I was only able to attend one panel at this year’s PEN World Voices Literary Festival and so, based on how much I enjoyed last year’s panel on Reviewing Translations, I chose The Critic’s Global Voice. The description and the list of panelists (Jean-Euphèle Milcé from Haiti, Ursula Krechel from Germany, Mikhail Shishkin from Russia) both seemed promising. The panel was moderated by an editor at BookForum.
The style, attitude, and role of book criticism differs from country to country. This panel will explore how reviewers and book reviews shape-shift across borders, even as each country’s literary culture forms its own responses to political, technological, and aesthetic changes.
My expectation was that the discussion would touch on topics such as: book reviews and criticism in a global society; the influence of the internet and digital publishing on how books are reviewed and where; and the cultural differences in literary criticism traditions between countries. Perhaps this was a little ambitious, but based on that description above I didn’t think so.
What happened instead was a series of pointed questions that appeared designed to prompt the panelists to expound on the importance of book critics to literature as a whole and to legitimize the book review as a literary form in its own right. No one seemed to have explained this agenda to the panelists and for the most part they refused to play. Not entirely surprising – the relationship between critics and authors is always a bit dodgy. It’s the rare artist, or person for that matter, who embraces criticism; particularly negative. If that was the conversation the moderator wanted to have it might have made sense to include an actual critic or two on the panel.
The impression I was left with was that literary criticism is of nominal importance in Europe. But I know that’s not the case… so I’m not sure what the audience was supposed to take-away. There were a few moments when the conversation could have taken a more informative turn. Particularly a comment made by the Haitian author Jean-Euphèle Milcé (whose book I bought immediately after the panel) regarding how Haitian authors are not critiqued as simply Haitian authors, but have their works held up against the entire French literary tradition. And when asked about the state of book criticism in Russia, Mikhail Shishkin engaged in an elegant metaphor (which my paraphrasing will not do justice to) – that a literary Cold War was still happening in Russia. That his book sits between two sets of barricades. Behind the barricade to the right are the Nationalists, who will not like his book. To the left are the more liberal reviewers, those who see Russia as a part of a larger, European community and who will write positively about his book. Shishkin told us that he does not need to read his reviews in Russia because he knows without exception behind which barricade each critic stands. Whereas with non-Russian critics he never knows what they will say in advance.
Both these points could have been expanded into a larger discussion on the difference between how a book is perceived in and outside of an author’s home country. Different cultural contexts must be applied – and are these contexts necessarily fair, or even useful? And (to throw in a curveball) is this why so many authors seem to be living as expatriates these days? in part to escape cultural categorization? But that didn’t happen.
I also found it frustrating that very little attention (with the exception of an audience question at the end) was given to the changing landscape of book criticism. Specifically digital publishing and the internet. Ebooks make it easier for small publishers to launch. Readers from around the world can communicated in the comments sections of reviews, articles and blogs regardless of where they are physically located. On Twitter and the various blogs I follow, I learn about books and authors that may not have even found a U.S. publisher yet. Book bloggers – like other kinds of bloggers – cross international borders and form global communities all the time.
This frustration is not a new one. I felt it with last year’s panel on Reviewing Translations. In my experience the professional book critic establishment tends to lump bloggers with Amazon reviewers, and so whenever there is a conversation on “serious” reviewing they (often quite literally) ignore us. In turn, bloggers dismiss the establishment as “gate-keepers”, literary elitists or as Luddites unable (or just unwilling) to come to terms with the new age in which we all live.
Neither point of view is particularly productive.
I see comments from younger bloggers on Twitter sometimes about how only their older relatives recommend things they’ve read in the NY Times… which always makes me laugh. Inevitably we all become that older relative. I had no interest in current events, politics or world events when I was young. (I did always read the lit reviews – The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and the infrequent Village Voice Literary Supplement). But there does come a time when you realize you not only don’t know everything, you never will. And you feel the need for a dialogue that encompasses more than an exchange between friends, because you’ve been having those exchanges for so long with those same friends that it’s necessary to either insert some fresh content or stop having them. There is still a place for the “old guard” in today’s world – if only to acknowledge the fact that we all eventually join that old guard whether we want to or not.
There is still a place for traditional book criticism and reviews. The literary community would be the lesser if outlets like The NYRB, BookForum and the Times Literary Supplement vanished completely.
I also see comments by bloggers that the conversation about Book Blogger vs. Book Critics is 10-years old and no longer relevant. True. The conversation that has happened within the separate camps has become irrelevant in light of the current state of affairs. Bloggers have carved out a niche for themselves, separate but very similar to the niche inhabited by book critics. The print outlets that were once the critic’s domain have declined in numbers and popularity. But the rise in digital and self publishing, and the histrionic (and sometimes ridiculous) hand-wringing over the decline of book sales and literature in general effects us all. What has been lost in all this noise (and, frankly, insecurity) is that we are - book critics and bloggers – on the same team.
I believe it was the same audience member who asked the question I referred to earlier, on digital publishing and the changing literary climate, who also made an important observation regarding the massive volume of literature that is now available and the need to help readers sort through it all. It would be too easy to look at that question and dismiss it as elitist or, even worse, a call for a gate-keeper. I see it differently. I never try to tell my readers what they shouldn’t read. I’m not even, necessarily, telling them what they should read. I seldom care all that much about what other people read, period. What I am trying to do is introduce readers to books – books they may not hear about otherwise – and then explain why I find these books interesting (or not). And, by inference, what I think they will find interesting in them (or not). These are books – often by small publishers and in my case almost always in translation – that are often lost in the literary deluge that is currently upon us.
Don’t book critics have the same goal – to help readers discover specific books and (hopefully) appreciate them? Perhaps the conversation between bloggers and critics should start there.
Towards the end of the panel Ursula Krechel used the terms “democratization” of reviewing and the “professional reader” – which seemed to have a negative implication. Because book blogs – or even online book review outlets like The Millions, The Huffington Post, BookSlut – were never specifically mentioned I had to wonder who she was referring to. Every blogger I know cares about the quality and content of their reviews. Many spend hours, if not days, obsessing and tweaking their posts. We love reading about books, but we also love writing about them. Perhaps we judge them by a slightly different criteria than the traditional literary critic, but we do employ standards. Bloggers build individual followings, something most book critics don’t have. I follow several bloggers, but very seldom do I (an acknowledged book review addict) look for specific reviewers when I open a paper or click on a review online. I bet those traditional critics (and the outlets that employ them) would love to change that.
As for what book critics have to teach bloggers – they do have a couple hundred years tradition on their side. If the literary criticism world must continue to change – and, I’m sorry, it must – what form do they want to see that change take in the future? If there is a literary standard they feel bloggers are not meeting – open a dialogue that is not dismissive or condescending. Why not partner up with or mentor specific bloggers with the same vision (I have heard of this happening, but infrequently). Or even invite bloggers and book critics to sit on the same panel. At this point, it’s a zero-sum game we’re all playing here. We can just as quickly turn that into a positive as a negative.
(Speaking of a global community – I know you’re out there – the Comments are open!)