One of the books I tried and failed to read while I was away from blogging was How to Read Like A Professor by Thomas C. Foster. The magnificent Stefanie tried too, and didn’t get along with it either, so it’s not just me. I’ll return to the book itself another time, as some of the topics that Foster singles out for attention – eating meals, illness, irony and the notion of parabolic meaning, generally – are things I’d like to have a shot at discussing myself. But before I go there, the book made me think about the way that reading is becoming increasingly polarized between journalistic ways of approaching a book and literary critical ways of reading a book, with the journalistic route becoming ever more popular. I was curious to see whether I could put my finger on the main differences between them, and this is what I came up with:
A journalistic review:
Is based fundamentally in questions of value judgment, ie, whether the reader liked or disliked the book. Its main aim is to entertain.
Embodies a stance that is justificatory – finding reasons and examples to back up the personal response.
Is interested in technical aspects of the story only to the extent of whether they ‘work’, which is to say, provide the reader with the experience s/he hoped for before s/he ever opened the book.
Places all the power with the reader – the reader is right and may say what he or she chooses, even to the point of harsh or biting criticism, fun poking or insult throwing. This can often be funny and entertaining and makes the reader look smart. (But one might also wonder whether such remarks should only be allowed if the reader has actually tried to write a book or been on the receiving end of similar criticism.)
Pays most attention to the overall sweep of the narrative and is interested in detail only to the extent it is either in conflict with the reader’s sense of the story, or a particularly felicitous example of it.
Is tough on political correctness and requires the book to be in line with current thinking.
Is designed with commercial purposes in mind; ie, persuading or dissuading other readers to buy the book.
Is relatively easy to do, thus democratic to all and pleasurable to the reader who wishes to share experiences.
A literary critical review:
Is based fundamentally in thematic analysis, ie, explores the concerns and contents of the story to understand better why it is being told and what it has to say about wider philosophical, moral or existential questions. Its main aim is to be accurate and insightful.
Embodies a stance that is analytical – deducing information from the story that would be of general interest.
Is concerned with the technical aspects of the story in order to promote the understanding of what stories do, how they affect us and how they achieve those effects.
Places the power with the story itself – suppressing the notion of personal likes and dislikes as far as possible, bracketing off authorial intent, and informed by the history of literary criticism with its particular methods of approaching a text. This can make it dry and a bit dull at times.
Pays significant attention to detail, with regard to how it affects or implies a larger issue or question beyond the story. Particular interest in the more complicated kinds of literary meaning – symbols, pattern formation, paradox.
Is interested in the specific context in which the book was written in order to understand the history and ideology that lie behind it.
Is designed with intellectual purposes in mind – ie, understanding the role that stories play in our lives, or figuring out how language works its spells or attending to political/cultural
Requires a bit of thought to do, and also the removal of all markers of personal taste. This can make it more painful for the literary critical reader, but s/he gets a lot more out of the story.
And in comparison…?
Well, I really did try to be unbiased, but I confess to being naturally inclined towards the literary critical school. Sure, such analyses can have their tedious moments, but the point of a good piece of criticism is to open a book up, to show its richness and depth, its complexities. What doesn’t work personally for the reader isn’t then a reason to berate an author, but an opportunity to challenge our own expectations and prejudices, or to think about the issues the book raises, or the way that stories become effective. I’m as fond as the next reader of the occasional waspish review, but it always seems to me that anyone can become a murderer, and hack a book to pieces, whereas it takes the skills of a surgeon to stitch it back together again in more meaningful ways. Opinion-based reviews can have troublesome consequences; we’ve all loved books and recommended them, only to see them dismissed negatively elsewhere, and that can be strangely upsetting. Also, too much opinion leads to the formation of ghettos, and the unhelpful judgement that people should or should not read certain types of narrative.
Where I do think literary criticism loses its way is in its tendency in the past forty years or so to exclude the general reader by embracing the most convoluted and mind-numbing style. I don’t see any reason why you can’t write from an analytic perspective and do so entertainingly. And there are plenty of examples of opinionated literary critics, although I don’t call that a good example of literary criticism, more a kind of intellectual propaganda. In fact, in my ideal fantasy book world, all criticism exists at a happy mid-point between these two schools, erasing the vitriol and arrogance of the journalistic approach and the erudite obscurity of academia.
But then I AM a partisan academic, and maybe other people disagree? I will confess that over the years I have read many, many books without once giving a thought to whether I liked them or not, because I was so focused on what they were doing. Maybe the most important criteria to judge a book by is whether or not it offers a pleasing experience to a contemporary audience? Well, I’m very interested to know what gives you most pleasure to read about, when you read about books. What kind of critical appreciation leaves you most satisfied?
Edited To Add – sorry folks, out of the habit of blogging and so forgot to mention certain things. Having read Eva’s comment, I should also say I didn’t write this as any kind of criticism of anyone’s blogging style! I was thinking in terms of two dominant strands of criticism that do interact – and I say myself I favour criticism that comes down somewhere the middle. They’re more like the pedals on a piano – ways to enhance a piece of music and give it different kinds of colour. The question is more, what kind of approach to books gives you the most satisfaction to read about? What do you want to get out of your reading? Are you satisfied with the way newspapers talk about books? Or why wouldn’t you pick up a book of academic criticism?