“Every time we pick up a book, we expect to fall in love; but after a certain number of disappointments, our expectation turns to mere hope; and eventually we give up even that. But no true reader ever gives up entirely. We still want to be moved deeply; we are still looking for books that, as Orwell put it, will burst the thermometer.”
Lots of interesting critical self-reflection is afoot lately. The quotation above comes from a piece linked seemingly everywhere, Ruth Franklin’s half-essay, half-review of Black Swan Green, published in the New Republic and reprinted at Powell’s Books, addresses some of the pitfalls of positive reviewing. Positive reviews are harder to write well, she claims, for any number of reasons. For one, the well-pleased critic finds herself in unintentional competition with a book’s jacket copy and associated hype–all of the productions of the publishing house’s publicity machine–and it’s not always easy to avoid sounding like part of that machine herself. “We damn not with faint praise, but with hyperbole.” she writes.
I entirely agree with Franklin’s sentiments about overly nice reviewing, which only makes me part of a large chorus. The Believer‘s Snarkwatch was a trial balloon, as she notes, that quietly but quickly sank. But, as someone who reviews ten or twelve books a year, I’d say the problem is less that many bad books are being given glowing reviews, and more that there are a lot of pretty good books out there. Quite good books. Blown kisses to my editors, but it is a rare thing and thus, frankly, some fun, to receive a book for review that’s truly bad–in large part because it happens so seldom. The great majority of the novels and short story collections I review are pretty good–but not essential. In the long run, they probably won’t be remembered as important. In the short run, though, they’ll give the right readers some considerable pleasure and perhaps enlightenment. As a critic, then, my job as I see it is to set aside that perpetually recurring dream of making a great discovery–and all of the attendant overblown adjectives–send out some sort of signal to the readers who I think will appreciate this particular book, and describe the book using verbs instead of adjectives as much as possible–not what the book is like, but what it does. The hardest thing is to maintain an honest sense of proportion in describing what a book achieves. (And for the record, I basically agree with Franklin’s high assessment of Black Swan Green).
Meanwhile, A. O. Scott had a piece in the New York Times last week (warning: the link may expire today) that tries to parse the yawning difference between the critical and popular receptions of a movie like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. As you might imagine, plenty of film and culture bloggers have had something to say about that. It was the always sharp Peter Suderman, though, who pointed out that nowhere in his piece does Scott venture an answer to a key question: “What is the job of the movie critic?” In lieu of anything along these lines from Scott, Suderman graciously obliges with some thoughtful musings.
The subquestion, I suppose, in Scott’s essay was about what, if any, responsibility a critic has to the general moviegoing public. This is a tough question for many critics, and for someone like me especially. Most critics would bristle at the thought of having to serve the masses. Pandering, they’d call it, and dismiss the whole idea. As a firm believer in the usefulness of markets in determinging value, however, I’m not as sure. Now, while I have no love for the inscrutable non-taste of the moviegoing masses, I find myself wondering if a critic doesn’t have some obligation to them. Newspapers and magazines are businesses, after all, and they have an obligation to sell papers. A critic without a public is hardly worth whatever investment–however tiny–his or her publication has made in his or her writing.
In the end, he lands on a close analogue to what he tries to do as a critics: “it seems to me that the best description of a film critic is as a public teacher, one whose job is to be interesting, helpful, available (answer those emails!) and knowledgeable. One hopes that film critics are also film enthusiasts who enjoy not just the entertainment part of film but the intellectual side as well.” One does.