How To Read?

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?


29 thoughts on “How To Read?

  1. Well, I disagree with this because of the black-and-white dichotomy. 😉 I feel like I use aspects of both styles in my *reading*, although I don’t know if that comes across in my blogging.

    One of the difficulties I find in blogging about fiction is that I don’t want to give away too much of the story, which means I can’t go into great detail about it. I understand that academics look down on the whole concept of ‘spoilers,’ but as someone who reads for the joy of it, I prefer to go into a book with as few expectations as possible, including knowledge of the plot. So I give my blog readers the same courtesy, even though it means I can’t get into as much depth as I’d like to.

  2. Eva – it’s true that I sometimes get really frustrated because I can’t talk about the ending. I don’t think to ‘look down on’ spoilers is quite the motivation behind the academic approach here. Only that it’s hard to talk about what a book’s trying to do without mentioning the ending at all, because that’s where authors generally have to come down one way or another on the issues they’ve been playing with. So I agree that’s a tricky one, and I also agree that criticism can draw usefully on both approaches. 🙂

  3. Personally, even though just an amateur reader (albeit an academic in a different field), I get way, way more out of reviews that tend to the literary critics side (of course still somewhere in the middle, hard core academic literary criticism I would probably not be able to understand 😉 ).

    I love reading a large number of book blogs and get excellent reading suggestions out of these and I appreciate immensely the effort all of you invest into putting your reviews out there (I am the walking writer’s block so I could never have a blog myself, plus I feel I know too little about literature to write anything useful anyway).

    Reviews that go beyond a summary of what is in a book and an impression whether the reviewer liked the book or not resonate more with me. The more literary approach gives me a way to learn something about how a book can be read and understood, it gives me more to think about. Come to think of it, I actually prefer reading reviews of books I have read myself already, they open new ways of thinking about what I have read. If I do not know the book, I do not mind spoilers at all — I am a notorious looking-up-the contents-of-a-book-beforehand or peeking-into-the-last-chapter reader. I guess the reason for this is that I can take up the book (especially the more hidden stuff) much better if I am not driven by the wish to know how the plot evolves. So, if I read a review that contains spoilers but at the same time gives me some hints about what to pay attention to and how one could possibly read certain things, I do not mind the spoilers at all.

  4. I think I am somewhere in the middle, too, and maybe leaning towards liking a more analytical review (though am like Eva in not wanting to know too much before reading a book–after is fine, though, then I don’t mind spoilers at all obviously). Now whether I can do that myself is another thing altogether as I find writing about books difficult–I struggle with what to write or how to write about something. Analyzing books is a challenge so I’m not sure that I can write those sorts of reviews (I’m always a little uncertain that I’m reading a book ‘right’ and if it is a classic try to always read a little criticism on the side to get a little perspective), but I do like reading them. I also prefer to know what works with a book/story. I don’t love every book I read, but I can generally find something about it that I like, that I think an author did well. And you are right about opinion based reviews–on more than one occasion I’ve loved something and had someone else pick it up to read and then they really disliked it. It can be somewhat disheartening, so it’s a fine line it seems. Interesting post, Litlove–lots to think about!

  5. I think I’d like something in the midpoint too, although looking at the points under the different catagories I think I write in a more journalistic way (though I’d like to integrate a larger element of literary criticism).

    I agree that the hardest thing is splitting away all markers of personal taste to dig deeper into what the book does. And it’s very hard to avoid talking about the comparisons between ideological approaches and judging a book on that basis. I actually like being able to do that when I blog, but I don’t necessarily want to hear someone make a value judgement of the book’s worth because it doesn’t match modern political correctness (especially if it was written some time ago). I like to see that kind of discrepancy laid out and to hear if a reviewer doesn’t agree with it, but I don’t really want the book condemned because it’s morals are off. Tricky, because at the same time I do (I am thirsty for critical mauling obviously).

