Sunday, 4 August 2013

Food for Thought on a Summer Sunday Morning (and Music, too!)

A critic's view on critics
I'm still on cyber-holidays but as I mentioned a few weeks ago my blog is not inactive.

There's the Nicholas Lezard who reviews books for The Guardian and the Nicholas Lezard who writes the regular Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman. I love the former but don't think much of the latter.  No particular reason, though, other than at The Staggers, Nicholas can come across as a little self-indulgent sometimes. As a book reviewer for The Grauniad, however, he usually delivers critiques full of wit and humour. I hope you will enjoy his musings on his own profession. This article first appeared in The Guardian's Saturday Review and it is reproduced here without any permission.

It happened a couple of years ago, during the chitchat that sometimes takes place among backgammon players in a tournament, that my opponent, who had learned that I was a book reviewer, asked a follow-up question: what was it about my opinion that made it more worthwhile than his?

At the immediate moment of its delivery, all I could register was the insolence. Had my opponent been a carpenter, or a physicist, or a hedge-fund manager, no one would have asked him what made his decisions in his line of work any more worthwhile than anyone else's. (Although I gather that once you know how to cheat, being a hedge-fund manager is in fact a doddle.)

But the question rankles, especially when you look below the line these days and see the invective that can boil beneath what you might have thought was a well-considered or graceful piece of writing. "Everyone's a critic," ran the old line the world-weary author could deliver when faced with some obtuse criticism; now it is, for all practical purposes, true. And it does leave the professional critic wondering, during those long, dark nights when sleep eludes her or him: what is the point of me?

It's a pretty sharp question for me, if I may speak personally. I've been writing about books professionally for 28 years, and it's been my main source of income for 23. There have been periods of my life when it's been my only source of income. (And they will not, should I ever write an autobiography, be recorded in a chapter with the title "The Years of Plenty".)

But now it appears that I am wasting my time and that of other readers, for who needs the opinion of a professional critic when all one has to do is read the opinion of the pseudonymous commenter or Amazon reviewer? "Dull, grim and inpenitrable. [sic] To me it came across a heartless tale [sic], I did not find myself empathising strongly with any of the characters or caring if they succeeded of [sic] failed," said one customer review of Ulysses. Well hats off to her for at least trying; and indeed, as she says later on, the book is not for everyone.

That was a cheap shot, I know, and one could delve into history and find plenty of contemporary professional critics making far more obtuse and malicious judgments about the same book; and there are other, more thoughtful reader reviews of the same book on Amazon I could have picked to suit my purposes, only not as vividly.

It's a question of perceived authority. The whole point of leaving a comment below the line is to advertise the fact that you are not above it, or above yourself, so to speak; a cat may look at a king, and any reader with an internet connection can say what she likes in the space provided. But horses for courses, please. When I look on Tripadvisor to see whether I am going to be staying at Fawlty Towers or not, I consider most people are capable of spotting rats in the serving dishes. But I do not feel the same way about reactions to artistic endeavour. What I want when I read a book review is to find out what someone cleverer than me and better read than me thinks about whatever's being reviewed. There are plenty of such people about: it's why I read the literary pages of the daily and Sunday papers whenever I can. Except, of course, for the Sunday Times, because they gave my book a rotten review. Let it not be said that we critics are incapable of pettiness once we turn gamekeepers and find ourselves on the wrong end of an unfavourable opinion. For, as Martin Amis has pointed out many a time, and all critics have known instinctively from the moment they started out properly, the literary critic has to respond to the work in the same medium as the work being examined: language. You don't paint a review of a painting or express your opinion of a ballet in the international language of dance. But if you're going to say what's wrong with Amis's new novel then you're going to have to use the same tools he uses, and if yours are rusty or cheap or poorly made then you're not going to be in a fair fight.

Not that mine are necessarily the shiniest and sharpest in the box; but they're good enough to keep me in work, touch wood, for all that critics these days feel they're the canaries in the cultural coal-mine (although I think the first canaries started littering the floors of their cages when it became common practice to award stars out of five; the words beneath this little row became reduced to little more than the justification for the number given. Publications that resist this trend should be given some kind of award, really). The best critics are the ones who spot or coin the telling phrase, who have done enough research to know when writers are plagiarising either themselves or someone else (and what the difference is between a rip-off and a knowing reference), or who have reading and frame of vision wide enough to compare like with like, intention with intention, across years or cultures if necessary, and who can either honourably salute or insert the stiletto as appropriate. Most importantly, they should be open to surprise or wonder in the face of the unexpected or new. Sadly, one suspects that someone who thinks "inpenitrable" is a word is not going to have these abilities in any abundance. Which is perhaps unfair, because the question of Ulysses's possible heartlessness that my mocked correspondent raises is one that is proper to raise (refutable, but still proper).

