Why Book Reviewers Are Important

Classics Fiction Lit-Crit


I forgot, in yesterday's post, to post my own response to the question many interesting folks from Richard Ford to Lawrence Ferlinghetti have been answering: why are book reviewers important?

I'd like to name the three book reviewers I have enjoyed the most, and read most thoroughly. The only problem is, two of my favorite literary critics are dead, and one of them is, well, he's not exactly young or hip. The living critic on my list is John Updike, whose three first volumes of collected essays Assorted Prose, Picked-Up Pieces and Hugging the Shore I used to read over and over, the same way I used to read Mad magazine books over and over when I was a kid. As with the Mad magazine books, I kept finding new stuff every time.

Updike writes elegantly and with a subtle wit. As an essayist -- though not as a novelist -- he is highly consistent, and his recent reviews in the New Yorker remain always a musical pleasure to read. He's also aggressively international (some of the recent writers he has helped to introduce to American readers include Orhan Pamuk of Turkey, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o of Kenya and Michel Houellebecq of France).

John Updike's approach to literature is notoriously genial and open-minded, but the same could not be said of the second critic, and the first dead critic, on my list: Thomas Stearns Eliot of St. Louis, Missouri. The Sacred Wood is a good introduction to the critical method of this severe thinker. T. S. Eliot was not only severe but also unimpeachably mystical; in this sense, his mission as a poet and his mission as a critic were unified.

Dante was T. S. Eliot's ideal writer, because Dante (like Eliot) believed devoutly in the Christian notion of a heaven on earth. Spiritual seriousness in debased modern times is the theme of Eliot's The Waste Land, and spiritual seriousness is also the measure by which T. S. Eliot judged the writers of his age. In this light, he was known to especially dislike Algernon Swinburne. Here's an example of Eliot's battling technique:

"A student of Swinburne will want to read one of the Stuart plays and dip into Tristram of Lyonesse. But almost no one, to-day, will wish to read the whole of Swinburne. It is not because Swinburne is voluminous; certain poets, equally voluminous, must be read entire. The necessity and the difficulty of a selection are due to the peculiar nature of Swinburne's contribution, which, it is hardly too much to say, is of a very different kind from that of any other poet of equal reputation."

The passage of time has proven Eliot correct on Swinburne, though Eliot's also certainly been wrong on a few other subjects (such as, say, the nature of Europe's fascist movements). But his critical voice is a marvel to behold, and I simply enjoy reading his stuff.

F. R. Leavis wrote a book called The Great Tradition which embraced and analyzed the concept of the English novel from numerous angles and reached the conclusion that there were exactly four great writers in this lineage: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. The book is sharp and unpretentious, and barely seems dated sixty years after its publication. As for Leavis's final four? The pantheon constantly shifts, but I remember The Great Tradition as a guiding light, as well as a strong example of a consistent and thorough critical method that I could learn from.

Others I've enjoyed range from Cynthia Ozick to James Wood to Dale Peck. In terms of current newspaper and magazine critics, I don't think much of either Janet Maslin or Michiko Kakutani from the New York Times, and I think I've written plenty enough elsewhere about the Book Review. Unfortunately, the Times is the only newspaper I read regularly, and I'm sorry to say I don't read many magazines, though I try (and usually fail) to keep up with the New Yorker and the Village Voice. I read at least fifty literary bloggers, and in terms of serious critical chops I say the leader of the pack remains Ms. Maud Newton, though there are so many other talented bloggers I could not even begin to name them.

