WRITING ON THE ETHER: Let’s Review Criticism

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

Table of Contents

  1. More Critics Than You Can Shake a Fist At
  2. Art vs. Entertainment / Criticism vs. Reviewing
  3. Why Ask Why?

More Critics Than You Can Shake a Fist At


Do you follow tennis? Observe the shaking of the fist.

Most of the world-class athletes at the All-England Club right now (including those being sent home alarmingly early) are not fistfight folks. But have a look: fist pumps.

In almost any Wimbledon match, male or female, you’ll find the players shaking their fists, normally after winning points. As if at any moment, they might deck their opponents or punch out the ball kids.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

This compilation of shots is from ESPN’s Facebook page, June 26, 2013. Fist-pumping indicators added.

Nobody follows these athletes more happily than I do. But that pumping of the fist looks showy at best on these immaculate, gifted, hard-working, smart people. It’s largely a ritual, a mannered iteration of a once-genuine gesture. It’s what you do with the hand not holding the racket. On one, it looks more like he’s shaking dice. On another, it looks like she’s grabbing fireflies. And, hey, it looks no better on the fans in the stands, these lovely, mild-mannered, bespectacled, brolly-toting rain dodgers…fist pumping?

It’s a cultural affectation. The shaking of the fist.

Could that be what’s become of literary criticism, too?

A significant disadvantage of the world of book recommendation is that we never hear about books that don’t live up to their promise. The bad books. Yes, I’ve heard the “We don’t have time for bad books” argument, and while that works for recommending titles to genteel associations, it stinks when it comes to creating and maintaining a lively culture.

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Bethanne Patrick

In Why Literary Criticism Still Matters at Virginia Quarterly Review,  Bethanne Patrick begins asking some important questions to which we’re paying too little attention these days.

Think of literary criticism as a round robin of matches being played on the outer courts of the big tournament. The industry! the industry! is fixated on its Centre Court melodrama. While we watch traditional major players slip and slide, fall on their grass and suffer mortifying injuries, we aren’t focused on what’s happening to literary criticism.

Patrick’s good questions lie under the header “Internet democratization.” Many good things have accrued from the digital dynamic. But the recommendation culture, in and of itself, may not be one of them, not entirely, if it’s allowed to replace real criticism.

Patrick, a critic, herself (as am I), writes:

This isn’t necessarily a problem for publishers. Publishing is a business, not an arts collective. This is a problem for authors and readers. If we want to have a balanced and literate literary culture, we have to be ready to name good books and bad books—and even to name the good and the bad within a single book, which is what the best book critics do on a regular basis.

Let’s look at a couple of changes that you and many others might have noticed only in sidelong glances on our way to the larger, central debates of the disruption.

Back to Table of Contents

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One of VQR’s “instapoem” collection being curated by Robert Lee Brewer

Art vs. Entertainment / Criticism vs. Reviewing


It’s not uncommon for some readers to be adamantly put out with me when I bring up entertainment as distinct from what I call more “serious” work.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookI’m perfectly happy for you to dive now to the comments section to tell me off, simply for having raised the topic.

I might as well have just yelled “pull!” on a skeet shoot. The next sound you’ll hear is the guns going off and clay pigeons exploding.

It may help if I offer you a graphic provided by Jane Friedman, the former Writer’s Digest publisher who now is VQR’s digital editor and host of Writing on the Ether.

In teaching university media studies courses, Friedman has found it useful to include this diagram from the textbook Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication by Richard Campbell, Christopher R. Martin, and Bettina Fabos.

The intent of this diagrammatic representation of various influences in culture is to flatten them onto one plane, so entertainment-oriented elements are no “lower” than elements that might be classified as classical, “serious” elements. This view categorizes cultural inputs as “familiar,” “unfamiliar,” “comforting,” “challenging,” “conventional,” and “innovative.” It has some useful points of connection for those who normally chafe at suggestions that one cultural influence is more valuable or “higher” than another.

And if you want to hold your fire, however, I’ll tell you a bit more of what I mean and why I bring it up.

  • By “serious,” I mean material intended to help us explore meaningful, life-defining elements of our experience. Most of the time, I prefer serious work in all forms, from television to film and books and music, visual art, dance, the works.
  • By “entertainment,” I mean material the primary purpose and intent of which is to create a feel-good experience—perhaps through humor, pathos, nostalgia, etc. It usually trades in populist values and idioms. One reality show begets five others.


