery based. The South Carolina College put a post up yesterday suggesting some books for English teachers. The one I might check out first is Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language. I hated linguistics when I had to take it in grad school, so maybe this will connect in a way the class didn’t.  The only downside to the link is that I believe they link all of their books to Amazon, while I’d suggest taking the titles and looking for them at a place like Abe‘s or Barnes & Noble.

Don’t call me a critic – I’m an analyst!

January 24, 2011

I have a confession. I have never, ever, liked the idea of being a critic. It’s one of those weird, little hang-ups people get over time, they hear a word, they put an image to it, and their nose scrunches up as they say, “ewwwwwwwwwww.” For me, critic has always been synonymous with someone who bleeds everything enjoyable out of whatever they’re critiquing and destroys something rather than adding anything worthwhile to it.

Is this fair? of course it’s not. There are a tremendous number of very good critics who truly do add something to the work they’re looking at, who are a treat to read, and who don’t thoroughly kill the joy from whatever their eyes fall upon.  I’ve read a number of critics that I enjoy, I have friends in the field who I believe do an unbelievably thorough, engaging and, yes, even entertaining job at working through their critiques.

Still…that image remains. Ewwwwwwwwwwww.

Then I ran across a line in the book I’m using in my 7 week short story course this winter. The book is How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster, and it is a book I wish I had came across years ago. If any instructors happen by this page, I fully endorse this book as an entry level reader for getting undergrads into the mode of reading and criticizing literature. It’s not only thorough, but accessible! Also, it’s cheap, so they won’t hate you for making them blow $80 on a book they’ll never use again.

But back to the line I ran across. It’s been a few days, so I can’t pinpoint where it was exactly, but Foster was talking about criticism in general when he makes a reference to deconstruction, a form he clearly isn’t a big fan of, and which he responds to by saying, “I prefer to enjoy what I analyze.”

And there was the golden word. Analyze. Not only does it have pleasant connotations with some entirely forgettable Robert DeNiro-Billy Crystal movies, but it’s also associated with the American all-positive view of business. Stock analysts. News analysts. Business analysts. Analysts, analysts, analysts. We love them. We embrace them. They are all cute and cuddly like Glen Beck at a gun rally.

And so it struck me. I’m not a critic. I don’t criticize. I don’t do quick 900 or so word critiques of novels and short stories, I do short 900 or so word analysis’s of stories. Suddenly, I feel cuter. Cuddlier. I’m okay with the idea of what I do around here -at times, anyway. Also, I feel like a more productive member of society. After all, a critic only criticizes. An analyst is in the trenches, examining trends and making flow charts. They get things done. So universities should be more willing to better fund their literature departments if a move towards re-categorizing ourselves becomes vogue. We’re not longer sitting on the sidelines, criticizing everything, we’re helping out. We’re analyzing.

Kevin Smith, Critics and the unreliable narrator

March 29, 2010

I like (most of) Kevin Smith’s movies. I download his smodcasts. I follow him on Twitter. But his recent dust-up over critics not reviewing Cop-Out favorably is a highlight of a general misconception about criticism in general.

And it is something that I have also suffered from in the past. It is something that is hard to work out of the system once it has found a home. Above, where I mentioned “not reviewing Cop-Out favorably” I had begun to type “not liking Cop-Out” before realizing how charged that sentence is and how it reflects the same ignorance Smith appears to have, at least momentarily, suffered from. It doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, matter if critics like a work. There’s been more than a few books, movies, music, etc. that I’ve enjoyed on some level while also believing that they are likely quite crappy with little redeeming value or meaning. Sometimes I just like some mental junk food.  So, despite my enjoying something, I would still stand up and say, “Yeah, it’s crap. But I enjoyed it.”

The thing is, if you’re trying to honestly criticize something, that “Yeah, it’s crap” part has to be there. For instance, see my recent post about Laura van den Berg’s collection of short stories. I liked a LOT about the collection. I say I liked a lot about it. In the end, though, when everything gets tallied up and conclusions have to be drawn, though, I also had to say that I thought it had serious shortcomings that it did not overcome.

It’s this duality that I think is lost in the argument between critic and artist. The artist sees someone “not liking” their work when “like” really has very little to do with it. This understanding of the role of a critic is made worse by misunderstanding of terms a critic uses that an artist, frankly, may never need to know even if they employ a technique the critic perceives.

