Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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kevin holtsberry

I think the book babes spout a kind of populist relativism. All books are equal in one sense but some books are too intellectual, too intimidating. This is of course incoherant and often contradictory. I have been unable to find a standard upon which they judge books. They like books and they think they are important but they can't explain why.

I have been trying - rather poorly - to argue that this cultural realtivism that refuses to draw lines between what might be considered art and literature and what is entertainment undermines intelligent discussion. If Lolita is on the same level as an episode of the Simpsons who cares if we have more of the later and less of the former? In this sort of libertarian view each side just competes for peoples attention and whoever wins great. This is not a system designed to promote literature. If people are not given a reason to raise their expectations and level of apreciation only a small portion will choose the higher road.

Those who we expect to promote quality seem intent on simply looking for quantity. They have lost the understanding that would allow them to defend the content that made books important to begin with.

Dan Green

Kevin: You make some good points. "They like books and they think they are important but they can't explain why" is a good way of describing the Book Babes. I also think your second paragraph does about as good a job of making the anti-relativism case--in a brief formulation--as I've seen in a while. It's a rational formulation rather than just bombast.


"The Simpsons" may have its ups and downs, but so did Nabokov. ("Look at the Harlequins!": Worst Episode Ever.)

I prefer not to draw lines between "art" and "entertainment" because I think such lines are historically unjustifiable and intellectually incoherent. That doesn't relegate me to majority rule (and, as much as I despise libertarianism, I'm not sure majority rule is what it's all about, either). It merely lets me discuss (occasionally intelligently, I hope) a wider range of work.

It certainly doesn't bring me closer to agreement with "the Book Babes" or to disagreement with Dan's main point about the state of book reviewing. Intellectual class distinctions are just another way of clouding close discrimination, which canon defenders and Book Babes both employ -- in different directions but for similar reasons.


Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. I do have one quibble. I'm a novelist and a voracious reader of novels (of all kinds, hi- and lo-brow). But I'm also an academic who loves literature. And it is simply unfair to say that "most of them wouldn't think of writing for newspaper book pages, where the discussion is so dreadfully undertheorized." Most of my academic peers write clear, thoughtful critical prose and would only use a word like "undertheorized" as a joke! And the reason more of us don't write for newspaper book pages is that we're already very overworked--with teaching and service obligations as well as the obligation to produce high-quality academic writing--and don't get credit for that kind of writing within the (admittedly terribly outdated) system for acknowledging publications. So spare a thought for the poor hapless untenured academics out here who really love books...

Dan Green

I've been a "poor hapless untenured" academic myself. I can only say that my comments were based on my perception of the attitudes prevailing in the academic mileu--especially among the tenured academics who might actually be asked to write book reviews.

Kevin Wignall

Interesting post, Dan. Something you mention in passing, but which I'd like to hear more on, is the impact of blogs on newspaper reviewing. For the first time, a vibrant forum exists in which reviewers are named, their views are examined and questioned, as is the policy of the newspapers. The recent debate about the future direction of the NYTBR is a case in point. Surely literary editors and reviewers are aware of this, and so I wonder what impact it will have over the coming years - if nothing else, it should blow away some of the cobwebs.

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