Mark Athitakis Newsletter #33

The critic critique.

If you review books---if you review anything, really---you tend to collect critiques of criticism. Sometimes the critique is fired straight at you: Sometime in the late 90s, an East Bay Express reader sent a piece of hate mail in response to my review of a Sheryl Crow concert in Berkeley. She had a lot of things to say to me, but the only line I remember was a three-word wholesale dismissal of criticism as an enterprise: "Get a job." 

That's a decent summary of what the typical criticism-critique wants to say: That criticism is dishonest work, that it's writing-adjacent work, that it's PR work in journalism drag, a sheep in wolf's clothing. The gold standard of this line of attack remains Elizabeth Hardwick's 1959 Harper's essay, "The Decline of Book Reviewing," which bemoaned the way that "sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns." Hardwick's essay played a role in the creation of the New York Review of Books, which has had its contentious moments. But the NYRB can also be reliably sweet and bland, especially when it comes to reviews of its own contributors. In that regard, it exemplifies what critic Garth Risk Hallberg called the NYRB's "unapologetic boringness, its privileged hostility to privilege." (Critics do like to eat their own, perhaps because it often feels like they're the only ones paying attention.)

My own introduction to the criticism-critique genre was a 2001 Walter Kirn essay, "Remember When Books Mattered?," in which he regretfully recounts his stint as New York's book critic. There are echoes of Hardwick in the piece: "The sound of much reviewing nowadays is the sound of one hand clapping---of literature gently patting its own back, sometimes in praise and sometimes in reproach, for fear of breaking something. It's hardly the sort of racket that draws crowds."

Hardwick and Kirn (and plenty of other critic-critique writers like them) frame the ideal book review as not just a judgment but a provocation. It's the only form of writing---besides, I suppose, the manifesto---that seems to be asked to do this. Novels and poems and essays can provoke, of course, but only the most cynical critic would demand they do only that, to say that a novel loses value if "all it does" is draw our attention to something we haven't previously considered, or explore a theme, or possess a surprising lyricism, or pose a question. Critics tend to detest activist novels; why such tubthumping for activist criticism?

I'm thinking about this because I only recently came across London Review of Books editor Mary-Kay Wilmers' 1980 essay "The Language of Novel Reviewing," which appears in her new collection, Human Relations & Other Difficulties. It too belongs to the criticism-critique genre---the tone is one of mildly patronizing dismissal. But rather than calling for knife fights, she fairly points out that the problem with reviews are as often matters of vocabulary as judgment. Because all reviews "must all in some degree be re-creations" of the book proper but feel the downward pressure of word count, compromises abound---critics throw up their hands at a novel's subtleties, overstate their graces, overidentify with their characters, and lean on cliches that overstate enthusiasm. "Experiment, symbols, allegory: reviewers don’t often like them," she writes. 

It might be more correct to say that critics don't like to summarize them. It's no wonder critics push for longer word counts, or take to blogs or Twitter threads (or newsletters!) to discuss a book, for the same reason people say they don't like reading print book reviews. The genre has inherent constraints---tight word counts, the presumption that your readers know nothing about the author at hand, style guides that dampen more freeform writing. 

So the deck may be stacked against the critic, but Wilmers is her own kind of idealist; rather than call for critics to stoke fights, she asks that critics simply recognize themselves as writers. "What is wanted of a reviewer is much the same as what is wanted by the reviewer: a modest, unemphatic originality, a meticulously circumstantial account of the novel’s merits, and a plausible (or should I say truthful?) response to them." If there are forces at work against that originality---word counts, "buzz" to be responded to, etc.---well, every writer of every stripe faces them. It's a job, after all.


Things I'm reading and writing: At USA Today, I reviewed Salman Rushdie's overladen picaresque, Quichotte. Tobi Haslett's takedown of Thomas Chatterton Williams's memoir is harsh but, to the points above, a fine piece of writing in itself. Dan Piepenbring remembers his experience auditioning for the role as Prince's coauthor, which captures the star's bubble while subtly suggesting that working with him on a book would literally be too chaotic for words. Sandra Newman explores why Toni Morrison got reduced to a bunch of self-help platitudes after her death.

Thanks for reading. Stay in touch: I'm on Twitter at @mathitak and on email at