    I’m not satisfied with how newspapers write about books in general, but for different reasons than the way they approach criticism (too much recapping of plot, giving away endings and in the case of non-fiction, writing about the subject matter instead of the approach of the book to the subject matter). I once read a ‘review’ which was four paragraphs of the reviewer’s sort of related personal anecdote, one paragraph judgement of the book -grr, write about the book please.

  6. I looked at this book in preparation for Sympathetic Character Week, and found it unhelpful. Of course, I was looking for something sepcific that did not happen to be there. It should have been, though!

    The web has been good for the middle you recommend. The Little Professor, D. G. Myers, Rohan Maitzen – you! – do fine jobs of writing analytically with personality.

    That’s a list of profs, but I could pick amateurs, too. I doubt bibliographing nicole ever spoiled a book for anyone.

    Your dichotomy, which I know is a simplification, seems pretty spot on. My greatest frustration with the first type is the lack of interest in detail. No plot description will ever convince me to read a book, but the well-chosen detail, the evidence of a writer who sees something original, that’ll do it.

  7. I guess I shouldn’t have generalised about all academics…I’ve seen a couple discussions of spoilers within the book blogging community that definitely had a condescending tone towards those who prefer to avoid them. 😉

    And I certainly didn’t think you were criticising blogging styles: sorry if I gave that impression!

    I don’t read newspaper reviews, but as far as book blogs I prefer the ones that jump over detailed plot stuff to their personal reaction to certain details, if that makes sense. So perhaps the themes of a novel really stood out to the blogger, and she focuses on those and what they made her think about, etc.

    I’ve never taken a post-high school literature course, and I don’t tend to seek out academic writing about literature so I don’t have any experience with non-blogging lit criticism! But I will say that How to Read Like a Professor annoyed me in large part because of its obsesssion with symbolism. When I read certain authors (Byatt and Rushdie spring to mind), I certainly see a web of symbols in their literature, but I don’t like to force it the way my English teachers in high school made me. 😉

    • Eva, I hate to break this to you, but your Russian literature courses were post-high school literature courses. You’ve translated Lermontov, right? That’s some impressively careful study of literature.

      Was I one of those condescending bloggers? A Watched Plot Never Spoils!

      • I only took Russian literature classes when I was studying abroad in Russia, so it was as much a language class as a lit one! But I’ll grant you it was a lit class none the less; good catch. 🙂

        I don’t think someone’s condescending just because they don’t mind spoilers (which if I recall was the gist of your post?), I just remember some implications that those who DO mind spoilers are missing The Point of Literature. 😉

  8. Ah Litlove, you have hit the proverbial nail on the head here. I much prefer to read treatments of books that fall in the middle or are further along into the academic critcism side of the continum. Reading a plot synposis and good or bad judgment is unsatisfying to me. Unfortunately when it comes to writing about books I fear I slide further towards the journalistic than I care to admit and I know it happens out of being too busy and/ or too lazy to do the harder work of the more middle kind of criticism.

    I think when I talk about wanting to be a better reader it means finding a middle reading ground as well; to somehow find a way to allow myself the fun of reading for pleasure while at the same time being able to step back and look at what is going on in the book. I have yet to be able to achieve it and I wonder if it is even possible? If you have managed to do it you must reveal your techniques. Perhpas a blog post or two on how to read like Litlove? I’m sure it would be much more successful than that How to Read Like a Professor book neither of us liked 🙂

  9. Chris – I am so with you in prefering to read reviews of books I’ve already read. I love them – and really appreciate the way they can give me another perspective on what I’m reading. I will also – wantonly, shamefully – read the ending when I’m only halfway through to stop myself rushing towards the end! I think blogging is interesting because we book readers have all these options for writing about books. There are no rules, we can do anything, and that’s so liberating and yet a bit scary too. What’s the best way to go about discussing a book we’ve loved, or loathed, or felt just puzzled by? I do like to dig about in books, mostly because it’s habit and what’s familiar, and yet I will often fall back on a lazy opinion too, at times! But I honestly think that any kind of literary criticism ought to be accessible to any kind of reader, and if it isn’t, well, then it’s the criticism at fault.

