Sunday Salon: The Critical Role

sundaysalonEarlier this month, Slate published a piece with the deliberately rage-baiting title, “Against YA.” The piece aggravated me, primarily because it set up a false binary of YA=simplistic and adult=complex. There’s also the problem that I don’t think the article’s author, Ruth Graham, has read that much contemporary YA. (There were many good criticisms of the piece; two of my favorites appear at Something More and XO Jane.) Setting aside the false assumptions in the piece, which others have addressed, the piece does raise some interesting questions, and I’d like to consider one of those questions today.

In an NPR interview last weekend, Graham addresses some of her critics, and one of her statements caught my attention:

You know, the job of criticism is to make distinctions between good things and bad things and between complicated things and simplistic things.

Is that the job of the critic? Recently, Rohan at Novel Readings wrote an excellent post about liking and disliking certain books, and Tom of Wuthering Expectations noted in the comments that what he wants is for critics to show him what they saw in a book that he does not see. I like Tom’s view much better. The trouble with making critics the arbiters of good and bad is that critics don’t even agree on what’s good and bad, never mind the fact that there are many different ways to be good and bad. What, specifically, is the book good or bad for? I hated Wuthering Heights the first time I’d read it because I’d been led to believe it was a beautiful romance. It’s a marvelous book, now one of my favorites, but it’s a terrible love story.

I’m assuming the critics who want to set themselves up as arbiters of good and bad believe that good books are challenging and complex. They are books that are somehow intellectually improving. That’s certainly the impression I get from Graham’s piece, but I resent the notion that everything we read must challenge us in order to be good and that we must feel guilty when we read something that is not appropriately challenging. I put enough guilt on myself for things that matter. I refuse to feel guilty for sometimes (maybe even usually) preferring Maggie Stiefvater and Diana Wynne Jones over James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. I’m going to reserve my guilt for the times I’m rude to others or unfairly judgmental (ahem).

Another strand I’ve noticed in the pearl-clutching over readers choosing “unworthy” books is the notion that readers don’t even know their own minds, as demonstrated in a recent article in Vanity Fair about some critics’ distress that people (including some critics!) like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. (News Flash! Critics Sometimes Disagree!) Toward the end of the article, Lorin Stein frets that some who don’t read much may read The Goldfinch, because of all the praise it’s gotten and “tell themselves they like it, but deep down will be profoundly bored, because they aren’t children” and will them give up on reading altogether. Let’s unpack that, shall we?

If Stein’s hypothetical readers tell themselves they like something, chances are they liked it. People know what they like better than Stein does. I will admit to a tendency to looking for things to like in what I read, but the fact that I’m looking for pleasure and finding it doesn’t make that pleasure false. I may doubt that I’m seeing everything there is to see in a book, and my opinion may evolve over time, but if I tell myself I like something, it’s probably because I do. (Never mind that liking and disliking are not discrete categories. I can like and dislike the same book all at the same time.) I’ve not read The Goldfinch, so I can’t speak to its quality, but there are plenty of critical darlings out there that people who don’t read much are likely to be bored by. Probably lots of books Stein likes and has praised will bore people who don’t read much.  Also, people who like The Goldfinch are children? Wow.

So I circle back to asking myself what the role of a critic is, and I continue to agree with Tom that a good critic shows me something I wouldn’t see on my own. Alternatively, a critic will help me see what a book is like so I can decide on my own whether I want to read it. A critic saying a book is good or bad is rarely enough to sway me. I want more. I want critics to understand the many ways a book can be good or bad and the many reasons people read. What does this book offer? Where does it fall short? What’s interesting about it? That’s different from good or bad, and it’s far more helpful.

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29 Responses to Sunday Salon: The Critical Role

  1. Laura says:

    Great post. Stein’s criticism of the Goldfinch was so interesting to me because of his insistence that the problem with the book is its “childishness.” I have a graduate degree in literature and still find value in reading picture books. These are written for two year olds, not even 13 year olds like TFIOS. These books are written by adults, who are humans, with human experiences. So, no matter the intended audience (and who is to say who that is), we bring our own experiences and critical perspectives to every text, and that is valuable. Plus it is interesting that the Slate article uses Meg Abbott as an example of adult fiction about teens. She is fabulous, but is sometimes categorized as YA or New Adult. Why would we determine what we can and can’t read based on these arbitrary publishing distinctions?

    • Teresa says:

      Excellent point on the arbitrary distinctions. I’m not opposed to the distinctions existing, because I find it helpful when I’m looking for a particular kind of book to have an idea of where to go in the library or bookstore. But plenty of books could fit in either adult or YA. Code Name Verity or the Octavian Nothing books are as complex as a lot of adult fiction. I really don’t care where a book resides in the library; good book exist in all categories.

