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Jonathan M

It's just writers trying to control the terms of engagement. In a way it's no different to the decision that authorial intent is irrelevant to the interpretation of a text, it's a means of redefining the terms of engagement so as to remove authority from authors. As a result I can't blame them for wanting to try stunts like this. Even if it does feel like a very long-winded justification for being able to describe critics as "bitter failed writers" without having people laugh in your face.

Frances Madeson

Any writer worth her salt wants it both barrels. How else are we supposed to grow?

Louie Jerome

As writers we need to read other writers and to take both praise and criticism so that we can evolve into the best we can be.


That was a rather scalding review. I take it you two have not broken bread lately? Arms, legs, perhaps - but not bread.

I appreciate your point of view (was that "respectful and careful" enough?), but I feel that you misinterpreted his intent, perhaps even drowned it. From my reading of your short excerpts, he simply stated that writers face extra challenges when reviewing other writers. This fact does not negate the place of critics who are not writer-critics in any way.

He also clearly stated that criticism requires humility from the receiver - absolutely right. I find it more a message to precious writers than critics and why not? A dissection of "workshop-like" sensibilities can be very enlightening to a reader; far more fruitful sometimes than the clipped haiku-like superficial versions prevalent nowadays. It is also a message to writers to not butter up your buddy. Welcome point, again.

I think that you two vary mainly in your approaches to criticism. To use a Sports metaphor; he likes Cricket, you prefer Bare-knuckle boxing. It's all a matter of taste.

Dan Green

Didn't seem that scalding.

Schopenhauer's Bloody Knuckles

"Any writer worth her salt wants it both barrels. How else are we supposed to grow?"



interesting points on reviewing lit from a reader's perspective. but i think you need to take it one step further, having the reviewer completely remove him/herself from the emotion the work conjures up inside them. too often, reviews are merely a platform for other writers to show how clever they are, and do not focus on the work. "substantive criticism" becomes just a platform to shout from.

as regards to having your feelings hurt by a review, seriously, who cares? you put yourself out there, you should be able to take the criticism in stride, realize which critics are making sense and who are just out for blood. "sticks and stones..." right?

Nigel Beale

"that literary criticism in its most useful form more or less takes for granted the superior accomplishment of the work at hand"

Surely Dan, if this is the case, some sort of evaluative process must take place in order to determine which 'works at hand' are worthy of criticism and which aren't?

Steven Augustine

"Surely Dan, if this is the case, some sort of evaluative process must take place in order to determine which 'works at hand' are worthy of criticism and which aren't?"

This sentence is missing a parenthetical "in the critic's opinion" somewhere in the third dependent clause.

What plenty of people seem to already comprehend is that the "evaluative process" is a *subjective* one, idiomatic to the critic, who is, after all, allied with some worldviews and inimical to others according to mood/upbringing/astrological sign/bloodtype/time of day...

Otherwise, entire genres ("crime" or "sci fi" or "bildungsroman", say) could be consigned to eternal perdition by unilateral fiat. They can't be, because there are as many critics (and critic manqués) who love these genres as hate them.

Edmund Wilson was a critical genius; he didn't like Nabokov's Onegin; Nabokov's Onegin still stands. John O'Hara was The Man in 1940; now he's not. Critical subjectivity, re: a writer or an oeuvre, is not only individual but exists in aggregate, or as a mean value, rising and falling in time. John O'Hara and William Shakespeare may well end up exchanging reputations in the 23rd century; stranger things have happened (vide the sudden bona fides of Mr. Jon Bon Jovi in the early-mid 1990s during a corollary devaluation of Prince).

Rightwingers, more than most subcultures, love the notion of the possibility of *objective eternal criteria* in The Arts because they would then get to rank their personal faves as belonging (coincidentally) to the Empyrean; they dig hierarchies of all kinds, as long as *they* (coincidentally) are at the top. It is an issue of temperament not only irrelevant, but damaging, to The Arts; a pathology strongly allied to late-model capitalism (and its idiotic Number Oneisms).

Never trust a critic who claims to be able to *prove* (objectively) why the book (or writer) you hold dear sucks. The built-in defense against this, of course, is that not a one of them can.


As a reader (and I'm not a writer), I hope that the critic will expand my repetoire of reading -- pointing out what is worthy in books that I wouldn't normally gravitate toward; discuss context, suggest parallels with other authors, etc. In other words, I want a critic to be a teacher: an enthusiastic teacher who shows me what I might be missing, advocates for writers s/he appreciates, and helps me find hidden gems.

What I don't see use for is a critic who is "highly critical." Reading is obviously an individual and highly subjective act. Telling me that I book I'm interested in is derivative, ill-conceived, or whatever negative it might be may not keep me from reading it. But it might! And that feels a little bit like you're censoring me and blocking me from the writer -- don't read this, it's crap; you're not a good thinker if this writer engages you; are you going to waste your time? And if they are going to point out the failures, I wish critics would do so in such a way that acknowledges the possibility of error. It must be frustrating to see certain "bad" writers get tons of hype. People with great aesthetic sensibility tend to want to curate. But trotting out someone's first novel - or work of a decade - to lambaste seems unsportmanlike, presumptuous, and pointless.

Again, respectfully, I have to say that as a reader, writers are more important to me than critics. I don't mean to be rude by that remark -- good criticism helps me to find new things to appreciate. But it seems to me that teaching writers to be better writers isn't something that writers - or readers - are necessarily asking for. A critical (negative) book review doesn't seem to have a public purpose. It's not as if you're warning people about a defective product -- say shoddy brakes -- that puts the public at risk. I'm generally capable of determining if I want to spend $25 (hardback) or $15 (paperback) or $5 (used) on a book. That's an acceptable amount of cash for me to risk, and I don't want a literary critic ruining my adventure. But I would like you to help me find more books to spend my money on.

It may be that I'm totally alone in this view, and have too much of a soft spot for the outsider/underdog. But it's hard to think of any great artist (including writers) who wasn't misjudged.

So when you say, "Indeed, I have argued, and continue to believe, that literary criticism in its most useful form more or less takes for granted the superior accomplishment of the work at hand and proceeds to illuminate the strategies by which the work has brought this off," I hope you stick to that plan. It's the most respectful one.

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