    Danielle – Isn’t it difficult to know how best to write about books? When I first started this blog, I had no concerns about it at all, I just went for it by instinct. But somehow over the years, I feel my perspective has changed, and trying to find the right approach is proving very tricky just lately. It’s nice to be able to discuss it with blogging friends and hear what works and doesn’t work for them. I tell myself I don’t mind at all if people don’t like the books I like, and you know what? That’s not true at all. I find I DO mind! But then does that mean I’m putting too much of my opinion in and would do better to leave it out? And I completely agree – there is always something good to say about any book, and I tend to think it’s respectful to the author to keen some sort of balance.

    Bookgazing – that’s really intriguing, because I think of you as someone who writes quite naturally from an academic perspective. I’m always impressed by the level of detail and the amount of thought you bring to your reviews. The kind of newspaper book review you mention is exactly the kind I most dislike. The impetus for this post came in part from Mister Litlove buying a Sunday paper and so I could read the reviews for the first time in ages. For the most part, they sucked. But I should say something more constructive than that!! Ideology is a real minefield, but I suppose I always think that bad politics are in the book precisely to look like bad politics, not the author’s opinion, but an indictment of culture. But maybe that’s me being too naive? It’s hard sometimes to tell, but I tend to prefer giving the benefit of the doubt (unless books are blatantly sexist, and then I might reach for a scalpel!).

    Amateur Reader – and you do a pretty fine job yourself, my friend! I’m a big fan of Rohan and nicole and don’t visit the others quite so much but have often admired what they do. I think the blogging world is so intriguing because we can do just anything we like with books and that’s huge, huge potential. So huge it becomes limiting in its turn and can easily throw us back on tried and trusted routes. I’m so curious about what might be in the middle ground at the moment, how to make that middle ground really work. I love what you say about details. I think that’s provocative in all kinds of useful ways.

    Eva – I’m hugely relieved if you didn’t think I was being critical – phew! I really want to write about opinion-based reviewing because part of me so disapproves, and yet, I do it myself, I find I really want to know what other reviewers think, and there’s something very vital and authentic about it. I’m really intrigued by the possibility of writing in a highly personal way about the experience of reading, without being reliant on value judgement. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I like the thought of it. I quite understand why you would want to rush to the part of the review where the blogger talks about what works for him or her, and I think if the blogger owns that reaction, understands it is not the last word on the book, as it were, then I can’t see how that can be wrong. How interesting that all your reading about books should be on the internet. And yes, I steer clear of symbolism-obsessed lit crit too – it can be oddly reductive!

    Stefanie – well now you see this is exactly what’s preoccupying me at present. Can we write personally and objectively at the same time – what would it look like? Which personal bits would we keep and which objective bits? Blogging is so interesting as it has all the middle ground at its disposal between academia and journalism – so how to make the best use of that? I love it when a review gets deeper into a book and brings to light something I hadn’t thought about or seen myself. But then I also want to know what any reviewer thinks of a book, whether it was enjoyable or not. And I know from doing academic literary criticism that I always enjoy a book more and get more out of it if I include at least some of my old critical approaches in my reading. But then again, they can be tiring and I don’t always feel like makgin the effort! Even though, I do think that liking a book can be so much about what we put into the reading ourselves. I’m wittering here! But you are very sweet to pay me such nice compliments – I struggle as much as the next person with figuring out what to say! 🙂

  10. I prefer a mixture of both, but in quite a specific way … I like academic critical analysis, but books are living things requiring the reader as co-creator, and so I also want to know what visceral response they evoked in the reader. If the reader goes on to explain why the book evoked that response, I can then gauge whether my response would be similar or different, and where the book might fit into my own needs as a reader.

  11. So I spoil endings of books that have been on the market for more than a year.

    I guess the style of review that I use depends upon the type of book. Some books are written strictly for entertainment value. Some do make a social point.

    So what do I do? I created a new section on my website called Belles-Lettres where I write more in-depth pieces on books. For example The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow. I did a regular review stating whether or not I liked it. Then I wrote a separate essays entitled The Black Experience where is discussed the cultural expectations Blacks in America face. I did tie it into the book.