There was a useful phrase used for many years around Broadway theater. A musical comedy was said to be “for the tired businessman.” And it was entertainment.

This was an age in which tired businesswomen were woefully overlooked, I’m afraid. Hence the gender reference. But the understanding was that the tired business person was the primary audience for long lines of beautiful women wearing fishnet hose and singing “We’re in the Money’ while kicking their right legs in perfect unison. And the crowd loved it.

Next door, a usually smaller Broadway house might have a production of Medea. The people attending that one, provided it was Eurpides’ doing of the story, saw the titular character kill her own children as an act of vengeance against her feckless husband Jason. The tired business person, it was assumed, would either be asleep by the time the kids were tossed over the parapet, or, if awake, would want to be next door watching women kicking their right legs instead.


Over time, let’s say since the middle of the last century, there has been a trend in all forms, not just theater, toward more entertainment, less serious work. Many exceptions everywhere, of course. But in time, and in virtually all media, the drift toward more entertainment-oriented work has been bolstered by the digital dynamic.

As I’ve written many times, digital is about distribution. Its energy seeks the widest distribution possible, through new-media technology. And this is one reason why entertainment offerings usually find bigger audiences than serious-art offerings: there’s a wider audience for the distribution of entertainment.  

A couple of decades ago, a parallel turning point arrived for criticism. Those of us who were working in news media as critics were asked to start using star ratings, thumbs up or down, cartoons of little people jumping up and down or sulking, whatever—graphic representations of the gist of critical reviews.

This was the digital dynamic arriving in criticism. Just as art and entertainment were starting to grow farther apart, real criticism and “reviewing” began to divide.

“Reviewing” became heavily consumer-oriented. How many thumbs up?


Critics found, of course, that many readers stopped reading their reviews. They just counted the thumbs “way up,” the stars, etc. Reviewers were asked to tell their readers to “go” or “don’t go” to a film or concert, to “read” or “don’t read” a book. 

Actual criticism never seeks to tell users what to do. Instead it takes the work at hand and analyzes it in terms of what its creator(s) intended to do. What did this author mean to achieve? Did he or she achieve it?—how? how not? how well?. VQR As Bethanne Patrick writes, emphasis mine:

Showing that books can contain good and bad but still be worth reading is just one of the ways in which critics benefit the reading public, and they also help readers place books in context. Is this book the next Holy Bible? The next Great American Novel? A blockbuster thriller? Yes, no, maybe? And why? What makes it so?

The user of criticism is then left to decide whether the analysis makes the work worth looking into. And he or she then decides whether the work is “good” or otherwise. Criticism asks you to think for yourself, not be told to “read this” or “don’t read that.” Of course, this is why some people don’t care for it. They like others to do the thinking and tell them what to do.  

Much as our culture neglected to nail the distinction between a “cinema” and a “theater”—and thus we talk of going to a “theater” to see a film—we didn’t do a very good job of distinguishing criticism from consumer reviewing.

In the same way that some authors rankle when told they’re working in entertainment while another set of authors is closer to art, there are consumer reviewers who don’t care for a clear understanding of what they do and how it differs from what true critics do.

I believe that what Patrick is writing about in her piece, “Why Literary Criticism Still Matters,” helps us acknowledge a more recent and different divide opening up at our feet: criticism/reviewing vs. recommendation.


Patrick seems to pull critics and consumer reviewers closer together: they’re both surrounded, after all, by the recommendation culture. I think the functions of critics and reviewers remain different.  I do think that she has an important point to make about the recommendation culture: It is unrelievedly biased toward the happy, the upbeat, the enthusiastic.

And it seems to be forming a third energy. As usual, we’ve eschewed giving this the clear terminology we need. We’re calling people of the recommendation culture “reviewers,” too.

If the tired business person provided his or her opinion of Medea’s Greek chorus or the sequins on the synchronized legs’ shoes, would we name those tired business people “reviewers?” Probably. We’re like that. We wouldn’t want the tired business people to feel they were any less deserving of a career title than someone who’d actually made a career of it—even though they were less deserving, of course. And we’d never think of going the opposite direction and calling critics business people.  

So now we have three things, all called “reviewers.” They are:

(a) literary critics;

(b) consumer reviewers; and

(c) recommend-ers, the customer-appraisers.

