National Book Critics Circle: The Craft of Criticism

Over the last few months I’ve been working on a series of Q&A’s for The National Book Critics Circle website called The Craft of Criticism. Fran Bigman and I ask book critics and review editors for their thoughts on contemporary criticism. What I really enjoyed about these interviews was that – despite being limited to NBCC members – we were able to choose subjects who come to book reviewing and criticism from a variety of styles and backgrounds. So I got to speak with Donna Seaman, who is the Adult Books Editor for Booklist, a publication that specializes in short, succinct reviews (usually under 250 words). And Carlos Lozada, the Nonfiction Book Critic for The Washington Post — a job I do not envy him at this particular juncture of time. I also spoke with Michelle Dean, who started out reviewing online EVERYWHERE and recently wrote the book Sharp: The Women Who Made An Art of Having An Opinion. And Yahdon Israel, — a power player in the NYC literary scene, exploring the intersection between fashion and literature (which is an incredibly reductive description, so if you aren’t already familiar with Yahdon you really should read the interview and then check out everything he’s doing online and on social media. #literaryswag). And, one of my favorites, Ilana Masad, who approaches the books she reviews as parts of a bigger and more complicated cultural conversation.

We’re on hiatus for a little bit, but for those who want to catch up I’ve listed the interviews below, with links to each.

Book Criticism: The Great Migration?

I’ve been thinking about book reviews and criticism. Back in May I was in the audience for a panel held during Book Expo of America (BEA) called The Crisis In Reviewing, Disappearing Space and Disappearing Pay.  Whenever a panel is listed at a conference or festival I’m attending on this general topic I always make an effort to sit in… because I love books, I love book criticism and I love panels. But, as a whole, these tend to be rather depressing affairs which focus on the past and bemoan the present.

Regardless of the name they almost always touch upon the same key points:

  • The newspapers which traditionally ran book reviews no longer have book sections due to lack of public interest, advertising, etc.
  • Many of the book review outlets which still exist, particularly those that exist online, do not pay. Or pay very little.
  • The general reading public sees book critics and reviewers as gatekeepers – an over-intellectual (and possibly out-of-touch) elite.
  • Reader reviews on Amazon, Goodreads and on blogs (though blogging, itself, is considered in decline) have replaced/assumed the role of traditional book reviews.

Personally, I think time would be better spent looking towards the future.  And with that in mind Fran Bigman and I have started a series on the National Book Critics Circle website called The Craft of Criticism. Because I believe that book criticism is a very niche area of interest, one I like to equate to people who buy/collect vinyl records. There is still a demand, still an interest, but perhaps not as large an audience as – say – 20 years ago. And, yes, the internet changed everything. As did streaming. But I don’t believe that the internet was an extinction level event for readers and reviewers. And if I am correct about that, then the question we need to be asking (and the more exciting topic of conversation) is how will the form adapt and evolve going forward?

We already have some of the answers. Community building is happening online at sites like Goodreads, Litsy, Book Riot and The Washington Post’s Book Party. And offline, in the form of book clubs, author readings and festivals. Libraries and independent bookstores still play a huge role. In-depth criticism and reviews, formerly the purview of newspapers, still exists at online magazines like 3:AM Magazine, Asymptote, Necessary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and The Millions. There are also more than a few print journals and sections that have survived (and thrived) in this brave new world – The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, The Paris Review, Tin House, The Sewanee Review, Book Forum, TLS, A Public Space, The LA Times Book Review and The Wall Street Journal book section. I want to stress that these are incomplete lists. And I haven’t even mentioned book blogs, vlogs, podcasts and Instagram (#bookstagram) – all fascinating and full of possibilities for the future and a subject for another post.

Good book criticism today isn’t a pronouncement, but the opening line of a conversation. The goal remains to place literature in a cultural context, but the way of doing that has changed drastically. There are enormous benefits to this. The rise of the book community (versus the academic community) as a critical force has occurred in tandem with demands for diversity in adult and children’s fiction. Self-published romance novels on Amazon have shown that there is a market for romance novels featuring characters of color, LGBTQ romance and polyamorous relationships. Ask yourself, would the VIDA count and the demand for gender parity have been possible without the connective tissue of the internet? And I sincerely believe that the increased attention to translated literature is due to, not the traditional media outlets but, the dedication of a relatively small group of independent publishers and bloggers. One of the most interesting new literary prizes launched this year – The Staunch Prize for thrillers written and plotted without any physical violence against women – and I don’t think it would have been possible if the guards were still fixedly positioned on either side of the gates (in fact, the Guardian article and follow-up articles announcing the prize contain far more negative responses than positive from critics and authors).

As a rule, it is no longer realistic to make enough money to live on by reviewing books (of course there are always exceptions to the rule), but that is not the same thing as the end of book criticism. Rather than the extinction level event I mentioned earlier, I like to think that we are in the midst of a great migration.

What do you think? I’d love to know.