    The essay sold more people on the book than the review.

  12. I think my problem is I’m too emotionally invested in my reading. I can’t help myself. That’s just who I am, or at least who I am at the moment. I don’t just pick any book up–I’m pretty particular about what I choose and I go into it wanting to love it (may not happen, but sometimes it does). I admire people who can be so objective about books, but I suppose this is where training and study come in. It really is hard keeping out opinions when you want to gush about a book. Maybe I need to start with not using “I” so often in my posts! 🙂

  13. DO you think you put in too much opinion and should leave it out—out of curiosity? I know you’re trying to work these questions out and maybe don’t have an answer to that question.

  14. There’s so much I want to say here! I’ll try my best not to write a comment as long as your post 😛 And let me start by saying thank you for an excellent discussion that gave me lots of food for thought. I struggle with these things a lot. I tried to write a post on the subject some time ago, partially to try to sort through my thoughts, but without much success. Looking through those lists, I think I use aspects of both styles in my blogging, and yet I’d be tempted to say I’m really not academic/literary in my approach. This is because I REALLY struggle with the idea of objectivity in book reviews, academic or not. I completely understand the merits of seeing beyond ourselves, our prejudices and our likes and dislikes, but even a degree in English has failed to convince me that it’s possible to be completely objective when writing about books – and yet as a undergraduate I kept being told I MUST. Sadly people (namely my former professors and present employers) tend to react badly when I say this, so I mostly keep quiet. I think part of the difficulty I have with these conversations boils down to definitions, really. When I say my approach is very personal and subjective, I don’t necessarily mean it the way people assume I mean it – as in, that I’ll only talk about how much I enjoyed this book (or not). Does this make sense? I want to discuss the IDEAS behind a piece of literature – that is and has always been what interests me the most. But I’ll always do it in a subjective manner, because I’m me, and I can only see outside myself to a limited extent.

    I also enjoyed reading Jodie’s comment and your response regarding ideology. That’s another thing I think about often. I do talk about ideology in my posts, and I confess it does play a role in how I respond to a book. But it’s not that I’ll condemn books that don’t match my modern sensibility and tell others not to read them – or at least I hope I don’t sound that way! It’s that I LIKE to discuss the ways in which an older novel doesn’t match my modern sensibilities, because there’s so much to be gained from thinking and talking about it, about both the time when the novel was written and our days. I find these conversations fascinating, but I notice that unfortunately people will sometimes assume that if I bring these things up at all, it must mean I’m trying to be morally righteous and condemn the work, rather than start a conversation about it – which can be hugely frustrating. Then the conversation will become about who’s the “better” or the most sophisticated reader, and I’ll just sigh and shut up 😛

  15. You know, the more I think about this the more interesting it gets! Because while ultimately, my personal reaction to the book is what’s most important to me as a reader, I don’t necessarily have to like or enjoy the reading experience as long as I’m getting something else, equally satisfying, out of it. So I find there’s a difference between my opinion and a simple like/dislike.

    That being said, I don’t share your disapproval for opinion-based writing in blogs! Probably because I don’t have an academic background in literature. I find the idea of an ‘objective’ analysis of a book a bit suspect, though…after all, if you analyse a book from a certain literary perspective, you’re still choosing things to emphasise, right? (Forgive me if I sound like a college freshman on all of this.)

    Like Danielle, I hope you make this into a series: I’d love to read it! I think I’m a better reader than blogger, though…which is a bit silly isn’t it? Perhaps I should copy and paste your list of literary critical review aspects and keep them in mind when I’m typing up a post!

  16. It might be useful, for anyone who wants to follow this sort of split, to specifically incorporate the sorts of writing found in The London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books and so on. Writing that is already in between the newspaper reviews and an academic paper. We’re clearly in Category 2 here, but the books are generally new, and the intended audience is general. Many of the writers are excellent, and enormously helpful to me: Christopher Benfey, William Pritchard, Ingrid Rowland (to pull in an art historian), Ruth Franklin. Many more.