And so I attend, reluctantly, to the question of elitism, which I suspect will be a word cropping up beneath the online version of this article. (Those reading the newspaper version will have to content themselves with writing in ink after the final full stop.) It's what my backgammon opponent was basically accusing me of; but what he meant, I'm pretty sure, unless of course he was just simply being rude, was, "Why don't I get paid to review books, too?" To which the answer is: why don't you have a go? Only start like most do, by sending your stuff straight to the literary editors, instead of fighting for space beneath the line. While we still have literary editors.

Next Post: "Food for Thought on a Summer Sunday Morning (and Music, too!)" to be published on 11th August at 10am (GMT)


34 comments:

  1. The comment that produced this piece of introspection came in a backgammon tournament... I think his opponent just got inside his head and gained a stark advantage.

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  2. Buenos días. Espero que tengas una buena semana.

    Saludos

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  3. That's a brilliant first comment, sage. Indeed, I think it was a ruse by his opponent. Nicholas fell in the trap! :-)

    Que tengas una buena semana tu tambien, Maria.

    Greetings from London.

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  4. really cool thoughts in this.. i really appreciate the work that book reviewers do (if they're good) some can come across very "i have eaten all the wisdom in the world with spoons" but a good and honest review written by someone with experience is really helpful

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  5. everyone is a critic but everyone is a writer as well...and in their own minds at least good enough to be published...then again most will never let their fragile egos take that step and see what others that dont care for them think of their work....it can def be humbling...smiles.

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  6. Reviews are a dime a dozen though, as fake ones abound at every show. Good honest ones are great though. I think his head got rocked at the backgammon show.

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  7. I think the job of the literary critic is to encourage readers to read. NL in the Guardian is a real gent - I always find myself wanting to read his "choice" (but rarely get round to it).

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  8. Love this! I agree wholeheartedly and have often delved into the argument about the role of critics. The web has done great things with opening the media up but it has also done a disservice to those of us that make literary livings. Having an opinion does not make you a critic, you must do research and be well informed. Love the music choice too!

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  9. A post which has me thinking. I do read reviews, but with a large grain of salt. How much credence I give them depends on the reviewer. And, at the end of the day I make my own decisions - for good or for bad.

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  10. I am always interested in the reviews I read, but like to make my own mind up on things generally. This makes for a great early morning read and the music was wonderful. Thank you!

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  11. I often look at Amazon reviews. I do put more stock in the reviews of well known critics, but if a book has a preponderance of poor 'amateur reviews' it would make me think twice as well. And then there are mean-spirited people who just like to spew negativity...one has to watch out for that as well.

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  12. I think critics are needed, not for their egos, but for writers and creators. I love a good critic, now what is my standard, is it that I agree with the critic or that he agrees with me?

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  13. Hope you're having a great cyber holiday. I just took a blog break myself and I'm glad I did. But I missed blogging too. LOL

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  14. I think that I tend to assume that a book critic has some qualifications in order to have the job they do. But if a book has bad reviews and I want to read it, the review doesn't deter me. Great food for thought here.

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  15. ouch, you have a difficult work. :)

    I´m glad I´m doing photography. Thanks for stopping by. :)

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  16. This is an interesting article. I am afraid I do feel that thoughtfully written and well crafted pieces are starting to feel almost obsolete.

    I used to review books, and although I no longer do it, the occasional book still comes tumbling through the letter box. One which arrived a few weeks ago was so badly written that I felt deserves some sort of a prize. It read like a transcript of teenagers' overheard conversations on the bus, and since the writer couldn't trust her readers to realise that the characters were actually having a conversation, almost every remark was followed by "he said" or "she grinned" .. or occasionaly "she smiled" or "he laughed." And the punctuation! '"How silly!" She grinned, "I could'nt do that"

    This hideous creation came from a reputable publisher and had admiring tributes plastered all over its cover.

    Well, now I've told you about it I'm off to stick my head inside a bell tolling for the death of literature! :)

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  17. Speaking as someone who has reviewed books, films, plays, rock albums, concerts and a few other things in a professional setting (i.e., being paid for it as a journalist), not to mention judged photography and news/editorial writing competitions, this is my answer:

    I did it for myself. I wrote these reviews, these critiques, to and for myself because I like to express myself about the world around me. If someone else read what I had written, so much the better. And, if what I had written actually served some purpose, better still.

    Eventually, I moved on to other "challenges." It baffles me how anyone could do it for nearly three decades. Good grief, that is a lifetime for many.

