05.12.11

The Future of Book Reviews: Critics vs. Amazon Reviewers

Top critics Morris Dickstein and Cynthia Ozick debate who are truly the book critics today (hint: Amazon reviewers) and what this means for reviewing. Jane Ciabattari reports.

In the age of rapid digital revolution in publishing, when readers have book review options ranging from decades-old publications like The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times Book Review, to Twitter book clubs, literary websites, online publications like this one, and Amazon reader reviews, what is the role of the book reviewer? And how has that role changed?

That was the focus of a conversation I moderated on the future of book culture at PEN World Voices Festival on April 27 (the event was cosponsored by the National Book Critics Circle). On hand to mull over the state of book culture were American critics Morris Dickstein and Cynthia Ozick (in absentia), French novelist and commentator Hervé Le Tellier, and Danish novelist and former critic Carsten Jensen.

Dickstein, distinguished professor of English and theater at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and author most recently of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, was pessimistic. “The professional reviewer, who has a literary identity, who had to meet some editor's exacting standard, has effectively been replaced by the Amazon reviewer, the paying customer, at times ingenious, assiduous, and highly motivated, more often banal, obtuse, and blankly opinionated," he said.

He decried the “thumbs-up, thumbs-down" school of reviewing, which works for a website like Trip Advisor but “most assuredly does not work for literary reviewing, which demands taste, training, sensibility, some knowledge of the past, and a rare feeling for both language and argument. Raw opinion, no matter how deeply felt, is no substitute for argument and evidence. The democratization of reviewing is synonymous with the decay of reviewing."

Jensen, author of the recently published saga We, the Drowned, suggested that perhaps we have reached the state of graphomania that Milan Kundera describes in his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: "The irresistible proliferation of graphomania among politicians, taxi drivers, childbearers, lovers, murderers, thieves, prostitutes, officials, doctors, and patients shows me that everyone without exception bears a potential writer within him, so that the entire human species has good reason to go down the streets and shout: 'We are all writers!' "

Ozick, a novelist and essayist whose Quarrel and Quandary won a National Book Critics Circle award in criticism, made what she called the “disheartening" case that the most committed American readers are the Amazon customer reviewers. “Not only are they willing to buy books consistently, not as a now-and-then event; they also are intent on evaluating them in a public way, and they devote time and effort to fashioning a response. In short, they are serious about the meaning and effect of books, exactly what we would call a literary point of view."

“I was once asked about the most devastating review I ever received,” Jensen said. “My answer was that it had never been written because the only person who could write it was me.”

But, Ozick noted, Amazon reviewers hold two principles in common: “First, a book, whether nonfiction or fiction, must supply 'uplift.' Who wants to spend hours on a downer? And even more demandingly, the characters in a novel must be likable. Uplift and pleasantness: is this an acceptable definition of what we mean by literature? If so, then King Lear and Hamlet aren't literature, Sister Carrie isn't literature, Middlemarch isn't literature, nearly everything by Chekhov isn't literature, and on and on and on."

Le Tellier, who has four books out in the U.S. in translation this year, including the novel Enough About Love, was concerned about the fragmentation of book culture. “When you go to Amazon, you will get advice to read a book like the one you already read," he said. “If you follow that advice you will always read the same book, maybe not written by the same person, but the same book."

The other panelists also recoiled from the forced choice of Amazon and other website “recommendations"—the invisible “friend" saying, if you ordered this, then you should like that. Independent-minded, these critics wanted something altogether different, something discovered while browsing, or from a flesh-and-blood friend. They seemed to wish for an outward spiral, not the inward turning that ends up in what Jensen called the “hall of mirrors" effect of the Internet.

Le Tellier suggested a future moment when there might be “so many books being published and so much advice about what to read, I won't know how to choose." In France, he said, readers tend to listen to recommendations from their trusted friends.

As authors, how do they respond to reviews of their own work?

“I was once asked about the most devastating review I ever received," Jensen said. “My answer was that it had never been written because the only person who could write it was me. I know myself, my writing, and my weaknesses better than anyone."

“But if somebody else did happen to come up with that devastating review, how would I react? I hate to say it, but I would respect that critic immensely and consider him or her my best reader ever. Because in the end a writer never succeeds in writing the great book he dreams of writing. And that´s what drives him on."

“That's a wonderful point," said Dickstein, “because whenever you finish a book, you know exactly how you have fallen short. Any writer could write a more accurately devastating review than a critic."

Ozick had her own spin on the question, via email: “The harshest critic of self can mean the slowest writer. In my own getting-the-ketchup-to-come-out-of-the-bottle case, I won't go on to the next sentence until the last sentence is as watertight as I can make it. And this means how it is joined to the sentence before and the sentence to come. The term 'laborious' applies!"

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Jane Ciabattari's work has appeared in Bookforum,The Guardian online, NPR.org, Salon.com, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Columbia Journalism Review, among others. She is a vice president and former president of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the short-story collection Stealing the Fire . Recent short stories are online at The Literarian, KGB Bar Lit, Verbsap, Literary Mama, and Lost Magazine.