    One could argue that there is no shortage at all of professionally published writing of this type and quality. There’s already too much for any one person to read.

  17. David – a man who knows his own mind! Now that’s a rare and beautiful thing. I really like your recipe here, with the academic approach tempered by authentic personal engagement. That’s definitely the sort of template I’m keen on exploring further myself.

    Bluestocking – I am so interested by what you say here, and I feel sort of pleased to think that the essay was the real selling point for your readers. I have this belief that people really like ideas, that we all enjoy being made to think about things and see how relevant they are to our lives (even if – especially if – that’s not obvious at first). I don’t think anyone should ever patronise or condescend to readers and treat them like they couldn’t get their head around any given principle. So I’m really happy if your experience bears this out.

    Danielle – first of all, I love your posts and I don’t think you should change a single thing about them. I never think you gush or promote your own reading experience in an excessive way – far from it! But I also think you’re right to recognise where you are right now – and that does change; I feel differently about book reviewing now than I did when I began the blog. I always really want to love books, too, and usually I concentrate on all their good points, regardless! The thing is, I really enjoy putting in my own opinion, but I have a strong internal injunction against this, having been brought up in the academic world. When I was just a student, I read Georg Buchner’s play, Danton’s Tod and to be honest it went right over my head. So I wrote this essay at the end of which I said Buchner was maybe a bit young and inexperienced as an author and so didn’t do the best job he could of making his work accessible. You should have heard my supervisor tearing me off a strip! I was NOT about to make that mistake again. Sad to say, I still have his voice in my head, and so I find it hard to judge how much ‘me’ is enough in a review (and of course it helps not to be saying something quite stupid!). That’s definitely one of the things I’m thinking about right now.

    Nymeth – you can have all the space you want! What you say here is so interesting and I feel great solidarity with your position. First of all, isn’t it hard to talk about the way we talk about books without implying that someone somewhere is doing it all wrong? There are so many approaches, and all will work if done with care and thought. And you’re right, to consider differences in approach and ideology comparatively is to allow both sides of the argument to breathe. And that’s what matters to me, I think, to keep things open and developing, not to shut them down to absolutes. We can never do that with books – they evade our certainties at every turn. I also think you are quite right that there is no such thing as a purely objective approach. In fact, I think that we cannot help but see ourselves when we are reading. It’s an intimate process, taking a book into our inner world, and when we read we track our own desires through the narrative. No getting away from that. All you can do is state your position as far as able – and even then we all have blind spots because that’s human nature. So I think the notion of objectivity really means that the reader stands back from value judgement. That we don’t condemn or celebrate a book just because it fits in (or not) with what we believe. I think that kind of restraint is as far as we can get towards ‘objectivity’ and even then, it’s difficult enough to do. I’m absolutely with you, though, that it’s the ideas that are the most exciting thing to discuss – and then we can only ever take up one stance, with the invitation to all comers to provide alternatives. At least, that seems like justice to me.

    Eva – I quite agree that there is no such thing as a wholly objective stance. There are routes (suggested to poor, beleaguered college students!) to get around that – such as showing both sides of the argument, for instance, or including the perspectives of lots of other critics. But most of all, I think ‘objectivity’ in this context means that liking or disliking a book doesn’t prevent the reader from thinking about what it’s trying to say. That you can separate out your personal response from the way the book might be analysed. Maybe that’s a dream too! But I’m kind of on board with that one. I’ll try and be more specific about what I don’t (personally!) like, which is the review that says, this book didn’t work for me and so it is a bad book, end of story. I do appreciate any reviewer who recognises that their taste may not be everyone’s taste (which I know is something you always do). But I also think you’re on to something there when you say that so long as a book is giving you that bit of meaning or intrigue, you can stick with it beyond straightforward like or dislike. That’s interesting, no? I’m always really interested by the books I don’t ‘like’ as a reader, but that suck me in as a critic. Hemingway does this to me, and Holocaust literature and oddly enough, some genre romance – the gender politics fascinate me every time. 🙂 I’ll definitely be talking about this more because I’m so keen on thinking it through – but only if everyone else keeps adding their thoughts on the matter too. I think better in a discussion!

