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

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"One is that it implicitly posits a recognized, shared set of criteria by which reviewers should go about "just" reviewing the book at hand. The reviewer needn't look at what others are saying because everyone is applying these same standards, even though they might come to different conclusions in the process."

Uh ... doesn't it implicitly posit exactly the opposite of this? That everyone is applying their own criteria, but might be swayed from those criteria towards a bland consensus by too much consultation with what's already been said?

"I, for one, don't see how serious criticism can occur without the critic taking some account of what other critics have said."

Because it can apply things that have been said about the author's other work, or about similar works, or about relevant themes, or whatever. I think it's perfectly possible, for instance, to write a useful critical review of, say, a new Thomas Pynchon novel based on a working knowledge of Pynchon's previous books, even if you have no idea what anyone else has said about this particular Pynchon. (Much as I might wish that some of the later reviewers of Against the Day had read John Clute's review ...)

As it happens, I think a happy medium is the best approach. I tend to write a first draft naively, as it were, then go and read other reviews. That way I know that I've said what I want to say in a way that is specific to me, but I can also see if I've been haring off in a different direction, and need to refine or better support the statements I'm making.

Dan Green

I certainly hope it doesn't mean reviewers assume everyone is applying "their own criteria." This means no common ground at all where critical analysis is concerned, and I do believe there is *some* common ground. Otherwise, book reviewing is just a game of idiosyncratic personal responses, which makes the whole thing mostly useless.

I do think its possible to review the new Pynchon with "a working knowledge of Pynchon's previous books," but this working knowledge should include some knowledge of what critics have said about Pynchon (not just in brief book reviews) or it isn't really a complete "working knowledge."


"This means no common ground at all where critical analsis is concerned, and I do believe there is *some* common ground."

Sure. Perhaps I should have said "sets of criteria", or talked about emphasis. I'm sure you and I, for instance, have different sets of criteria by which we evaluate what we read, and place different amounts of emphasis on some of the criteria we share; but I know we agree on some areas as well. But I still think the concern that too much pre-reading of other reviews could lead to blandness is justifiable.

"but this working knowledge should include some knowledge of what critics have said about Pynchon"

Right. But I don't see any particular reason why it *has to* -- or even any reason why it *should* -- include some knowledge of what critics have said about the Pynchon under review, which is where your argument seemed to be headed. (Though as I said, I think it *can* include such knowledge.)

Dan Green

"But I don't see any particular reason why it *has to* -- or even any reason why it *should* -- include some knowledge of what critics have said"

I can see plenty of reasons why it *should*--a complete "working knowledge" for one. If it's a relatively brief newspaper-type book review, it isn't *necessary* for the critic to cite or show familiarity with other critics or reviewers, but I, for one, usually take reviewers who do seem to have this kind of familarity more seriously more readily.


I take reviewers and critics who seem to have a familiarity with an author's body of work and what's been said about it in the past more seriously than those who do not seem to have such familiarity -- in general. Sometimes I also value a naive response. But, as I say, I see any reason to expect or to disparage the person reviewing Against the Day for the New York Times if they don't demonstrate familiarity with what the reviewer in the TLS said about the same book two weeks earlier.


Book publishers generally include excerpts from reviews of an author's previous books as well as blurbs about the current one when they send galleys for review. Many reviewers see advance reviews in publications like Publishers Weekly or Kirkus. Assigning reviewers are likely to have met with the publisher's representatives at the BEA and other conferences and fairs. There is also the general chatter and buzz of the publishing community. All of which means the review does not happen in a void whatever the reviewer's intentions may be. A competent reviewer will not be unduly influenced by reading additional reviews, and could benefit from them. An incompetent review will recycle the publisher's press release regardless.

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