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

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Are you familiar with Slightly Foxed? It's a quarterly lit mag out of Britain ( and it is only reviews/discussions of books. It's spendy but I love it - they cover mostly older books (some even out of print) and they come up with the most fascinating titles. I've gotten several books based on essays in this magazine.

I also like the "Lost and Found" section in Tin House - always interesting to see what books people enjoy.


Dan, in my own efforts on my weblog to "report" rather than review novels I'm reading, I take a common reader/serious writer viewpoint. However, I would like to add to this personal approach a more learned evaluation according to some of the critical theories. Is there one book you'd recommend that would give me--and perhaps some of the other interested litbloggers--a simple yet clear understanding of the various methods of critical evaluation that we could use to enhance our reading as well as "reviews"?

Dan Green


I don't think there's anything wrong with your "reporting" method. Sometimes what readers want is precisely a "report," an informed account of what the book was like for a particular reader. I've noticed that when you are blogging about a book, you post smaller chunks of analysis that tracks your response over time. This is a perfectly sound kind of approach (and one that may really be possible only on blogs), although perhaps when you're finished you could consolidate them in some way into a longer "review." Along the way you've provided separate insights into the way the book works; "criticism" would consist of focusing on one or more of those insights and developing them further--by, among other things, citing specific passages from the book--as an account of the book as a whole. A way of "reading" the book from a particular perspective.

I'm not sure there is "one book" that can be used as a primer on literary criticism. I wouldn't, by the way, try to bone up on "theory." This will only take you away from the texts you want to understand rather than focus your attention more productively *on* the text. A good place to start in understanding "close reading" might be literally at the beginnings of this strategy: books like Empson's 7 Types of Ambiguity or Cleanth Brooks's The Well-Wrought Urn. Otherwise, finding a critic you like and, in effect, emulating what he/she is doing is also a perfectly sound strategy.


Thanks, Dan. I will check those suggestions. I do enjoy the spontaneity of posting when something is either so awesome in language or technique, or so awful in trying to slip one by the reader that it must be shared. Sort of like pointing and shouting, "Look! Did you see that?" But you're right, I should do a more overall coverage in my finale. Thanks again.


This discussion seems a bit black-and-white. You seem happy to let newspapers chuck out reviews and, with them, any smart content, and happy to revel in literary journals appealing specifically to the educated. And there are plenty of signifiers in many of these literary journals, if not outright barriers like price points, that make them inaccessible to the average American. But there is plenty of smart writing and media in other places that reach audiences of smart people who are not necessarily associated with the academy - like the Ideas section in the Boston Globe, the Believer, a variety of NPR shows, and sometimes, though not always, alt-weeklies in cities. There are authors getting fairly mainstream press who are intelligent and popular, it's not just Nora Roberts versus a Yale professor's tome on the Spanish Civil War.

I don't know that there's much hope in newspapers, with their endless and desperate appeals to readers by reprinting the readers' mindless comments, but there are places to find thoughtful considerations of books that are still in the mainstream. Dismiss these places and run the risk of ruining reading in our future.

Dan Green

I'm not happy to let newspapers "chuck out reviews," but they're going to do it, anyway. My point is that we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that anyone other than "literary people" make up the audience for these reviews in the first place. I can't say I've run into much criticism in Ideas or NPR (Alan Cheuse notwithstanding), and while I'd like to think alt-weeklies would be a good place for running intelligent book reviews, very few of them do.

I guess I'm less covetous of the "mainstream" than you are. There's not much serious reading going on there now.

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