  18. Amateur reader – your comment came in while I was responding to the others. Thank you for that helpful list of critics – I’ll be checking them out now. I’m very intrigued by the culture of criticism in the US, in particular, that spawned people like Joan Acocella (one of my favourites), Elizabeth Hardwick and Michael Dirda. We tend not to have that in the UK because we are too small – a lot of critics have strong academic backgrounds (or like Adam Philips, psychoanalytic ones). But there may be British ones in your list of names who are really strung between the two poles and that is interesting.

  19. Aw, you guys were talkin’ ’bout me before I came around. Thanks for the compliments.

    I would say that by and large I probably prefer to read the “literary critical” type of writing, or at least a combination of the two that is at least 50% in the direction of the critical. My main motivation for this is, as AR points out, the lack of attention to detail in the journalistic style of book writing. It’s not just that I’ll never read a book based on a plot summary; I’ll never even feel like I know anything about it. I need something that gives the real feel of the thing. When I read the TLS I’m also probably not going to read any of the books reviewed, but I’ll feel like I know an awful lot about them, how they work, what they address, etc.

    More serious criticism is only one way to get that, of course. One thing I find about a lot of less-critical blog writing is that you do still get that kind of detail, because enthusiastic bloggers are willing to give you more quotes to go on, or want to mention a particularly arresting scene. Even in the context of a more feelings-based “review,” it’s different from what you get in a real journalistic review.

    As for myself, I’d agree I am some kind of crazy combination. Sometimes I stress about it, but then I remember why I gave myself a nice broad name: bibliographing—writing about books. Full stop.

  20. Litlove, the reason I love your blog is that I think you find the perfect balance, leaning slightly toward the literary approach but with a touch of the personal, so that it feels more like a real conversation, which is exactly what the blog world is about. I learn from reading your blogs, and your reviews make me think. And that isn’t easy to find.

  21. I remember in one of my criticism classes we read an essay that said (I can’t remember who it was by! Oscar Wilde maybe?) something to the effect that people are never really speaking about a thing, but always speaking about themselves on the topic of that thing. I loved that characterization, and remembering it has made me feel okay about being fairly personal when I’m writing about books on my blog; and I enjoy reading what other people have to say about themselves on the topic of various books.

    That said, I also love literary criticism. I get all excited about image clusters and words like “palimpsest”, which I guess are used outside of litcrit context but heaven knows I never see them. So I like both! Hooray for both! I think as a trend, journalistic criticism is more useful to me when I’m deciding what to read, and literary criticism is more fascinating with books I have already read.

  22. Such a fascinating discussion. I’m not sure where I fall, or where the reviewers I like tend to fall, but like others, I think the middle is probably right. I think that my own reviews vary depending upon the book. With some, I am so in love, or so infuriated, that I cannot set that aside, but I do *try* to make it clear that these are my feelings and not generalizable to everyone else. If I don’t like a book much, I try to imagine how the book could be enjoyed, the sort of reader who would enjoy it and when. So I guess there’s a certain distancing that takes place there. Same when I’m in love with it. *I* love this, but these are some complaints I imagine others might have.

    One thing I feel passionately about (and getting more passionate all the time) is that I’m not out to convince people to read or not read a book. I’m out to give them information that will help them decide for themselves whether it’s worth a try. Sometimes that information involves plot summary, sometimes it involves interesting bits of writing, and sometimes discussion of themes–pretty much whatever stood out to me the most, positive or negative. The writing also helps me sort out my own views because I think about what made the strongest impressions on me and why. It helps me get beyond whatever my visceral reaction may be.

    And I’m sad to hear that How to Read Like a Professor didn’t work for you or Stef or Eva. I got a copy not long ago and was skeptical after paging through it, but I haven’t given it a fair chance. Right now, I listening to Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, but I haven’t gotten far enough in to form any sort of opinion of it.