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  18. Have A Happy Cyber-Holiday! Thanks For Your Comment Today.I will put a link back here on my blog.Best Wishes,Tony

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  19. Yes...I guess we need the critics...well, the positive ones that is! Haha:D
    I LOVE that piece of music! Thank you so much:)

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  20. Thank you for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment. It's my pleasure to return the favor.

    I've enjoyed looking through some of your posts, and will now have to sign on as your newest groupie. Nice to meet you.

    As for critics, so far only those readers with the most brilliant minds and impeccably good taste have reviewed my book on Amazon. Fools with no appreciation for a good book haven't as yet deemed it pure drivel. (HA!)

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  21. I think this critic defends his profession well. Everyone does have an opinion, but an educated opinion has true value. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

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  22. And educated opinion is always an interesting thing but I'm still not buying his argument. Even 'an educated opinion' implies that others are not educated. How does he know that? And anonymous reviews are taken just as seriously/not seriously as any other review - if they sound sensible then people listen and if they don't sound sensible then people don't listen. It's quite simple.

    I'm only interested in reading reviews from people I respect. They might be people I know or writers I know who are great at what they do. That's when a review gets interesting for me.

    Jai

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  23. i guess critics are needed.
    i, personally, would welcome constructive criticism.

    great piece of music! thank you.

    have a great day, my friend!:))
    enjoy your blog break!

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  24. As a book blogger, I appreciate professional reviews and amateur ones. Getting paid doesn't make your opinion more worthy but reviewing is an art that takes experience to master. A good reviewer gives more than a personal reaction; he/she offers analysis that allows readers to decide if the book would be a good match.

    Every weekend I eagerly await the New York Times Book section. It would be a great loss to both readers and mid list authors if we were to lose professional reviewers.

    Thanks for sharing this article on your vacation!

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  25. Entertaining... and close to the bone, since I do write book reviews on my secondary blog (and food reviews on my first, which is also something commonly lambasted by the traditional critics). Personally, I find it useful to have a mix of professional criticism and consumer opinion in my life. Sure, for Ulysses I'd probably prefer to read a commentary rather than an Amazon review ;) But most of the time I read for pure entertainment, and for that, I only need to know if it's an enjoyable ride.

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  26. I never read reviews. I don't need Nigel Nobody from the Netherlands to go into a diatribe about what he thought about a certain book. I can work it out for myself thanks very much.

    Interesting post :)

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  27. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  28. You have no obligation to remedy and apparent life-long ignorance in your brief time with the rude fellow.

    "Just because" might have batted the shuttlecock back over the net...rattling your interlocutor and winning you the match :)


    ALOHA from Honolulu
    Comfort Spiral
    ~ > < } } ( ° > <3

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  29. Many thanks for your kind comments. I have been away from my keyboard for a few days but kept reading your lovely and thoughtful feedback.

    I would say that critics still play a very important role as long as they can show knowledge, experience and open-mindedness in the subject they master. Case in point is Judith Mackrell, The Guardian's dance critic and reviewer. I read her articles even when I haven't been to or will not go to the show she has reviewed. That's how good she is. Ditto with Philip French in The Observer. My favourite reviewer and critic is Robin Denselow who writes about the so-called "world music" (I hate that term!). His columns are a pleasure to read.

    Have a great weekend.

    Greetings from London.

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  30. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion of course, aren't we all critics.. some are just louder than others...
    Intersting thoughts there..

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  31. Some interesting comments to your excellent article. I don't mind constructive criticism but some reviewers seem only to like seeing what they say in print, and have you noticed how little some of them know about the English language?

    Thank you for visiting my blog. It is nice to meet you.

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  32. Dear Un Cubano en Londres, thank you for your comment on my latest post. Thanks to that I have discovered your blog with, among the many interesting matters, excellent music, Kimba in particular.
    I read you like Shakespeare's sonnets, well it's one of the subjects I deal with more gladly at school where I teach.
    I will soon post the only two sonnets I have written.
    Best wishes,
    Davide Trame ( Tommaso )

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  33. I've not seen the guy's book reviews so a bit hard to comment. But I think we really have book reviewers because we are busy and it is a way of getting word of mouth out re a book, and the reviewer is given credibility (i) because he or she has presumably read a lot and (ii) because if we follow that person's reviews we understand whether our taste coincides. (Increasingly, I think people rely on online informal reviews, but of course, these are so subjective - and unless you follow that reviewer - what do you know? )

    IThe elitism part is annoying - especially if a reviewer seems to hold themselves above the author - you know--but at the same time, I am sure they are more up to date than I am. AT this point, I feel like all of these professions are dying out, and honestly there was real expertise there. Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful article. k.

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