If there's one word that describes what the critics I read most have in common, that word is "artistry". These critics understand that literary criticism is creative writing. A work of good criticism is no less a piece of literature than the work that is the subject of the criticism. I think all the writers above stand as proof.
6 Responses to "Why Book Reviewers Are Important"

by jriley on

Other CriticsWhat of Maurice Blanchot or Gabriel Josipovici?

by brooklyn on

I'm sorry to say I don't recall ever reading them, but I will try to!

by Stokey on

or Northrup Frye? Wikipedia has a good article on his concept of literary criticism.

by R. W. Watkins on

Guess I'm something of a Leavisite..Like you, Levi, I guess I'm a bit of a paradox--if not a hypocrite--when it comes to influences.I must admit to being influenced by Leavis, even though many see him (and Queenie) as nothing more than snooty elitists with rotten, imperialistic taste in the arts. The Leavises helped keep the lowbrow and uncultured to a minimum in the media and schools. We need more of this sort of input from thinkers today--especially in the U.S., considering how you've gone from Miles, Grace Slick and Jodie Foster to 50 Cent, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan in just the past 20 to 30 years. Hell, even the cultural move from Edie Sedgwick to Anna Nicole Smith was an example of devolution on par with a sequoia mutating into a primitive fern.We certainly need the Leavises when it comes to language and communications in formal society. For the record, I try and do my part: You won't catch me referring to children/youth as infant goats ("kids") in formal writing or public speech, or talking about how "the guys" were "dissed" by "the ho"--that's more than I can say for our current low-cultured heads of state and third-rate teachers.

by brooklyn on

R.W., I agree that F. R. Leavis stood for archaic cultural principles that I don't stand for. I hope he didn't actually harm the progress of lowbrow arts, as you say -- I prefer to think that he stood as a pillar of highbrow arts, and that the second half of the 20th century dealt his principles enough of a death blow that I don't have to worry about it now. What I do like about him, though, is that he argued his case with such confidence, that he really dug into the works of the writers he believed were important, and that he wrote memorably enough that his canon has always stuck with me. At one point I read a lot of George Eliot (who was quite good) just based on his recommendation, nothing else. If a critic can singlehandedly make a reader read a book, the critic has done a good job.

by R. W. Watkins on

I don't see where the latter half of the Twentieth Century dealt any kind of death blow to highbrow culture. On the contrary, I see the postwar years as merely exemplary of NEW high culture: visual poetry, the nonlinear novel, free-form jazz, the various rock-jazz-blues-classical hybrids, abstract expressionism, photo realism, even pop art and minimalism. The few cases of lowbrow culture rising to the top involve a lot of intelligent conceptualising behind art forms and genres previously viewed as inferior in and of themselves: EC and Marvel comic magazines, the strips of Charles Schulz and Johnny Hart/Brant Parker (both of whom died just recently), British punk rock, various cutting-edge television series, etc. Also, I believe there is such a thing as lowbrow ENTERTAINMENT on one hand, and lowbrow ART on the other. The difference is intent: lowbrow art is in some way reaching out to highbrow art or has a higher purpose (sociopolitical, socioeconomic), while lowbrow entertainment merely aims to passify the illiterate underclasses and disenfranchised. Take rock music and youth programming between '75 and '85, for example. Among the punk rockers, The Ramones, The Monks and The Misfits definitely qualify as lowbrow entertainment (still a hell of a lot of fun, mind you!), as does most American afterschool and primetime children's/youth programs (The Facts of Life was not exactly a Gunnel Linde-scripted mini-series, now, was it?). On the other hand, Talking Heads and Patti Smith were leaning out to the avant-garde, in spite of their limited instrumental talent; similarly, The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Dead Kennedys had things to say, representing the lower classes and socially disabled--as did British children's series Grange Hill (celebrating its 30th Anniversary next year) on the telly. All of these latter examples would definitely qualify as lowbrow art, rather than sheer fun for the pagus.One other thing: The major problem I have with much of today's lowbrow/mainstream 'hip-hop' (hate that cheesy-sounding term) pop culture is the fact that it was born out of a macho jock culture and/or a defeatist mentality. There is very little similarity between, say, 'Trane, Hendrix or even John Lee Hooker on one hand, and 50 Cent and his ilk on the other. The fact that caucasian fans and imitators of African-North American culture were known as 'white Negroes' in the '50s and '60s, but are known as 'wiggers' or 'white niggers' today, illustrates how black arts and entertainment culture has devolved from highbrow to lowbrow over the past 30 years.