  23. Oh, so glad to see you back. May I say that I missed your earlier posts and hope you’re feeling much better. My reaction to a book is really quite visceral and I can seldom put my finger on why I love it or hate it. Simple explanations such as “boring” might be shorthand for “I didn’t understand a thing this person just said.” Or “I loved it” might mean I felt good after I closed the cover, or I laughed through it, or was amazed by its cleverness and wished I could have written it. Literary criticism is always difficult for me to intepret and usually leaves me with eyes glazed over. I think you hit it on the head when you said “I don’t see any reason why you can’t write from an analytic perspective and do so entertainingly.” That really says it all for me. I’ve said it before, you are a very good teacher.

  24. An interesting comparison and very timely from my point of view. For the first time in two years I have been able to do a book review. Perhaps the two traditions could be renamed as “Visceral” and “Cerebral”. Both are valid and possibly better reflect our status as thinking mammals. We live and react as mammals yet we analyse and come to conclusions as thinkers. Somewhere in the middle are all those human quirks which are the foundation of the great tales which have been written in many forms. I wonder if it is possible to review a book, building, painting or musical score from both sides at the same time.

  25. Litlove, you never fail to make me think: “I don’t see any reason why you can’t write from an analytic perspective and do so entertainingly” seems to be the essence of your philosophy. I agree with it; I am not at all sure that I practice it.
    This discussion is completely absorbing–it is becoming “left brain vs. right brain” vis a vis book blogging. Or reviewing. And whether they can be considered the same animal.Is a review an essay, or isn’t it? Is a blog post about a book a review, or not? There is so much to ponder here that I will have to return. But I recall one piece of advice you gave here (it’s easy to recall because I wrote it down & have been staring at it for the past year) that I believe is relevant: “Step back, look at your opinion, and try to understand the values that informed it.” Critic/reviewer, analyze thyself! Which is what all of the comments have been about, and what I am off to do now…
    My thanks to you, and to everyone who has added their thoughts already.

  26. nicole – what I love about the blog world is the fact that we CAN be unusual or eccentric combinations of other types of criticism. That seems very fertile and necessary to me. In academia, people fret all the time because no one reads traditional lit crit any more, not even academics! It’s time we did something a bit different and fresh, I think. And I know just what you mean about detail.

    Lilian – bless you. Come and have a big hug. 🙂

    Jenny – I love that distinction, and, thinking about it, I feel I tend in that direction too. And the quote by Oscar (let’s attribute it to him!) is spot on. Even the most impersonal lit crit is the outcome of a mind following its unconscious desires through the text (or at least I think so), so you’re right to think that subjectivity is right in there in the reading experience, no matter what. And anyway, it’s a lot of fun to hear how people really respond!

    Teresa – fascinating thoughts from you on this topic. Most intrigued here by the decision NOT to sell a book, as it were, but to be as informative as possible about it. I like that – I think giving a real flavour of the text is a very useful thing to do. I enjoyed Francine Prose, although she doubled my tbr list – in fact the contributions to the tbr were in a way the best bits. She generously quotes wonderful sections from lots of books, in such a way that her own prose suffers a little in comparison. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Foster – who knows? You might be the one among us to see its real value, and I hope so.

    Grad – it’s actually lovely to be back, thank you, dear heart. You know, it’s a real struggle at times trying to figure out why something pleases and why something else doesn’t. I wouldn’t want you to think that I haven’t wracked my brains (and vocabulary!) over a book many, many times. Practice is all – whatever you do often you become more fluent at doing, and that’s really all there is to it.

    Archie – I do like your distinctions between viseral and cerebral, although I suspect that whichever side a reader privileges, he or she will justify it with reasons that don’t have much to do with the gut response! That may be human nature. I’ll have to nip over and read that review – hope it was a good book!

    ds – is a blog post about a book a review? Now that is a brilliant question. And that’s perhaps a really productive way of looking at the situation. Maybe (and this is something that really interests me) there are lots of ways to write about books that are posts rather than reviews. Hmm, you’ve really got me thinking here too, now, and this is something I’d like to come back to when I write about this topic again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s