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Not everybody's a critic

Sure, anyone with a blog can express an opinion about a book. But real criticism is so much more.

May 20, 2007|Richard Schickel | RICHARD SCHICKEL is a film critic for Time magazine and a frequent book reviewer for The Times. His most recent book is "Elia Kazan: A Biography."

THE MOST grating words I've read in a newspaper recently were in a New York Times report on the shrinkage of book reviewing in many of the nation's leading newspapers.

The piece suggested that this might not be an entirely bad thing. Into the breach, it argued, will charge the bloggers, one of whom, a former quality-control manager for a car parts maker, last year wrote 95 book reviews for his website.

"Some publishers and literary bloggers," the article said, viewed this development contentedly, "as an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books."

Anyone? Did I read that right?

Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism -- and its humble cousin, reviewing -- is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities.

Opinion -- thumbs up, thumbs down -- is the least important aspect of reviewing. Very often, in the best reviews, opinion is conveyed without a judgmental word being spoken, because the review's highest business is to initiate intelligent dialogue about the work in question, beginning a discussion that, in some cases, will persist down the years, even down the centuries.

I know the objections to this argument: Most reviewing, whether written for print or the blogosphere, is hack work, done on the fly for short money. Anyone who has written a book has had the experience. Your publisher kindly forwards the clippings, and you are appalled by the sheer uselessness of their spray-painted opinions. Looked at this way, you could say that book reviewing is already democratic enough, thanks much. It's more than ready for the guy from car parts.

But instead, let's think about what reviewing ought to be. For example, French critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, a name not much bruited in the blogosphere, I'll warrant. In the middle of the 19th century, his reviews appeared every Monday for 28 years. He was a humane, tolerant and relentlessly curious man who once summarized his method in two words: "Just characterization."

That "just" did not mean "merely." It meant doing justice to the work at hand and to the culture in which it appeared. Another way of putting that is that he wrote with a blogger's alacrity but with a thoughtful critic's sense of responsibility to, yes, "the great tradition" the author aspired to join.

Think also of Edmund Wilson, the best book reviewer this country ever had -- alert to the possibilities, both moral and aesthetic, of the "classics and commercial" (to invoke the title of one of his collections) that passed before him. His method was usually rather reportorial -- generally he let his opinions emerge indirectly, not as fiats but as muted implications of the way he read (and quoted) the work at hand. He was not a showy, or even particularly quotable, critic. But the clarity of his prose remains exemplary.

Finally, there was George Orwell, scrambling to make a living by writing reviews for London's intellectual press for maybe $20 or $30 a piece. He was more pointedly political than Wilson, and more attuned, perhaps, to the vagaries of trash culture, but his defense of honest vernacular prose in the face of bureaucratic (and totalitarian) obfuscation remains a critical beacon.

All of these men wrote ceaselessly, against deadlines and under economic pressure, without succumbing to the temptation of merely popping off or showing off. None of these men affected the supercilious high Mandarin manner of, say, George Jean Nathan -- as annoying in its way as hairy-chested populism is in its.

And all three wrote for intelligent readers who emerged from their reviews grateful to know more than they did when they started to read, grateful for their encounter with a serious and, indeed, superior, mind. We do not -- maybe I ought to make that "should not" -- read to confirm our own prejudices and stupidity.

I don't think it's impossible for bloggers to write intelligent reviews. I do think, however, that a simple "love" of reading (or movie-going or whatever) is an insufficient qualification for the job. That way often leads to cultishness (see the currently inflated reputations of Philip K. Dick or Cornell Woolrich, both easy reads for lazy, word-addicted minds).

And we have to find in the work of reviewers something more than idle opinion-mongering. We need to see something other than flash, egotism and self-importance. We need to see their credentials. And they need to prove, not merely assert, their right to an opinion.

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