Which appears to be partly what happened on this blog recently over a review of Pekar’s The Quitter. In a comment to a follow up blog, attempting to illuminate the use of “unreliable narrator” there was a mention of The Screwtape Letters. Which struck me as odd.

It has been years since I last read The Screwtape Letters and, recently, I haven’t had time to go back and entirely re-read it. But I have scanned through it, I’ve scholar.googled it and did a quick glance through some lit journal searches. My immediate recollection was confirmed. The Screwtape Letters is not an example of an unreliable narrator. While why Screwtape isn’t an unreliable narrator is important, it’s not pertinent to this blog. What’s pertinent is that this mistake was made. This isn’t to single out that individual commenter but to use it to illustrate something that is likely fairly common – a genuine language/process gap between the critic, those whose work is the subject of criticism and the audience for whom that work was created and for whom the critic is writing.

The language and backgrounds for becoming a “critic” and becoming an “artist” are inherently different. Many artists have the words “self-taught” somewhere in their biographies. And it’s my opinion that this isn’t just a brave thing, to have struck out to master a craft with little or no fall back plan or option, but a necessary thing for many artists as I’m not sure that all that is necessary to be an artist can be taught or accrued in a classroom. Or maybe that’s just the romantic idealist in me wanting to see the artist, at least in some way, as the woman for whom inspiration must strike to allow them to forge their timeless works. A critic, however, almost certainly has to be in a classroom through necessity. There is simply very few other options for being exposed to the work of other critics, for gaining any sort of understanding of the field, than without the aid of classes and instructors who are already learned of the lay of critical land.

So maybe it shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise when the two sides lock horns over what one writes about the other. It has to be all but inevitable. The training for each can come from wholly different directions, employing language and terms in ways that are wholly different from what the other side employs. Sure, each side can (and do) try to bridge that gap but it’s a gap I’m not sure is always bridgeable. After all, a critic does come off very much as a judge and that’s the sort of eye that no one likes to fall under.

But what role does the audience play in this?

Part of me wants to tie this into our current political climate where intellectualism has become a dirty word.  Language has an inherent political context. Nearly everything said or written can find itself twisted and appropriated for all sorts of purposes. I think it becomes clear that the term “critic” is slipping from our lexicon, too easily associated with “criticize” and all of the negative connotations that word can find itself lugging around. Instead we see this term “reviewer” being bandied about.

And what’s the job of a “reviewer?” Well, it seems their job is to simply review. Now, there are certainly aspects of that word that lends itself to serious critical work. The daily/weekly articles written for movies, plays, books, etc. have long been called “reviews.” In the military the term “review” also has a serious charge to it, a formal retrospection into an event for the purpose to lay a judgment of. Looking into my Webster’s New World College Dictionary, however, and those sort of definitions appear no sooner than fourth under the heading “review.” The first three definitions are far less formal that use phrases such as “a looking back” or a “general survey, report or account.”

Going away from the dictionary, considering personal connotations to the word review, and what I come up with is an expectation for an informal recounting, which is even more relaxed than a “general survey.”

To think of a movie review now, you would almost come to expect a simple recounting of plot with some very basic or rudimentary thoughts about the movie but nothing that would be overly critical (or overly praising). A “review” of Transformers could simply be

It’s a movie about robots fighting other robots,  and some people get involved. It looks pretty on the screen and is, at times, really loud.

I get the impression that is the sort of thing expected of movie reviewers now. Something lacking in actual criticism since it is something that isn’t really implied as part of the process any more. And it’s here where maybe literary criticism is shielded in a way that movie criticism isn’t. While there is certainly a TON of movie criticism, a large number of people who write passionately and knowledgeably  about the movies are burdened with the title of “critic” or “reviewer,” titles that either immediately draw ire or inspire confusion as to role.

Alright, I’ve gone on long enough. Part of the whole Kevin Smith Thing is, I’m sure, just bruised ego. It’s natural. But I think another part of it is the shifting of expectations of society and how language has shifted with those expectations. Maybe we no longer expect a reviewer to be critical and get somewhat put off when they are. When this difference of expectations is met with even greater differences in language, the fire becomes an inferno as one perceives the other as chucking gasoline rather than turning on the hose.