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Literary Criticism and Freelance Reviews

In the last few days I’ve read a couple of interesting blog posts/articles about the role of literary criticism and reviews in a changing literature market, and am just getting around to posting about them. The first comes from Jacket Copy, the LA Times Book Blog. The post is called “Being a freelance critic for $25” and discusses a change to the pay rate for freelance reviews for Publishers Weekly. Instead of $50 per review, freelance contributors will now be paid $25. While many are unhappy with this decision, at least one person thought that lowering the amount freelance reviewers receive would discourage professionals from writing and open up the magazine for more amateur reviews.

deathThe second article is a piece from Salon about the death of literary critics. Authors Louis Bayard and Laura Miller debate about the merits of an argument presented in the book The Death of the Critic, which says that the advent of book clubs, blogging, and celebrity endorsements have not ended the importance of literary critics, and that some opinions on books are inherently more valuable than others. Bayard sums up the books argument as follows:

Ronan McDonald, the author, is a lecturer in English and American studies at Britain’s University of Reading, and he’s particularly exercised by what he sees as the loss of the “public critic,” someone with “the authority to shape public taste.” It’s only in the final chapter that the mystery behind the critic’s disappearance is solved. The culprit is none other than … cultural studies! (With a healthy assist from poststructuralism.) By treating literature as an impersonal text from which any manner of political meaning can be wrung, cultural studies professors have robbed criticism of its proper evaluative function — the right to say this is good, this isn’t, and here’s why.

Basically, it seems the argument is that, through New Criticism and the Modernist movement, literary critics made themselves sort of useless, and are just now coming back into form as readers seem to wonder what is “good” and what’s not after critics “trashed” the literary canon as it used to be known. In addition, because academic critics have stopped evaluating literature, popular critics (like those who blog) have taken up the slack to be evaluative of literature.

The question in both articles seems to come down to who is “qualified” to make judgments on something like literature and on what merits should literature be discussed — should it be criticized or should it be judged? Obviously, the huge list of books blogs I’ve gotten into suggest that anyone can, but who’s opinions are more valued — mine, or some professional critic I find at a more “reputable” site.

I friend who has read a couple of my reviews told me the reviews seem strange because they border between review and essay. I thought about it, and in the end think that makes sense; as an English major, I was trained to do literary criticism, to dig into texts for symbols and messages and narration to try and figure out what a book means. Does that training make me more qualified to make judgements about the literary value of books? I doubt it, but it can’t really make me less qualified, can it? And in the end, the question of whether anyone would care what I have to say about books doesn’t have anything to do with my qualifications — it rests more on how well my sense of “good” and “bad” jives with what they believe and how well-written my accounts of the books I have read are. That way, even if they disagree with my interpretation and assessments, they at least enjoy getting there.

I apologize if this is a little disjointed.  It’s been a very hectic couple of days just starting a new job, and I still haven’t quite gotten myself situated and mentally focused on everything I am supposed to be doing!

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  • Rebecca Reid June 2, 2008, 12:48 am

    I find I sometimes like reviews that border on review and essay: I also was an English major. If someone can write and they’ve put a lot of thought into it, I want to hear about it. But many books out there today don’t really warrant that kind of thinking, though, and many “review” readers only want summaries.

  • Kim June 2, 2008, 2:07 pm

    Rebecca: I think it’s hard to get over “English Major” training and just read a book, but I agree, a lot of literature just doesn’t need that dissecting. I suppose you just find reviewers style you enjoy, whether it’s simply summary or some other sort of analysis.