As a mode of recommendation, the newspaper fiction review has less to recommend it than ever before. Space limitations, personal considerations, and editorial preferences combine to force it to assume a somewhat gaunt profile: What many readers encounter are cautious judgments affixed to a skeletal summary, leaving little opening for the decisive and expansive claims on a reader’s attention that make a piece of criticism valuable on its own, or even simply viral. Limited in terms of space and energy, the newspaper review also faces a raft of online competition better suited to the digital age—sites like Amazon and Goodreads that aggregate and quantify consumer-oriented opinion—as well as those longer essay reviews or works of literary criticism that appear in general-interest or so-called little magazines and tend to situate the given book in a political, intellectual, or aesthetic context.
To add to these problems, newspaper book pages as an institution are withering away. As the likes of Google rake in the advertising dollars that once kept city papers comfortably fat, anachronistic luxuries like their culture sections, and book reviews especially, have been cut down mercilessly. In 2022, only one newspaper still maintains a stand-alone book review: The New York Times. No more than a dozen staff critic positions exist to serve a nation of 330 million. From the Times on down, all the papers largely get by through occasional fiction reviews commissioned from freelancers. And yet people still agree to write them. Why?
Based on interviews with 40 active fiction reviewers for major newspapers, Phillipa K. Chong’s study Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times is a game attempt to survey a flagging field of cultural commentary that’s undergoing fundamental shifts. It is an index of Chong’s discernment that she has focused on one of the few intriguing spaces that her profession (she is a cultural sociologist at McMaster University in Canada) has yet to examine seriously, and one from which there is plenty of sociological conjecture to be harvested. Book critics anxiously assert their authority, yet evince uncertainty regarding whether anybody else agrees that they have it. The uncertainty of the critic’s place in American culture is present from the first pages of Chong’s study: A woman with “a review career that spans decades…for the most important and influential newspapers in North America” tells Chong in her interview that the idea of her possibly being a “tastemaker” is laughable. The scene neatly illustrates the challenges faced by external analysts in their attempts to decode a world as insular and disingenuous as literary criticism. But it also points to unspoken cultural tensions that inhibit a more candid attitude toward one’s own authority: In what sort of society would such a powerful tastemaker feel compelled to present themselves as something less?
To arrive at clarity regarding these discerning figures requires discernment of one’s own. The great harvest awaits, but it demands much sharpness from the harvester. The success of Inside the Critics’ Circle hinges on Chong’s ability to read between the lines, a skill at sifting social facts from individual self-presentation. As it turns out, newspaper reviewers, even while exploring and explaining fiction’s intricacies, are often unreliable narrators themselves.
Chong’s basic methodology is clear enough. Reviewers of fiction are confronted with three fundamental modes of uncertainty: epistemological, social, and institutional. She examines each mode in isolation before approaching a synthetic judgment at the book’s end. The inherently subjective nature of literature clouds a critic’s ability to deliver a precise and confident assessment, she notes. The fact that reviewers of fiction tend to be authors of fiction, thus operating in the same zone of judgment as their targets and therefore vulnerable to retaliation, also means that critical honesty can be obscured by calculations of self-interest. And the liminal state of the book reviewer, with its absence of explicit prerequisites and its coincidence with other literary occupations—novelist, educator, editor, essayist—renders the work a nebulous occupation. Newspaper critics, nonstaff ones especially, find it difficult to define themselves as such. Chong’s interviews reveal nothing so much as the fact that these critics respond to uncertainty as any living system does—that is, they strive to minimize it. To avoid the doubts about their individual aesthetic judgments, fiction critics take refuge in the notion of contributing to a critical consensus greater than the sum of its parts. To cut down the risk of vendetta, they pull their punches, veiling deep disapproval as mild qualification and reserving harsh sentences for established literary celebrities who can afford to take a hit. And, unable or unwilling to define their own field in a convincingly positive way, they resort to outlining it through negation.
It is here that Chong’s anonymized data comes closest to busting out of the straitjacket of abstracted neutrality required of so many academic books. As she notes:
Critics frequently imagined and described amateur reviewers as inhabiting nonprofessional spaces as a way of underlining their recreational involvement in book culture. For example, when describing amateur reviewers, critics often imagined them as writing from their parents’ basement (they also imagined them to be living there), on their laptops at coffee shops, or at home, as implied by the image of the amateur as “a guy in his pajamas.”
Hesitant to self-define, her critics hasten to spell out what they are not: Incapable of owning up to their status, they manifest it by way of put-downs, caricatures. The critics hired by major newspapers tower over Amazon reviewers (“an example of the worst”), Goodreads posters (“just a bunch of moms”), and bloggers (“kind of dumb, as a general rule”) by virtue of a hazy expertise, an inimitable depth.
Yet not all expertise and depth are valued equally. Even though (or perhaps because) many of the critics she surveys are themselves professors, Chong discovers a powerful resistance to “academics’ overly pedantic and esoteric approach to books.” The “inappropriateness of using literary theories” typified by “political and ideological analyses” is insisted upon on the grounds they would alienate audiences or obscure aesthetics, even if arguably neither is the case. Ignoring the numerous instances of long-form criticism that fruitfully bring literary theories and political analyses to bear on the books under review, the newspaper critic claims to represent “the general reader,” who lacks the time and inclination for excessive erudition; art’s subjection to theory is described as “abusive, violent to the book and to the author.” A reader doesn’t have to be political or theoretical to note how a hostility to “ideology” as such has traditionally doubled as an expression of a different, no less prescriptive ideology of one’s own, but it would surely help.