  2. priscilla says:

    Teresa, I absolutely agree with you (and apparently Tom) that a critic should show me something I cannot see on my own. Some people may look to critics for what is “good” and “bad,” but let’s face it: most people look to their peers to tell them what’s good and bad. That’s why books like 50 Shades of Gray and Twilight and The Help (not to mention books by authors like Nicholas Sparks, James Patterson, or Jodi Picoult) become crazy bestsellers. And finally, YA is a marketing term. As Laura points out in her comment, it’s silly to make distinctions based on somethign that has more to do with the organization of a publishing and distribution operation than the content of a novel.

    • Teresa says:

      Some of the hand-wringing critics in the VF piece seem to have an inflated sense of their own influence. As you point out, a lot of books that critics don’t like sell really well. For my part, there are few people (much less critics) that I trust implicitly on whether a book is good or bad, but if someone can explain to me a how book is interesting, I’m more inclined to give it a go. If someone consistently guides me to books I find worth my time, I’ll trust that person more easily in the future.

      • Yes, I really agree with you and Tom, that the BEST way to review a book (even a book one feels some opposition to) is to explain the WHYs and WHEREFOREs of one’s attitude toward it, not just to give the “it’s good” or “it’s bad.” There is, however, a place for those uppity critics who like their own word to be law and who prefer to dictate to their readers, and that is in the magazines and reviews written for those many readers who really have no sincere interest in literary issues, who want someone to tell them what to do, and who are easily swayed by others’ opinions and need a leader in order to read at all. These people are what I call “Sunday readers” (by analogy with “Sunday drivers,” and no adverse reflection on your term “Sunday salon”), and though I always find myself hoping that so-and-so whom I have despaired of in this way will stop quoting Cyrilian Nonstop Smarmynote and form opinions for herself (or himself), at least they’re reading something! It’s the last hope of the literate world that maybe they will gradually absorb something intelligent by way of osmosis!

  3. Great thoughts! Thanks for sharing! Sometimes critics write from a “high and mighty” attitude, ending up sounding rather dictatorial. I’d much prefer they come from a place as you have pointed out: What does this book offer? Where does it fall short? What’s interesting about it? That is much more informative.

    • Teresa says:

      Some of the critics quoted in the VF article certainly seem to come across as seeing their view as the only right view. Established critics often have good things to say, but I’m not taking their judgment on faith. I doubt many readers do.

  4. Amy @ My Friend Amy says:

    Love this post!! I actually think that’s why I sometimes struggle to write about books….I enjoy a lot of books, sometimes i can see value in a book without loving it, but what I most enjoy is to talk about a book when I think I do have something to say or share and that actually ends up being kind of rare. Lol I don’t consider myself a critic, but I am certainly always considering why I’m spending time writing about books.

    • Teresa says:

      I seem to figure out what I think by writing about books, which is why I write about all of them. But I really do love it when I think I’ve realized something different about a book that others aren’t talking so much about.

  5. lisaalmedasumner says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful post. All the hand-wringing that print critics do over the public’s reading taste seem a little Victorian! I especially like your point about the reader’s experience of a book…if the reader thinks she likes a book, then she probably does like the book! That seems so obvious…readers don’t need critics to mediate the reading experience for them!

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve gotten plenty of valuable insights from critics, but I don’t need them to tell me what I think about a book I already read. I wonder if Stein realized how arrogant he sounded there.

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  7. litlove says:

    I completely agree with you. A value judgement is the least interesting thing we can say about a book, because it is entirely personal and subjective. It has nothing to do with anyone else’s experience of the book (unless two opinions collide – but are we really so weak that all we care about is that someone else feels the same way we do?). I am all for the school of criticism that’s about showing hidden depths and different perspectives on a story. That makes criticism an art of its own, not a parasitic enterprise.

    • Teresa says:

      One of the things that bothers me about treating criticism as value judgment is that I often both like and dislike a book. How could I say yeah or nay to a book that had some really wonderful parts and some really aggravating parts? And what aggravates me may not aggravate someone else because, as you say, liking and disliking are personal reactions.

  8. Alex says:

    I agree with you, and Tom and Litlove on this. However, thought that has come to mind as I was reading your post is should we draw a distinction between a reviewer of books and a critic because I think I ask rather different things of these two associated beings. The critic, as we seem to be agreeing, is there to help me see something in a book that I might otherwise have missed, but most often what i read about books these days is a simple review in a newspaper that does little more than draw my attention to a new book and give me some indication as to what the plot is about. On the whole, I think I prefer the latter because it acknowledges (perhaps without intending to) that I can make up my own mind as to the novel’s quality.

    • Teresa says:

      That is an interesting question, Alex! I tend to conflate the two in my mind, but there do seem to be some criticism that’s more analytical and perhaps more interesting to those who have read the book. And then there are reviews that seem to be more focused on helping someone decide whether to read a book. The writing I like best does a little of both, but in general I don’t want reviewers to say I must or must not read a book. Give me enough information to make up my own mind. (Although I do enjoy when bloggers who know me suggest a book.)