It is to Chong’s credit that she observes here a striking incongruity among her interviewees: “When distinguishing themselves from reader-reviewers, critics operate as highly specialized connoisseurs. When distancing themselves from academic-styled reviews, journalistic critics represent the Everyman.” Still more striking, though, is her reluctance to pursue an adequate explanation of what she’s observed. At precisely the point that calls for a bolder analysis and a broader context to clarify the field of study, neither is forthcoming. Something more than mere equivocation or hypocrisy is at work when her chorus of critics pivots smoothly from an elitist stance to populist posturing in its quest for distinction. If the former seems explicable by resorting to the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s depiction of bourgeois supremacy enforced by a caste of cultural overseers, the latter stands in direct contradiction to it. What gives?
In accordance with what seems to be an iron law of sociology—that things get interesting only when they get comparative—one might examine the differences between Bourdieu’s native France, with its long history of cultural education centered around monolithic state initiatives, and the United States. Here, conditioned by the absence of all unified direction from the state in cultural education, the libertarian discourse of the populist resistance to elitist taste comes naturally to elites and non-elites alike. “The portrait of book reviewers that emerges from this study points to how the fact and feeling of power can be decoupled,” Chong concludes. But it is possible that her correspondents are not oblivious to some power they lack, but are simply being honest about the fact that they don’t have as much as she believes. Once one factors in the cultural disaggregation imposed by both American and online culture, her critics’ disavowals of status are not as disingenuous as they may first appear. Tastemakers they are, but only to some—and how confident can a tastemaker be, knowing that they are not one for all? Their relatively high status fails to blind them to a broader context where the doctrine of “to each their own” saps the authority of critics, rendering them something less than magisterial.
Which doesn’t mean that literary critics don’t have tremendous power. But it’s a power inherent to the practice, amplified by the social conditions that frame it. As Norman Podhoretz put it in 1967 in Making It:
As a critic, editor, and writer I have continually been struck by the sheer violence of response a strongly expressed judgment, especially a negative one, of a novel or a play almost always provokes: you would think that an issue of life and death was at stake in the decision to like or dislike a particular book. But that, it seems, is precisely how many people feel: threatened in their very being when a critic challenges their tastes, and wildly grateful, as though it were a sign of Calvinist grace, to be confirmed and justified.
Podhoretz magnified, as few others could, the intensity that naturally adheres to book reviews in a society devoid of common guidelines with regard to taste. The concern is not that no one serves the function of tastemaker or literary intellectual, but that everyone has the right to do so: Even prior to the Internet’s arrival, this democratization of cultural privilege tended toward a chaotic conjuncture where next to no one can be certain of which stories are good, which authors elect. The desperate pursuit of external validation that Podhoretz describes is the natural corollary of a world in which each person is free to anoint themselves the ultimate authority regarding the truth of the Word, while generally lacking the capacity to fully trust in their own judgment.
Under such circumstances, few authoritative critics can emerge, but those that somehow do will exercise an outsize influence. For in the absence of reliable institutions to brace themselves against, they must derive authority from nothing other than the resonance of their own words. It’s not accidental but providential that Edgar Allan Poe, the United States’ first major critic, was also one of its first serious poets; only a firm command of language can abolish the uncertainty regarding that of others. Once and for all, Poe proved that, possessing language, it was possible to stand apart from a critical consensus that was as imprecise regarding consequential works as it was accurate regarding works of little substance; possible, too, to surmount the fear of retaliation by the authors one sincerely critiqued, albeit not without personal cost.
Of course one must, by all means, be selective in the act of criticism. But to be finicky regarding where criticism is published—or, worse yet, to limit how criticism should be conducted—is to fight a losing battle. When critical language contains its own proof, the question of format becomes a moot point; invidious correlations between critical quality and critical venue—Amazon equals bad; bloggers equal dumb; longer-form criticism equals too academic and too specialized—can be set aside as condescension born of insecurity. (This applies equally to literary intellectuals who look down on newspaper book reviews.) And when such an overwhelming majority of writing, both fictional and critical, in every venue, low and high, is essentially inert, why blame just the amateurs? Why censure, out of hand, critiques informed (but not dictated) by politics and ideology, as if it had not already been proved, time and time again, that great fiction and great criticism can be composed with them in mind? Like strings on a guitar, sensitivity to art, historical awareness, fluency in ideology, and a lively wit are at once intrinsically connected and distinct. To learn new chords with them can only benefit the novelist, the critic, and their readers.
Literary criticism can no longer be confined to the preserve of a single sector of society or a single medium. Now that, as a result of the Internet, opinions on fiction can be published, read, and recommended without the mediation of established print media, the newspaper book review, like all others, must win an audience and exercise authority on its own merits or else fade into obsolescence. Immoderate and unmoderated, the online medium exposes not only all critics, but all writers, as lacking anything beyond one’s own style to protect one’s own judgments. Under such anarchic conditions, a serious critic’s objective can no longer be to preserve some outworn guild or class mentality, but to model the development of authoritative literacy on a digital steppe where relentless demonstrations of functional illiteracy are the norm, regardless of class. Now that the science of reading deeply and the art of writing at high levels are impossible to take for granted anywhere, each major critic must prove to their own satisfaction how both are still alive and well. Even in the absence of the overt ideological commitments to which so many newspaper critics seem averse, such proofs retain an image of a better world and fasten onto the most utopian aspects of American culture. Irrespective of venue, the best criticism not only advances the common idea that anyone may be free to interpret words to another; it amplifies the hope that, by interpreting with style, one may inspire another to achieve their own intelligence, and their own way to express it well.