  9. Jeanne says:

    I like Rohan’s point about using the word “appreciation.” There are lots of things in books that I can appreciate but do not love experiencing. That doesn’t mean that classifying them as “good” or “bad” would be useful to anyone.
    Alex’s separation of “criticism” from a “review” puzzles me unless it is meant to address those reviewers who promote new books for the publishers. For me, getting enough information to make up my own mind always involves getting analysis of how the book works.

    • Teresa says:

      Appreciation is a good word, I agree. Often, I can see that a book is well-crafted, even if it doesn’t do much for me.

      I understood Alex to be making a distinction between long-form analysis types of pieces and short magazine pieces that sum up new books, but perhaps she can weigh in if I’m getting that wrong. For my part, I like some analysis in a review. A short summary usually isn’t enough for me to make up my mind, unless it’s an author I’m inclined to try anyway.

  10. I am beyond bored with the whole “Adults Read YA Books” debate so I’m not going to comment on it here. It’s become a scab. The only way to make it go away is to stop scratching it.

    I do like Tom’s view of a good critic, tough. I would define useful criticism as Tom does–it helps the reader understand a work on a deeper level. This is more than saying whether or not you liked a book and why. I think good critics should be able to explain what’s good about a work even if they don’t like it. That said, criticism makes for much better reading if it comes from a clear position.

    Finally, there’s a character in Murakami’s Norwegian Wood who only reads dead authors. He believes it is impossible to know if a book is worth reading unless it’s been around for a very long time. As far as Donna Tartt goes, people who out-live me will be the ones to decide if she is really worth reading or not.

    • Teresa says:

      I love it when I come across a review of a book that I’ve already read and learn something new about the book. That’s good reviewing. It’s hard to do, though!

      As for Tartt, I figure if people are entertained by her book now, it was worth those people’s time to read it. But only time will tell if it’s a book for the ages. I have found that long-dead authors whose books are still talked about are usually well worth reading.

  11. JaneGS says:

    >I continue to agree with Tom that a good critic shows me something I wouldn’t see on my own.
    Absolutely! A critic who thinks that he or she is the arbiter of good taste is delusional. I like to read thoughtful, well-written insights that will help me either appreciate a work or decide whether I want to invest my time in reading it myself. The best critics are those who see their work as part of a conversation and not a lecture.

    Great post–thanks!

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, a conversation! I think that idea of criticism as conversation might be why blogs appeal to me so much. Bloggers welcome comments and are in dialogue with their readers, which I think encourages us not to see our views as final or the only valid view. Some print critics feel the same, I’m sure, but there’s a barrier between critic and general reader that makes it harder to have the conversation.

      • JaneGS says:

        I think you’ve hit on why I like blogging–reading and writing them–the conversation, the openness to comment and participate, and enlarge the scope of understanding.

  12. Stefanie says:

    Very much enjoyed this! I find it fascinating that there is such a regular conversation on blogs about criticism and what we as readers want it to do. I don’t know that critics themselves publicly discuss these issues. Like everyone else, I don’t need critics to be gatekeepers of taste and tell me what books are worthy. Presumably if a book is being reviewed in the first place there is something worthwhile about.

    • Teresa says:

      Once in a while, I’ll see critics talk about this stuff on Twitter–there was some talk about it after the Vanity Fair article. And that VF article was interesting to me partly because it gave a window into some critics’ thinking. What I wonder is how many critics pay attention to what readers say they want. They could learn a lot about that from reading blogs!

  13. Nicola says:

    Good post. I think it’s why so many of us prefer to take our reading recommendations from trusted fellow bloggers who share our tastes. Today’s newspapers all carried glowing full page reviews for the new JK Rowling, but really, what about giving some other new voices some space?

    • Teresa says:

      Variety is one of the things that keeps blogs so lively and interesting. There are lots of posts to read about the hot new book if you want to read about it, but there’s plenty of other stuff to.

  14. How wonderful – I go on vacation and suddenly everyone agrees with me (“apparently,” ha ha ha ha!).

    I am enough of an Appreciationist that I subscribe to an inverted Sturgeon’s Law where 90% of everything is good – or 70% – or maybe 50% – way more than 10%, anyways. Most of those works are trivial, but that is another critical idea entirely, far off topic. I read so many book blogs not to confirm my approach, but to challenge it, to learn new ones. Maybe I do not learn them so well – off topic, again.

    That Vanity Fair piece is maybe more of a kind of status-marking exercise than an act of criticism.

    • Teresa says:

      I figure that most stuff that gets published has some kind of value, even if I personally don’t value it. Figuring out what merit there is in a book makes me a happier reader than seeking out all the flaws.

      Some of the people quoted in the Vanity Fair piece seem to enjoy the idea of noting that the emperor has no clothes, when the truth is that the emperor is wearing an out they believe is undignified.

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