Patrick writes:

If we don’t have reviews that tell us the truth—alongside recommendations that provide enthusiasm—then we have less information about how to spend our wild and precious reading lives. You can’t read every book, but even the small bits you read about as many books as possible increase your worldview.

What she’s describing—aside from “our wild and precious reading lives,” which I love—is the fulfillment of yet another old line from “legitimate” criticism: “Everybody’s a critic.”


Thanks to that Internet “democracy,” everybody can (and on many days, it seems, does) weigh in with his or her opinion. About everything. Everything. The usefulness of the customer recommend-er is perfectly clear.

The patron who has tried the vacuum cleaner and gives it some stars and adds comments that only another vacuum cleaner shopper could love is performing a community and retail service. There is a genuine place and purpose for the customer’s appraisal, the recommendation culture at work, no question. Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

Many see hope in the Amazonian acquisition of Goodreads because the problems Amazon has had with falsified customer reviews in the past may be, to some degree, ameliorated if Goodreads-vetted reviews from that avid community of 18 million recommending people are surfaced onto Amazon sales pages (with each member’s permission, of course).

Customer appraisal is all but required for decent online sales. It has a place and purpose. Nothing except sock puppetry need be held against it as a cautionary concern. It’s also about as far from actual literary criticism as my frolics around a badminton net are from what those fist-pumping tennis pros do at Wimbledon.

Back to Table of Contents  


Why Ask Why?


So, to review, we seem to have managed to divide all this galling opinion-slinging into three parts:

(a) literary criticism;

(b) consumer reviewing; and

(c) recommendation, customer-appraisal.

That being the case, one of the most disturbing issues Patrick’s piece raises is found in this question:

Where does book reviewing end and book marketing begin—and does this question even still matter to the business of publishing?



For her, this is the fundamental issue, and it’s a good one. What is one form of reviewing or another, and what is merely salesmanship?

For me, however, the real question in her addendum is this: does this question still matter to the business of publishing? 

If anybody’s putting together a list of Worst Moments in the Digital Disruption, I’d vote for the long, slow realization for journalists that diluted and starred reviews were just fine with the public, along with glitzy, hairsprayed “Live-Action Eyewitness (as opposed to Earwitness?) News You Can Use.” The dumbing down of current affairs.

Many of us in the news media once believed that the population supported fair reporting and in-depth investigation. So, as our corporate executives reconfigured our newsrooms to respond to the Live-Action Nosewitness commercial interests of advertisers, we watched the windows, waiting for the pitchforks. Many of us felt sure the users would soon rise up, toss the hairspray over the parapet after Medea’s brats, and liberate us to return to journalism’s traditional separations of editorial and advertising. With this rescue, we felt sure, would come a restoration of rigorous literary criticism.

The cavalry never came over the hill.


We learned, in fact, that the wider public, for the most part, were not concerned about the principles of genuine journalistic performance. There’s a good chance, we know now, that they never even understood the concept of a truly free press.

And as digital news-you-can-use shallowed out into chit-chatty info-tainment, we had to concede that the public, in fact, doesn’t care. Info-tainment is “good enough.” Just make a fist and shake it bit, and that’s “good enough” as a faint reflection of what once was a fight.


In book publishing, what Patrick is asking gets at the worrisome center of the same issue: do readers today care whether they have access to criticism? Or even to consumer reviews? Or is the recommendation culture “good enough?” She writes:

In a world of recommendations only, we don’t have to worry about conflicts of interest. Books are not pharmaceuticals or food; we don’t need a federal agency to vouch for their contents or effects…No one is going to get hurt if a book recommendation is based solely on the recommender’s love for the author.

She’s saying, then, that fair play and the disinterested stance once prized and protected by critics, their editors, and, surely, a handful of discerning readers, no longer are a concern.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

Jacob Silverman

In his earlier VQR piece, The Art of the Negative Review, Jacob Silverman wrote that self-assigning critics are automatically likely to produce positive criticism because they’re choosing works they feel are valuable to bring to their readers’ attention. He includes, for example, Time magazine’s Lev Grossman, writing:

Grossman pointed out that he is the books desk at Time magazine—no one else writes or edits books coverage there—so he feels a sort of obligation to champion good literature and chooses his review subjects accordingly.

And regardless of how reviews might be assigned, the best news is that in some cases, real criticism, of course, still is published at all.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

Emily St. John Mandel

I’m always glad to recommend the work of Emily St. John Mandel at The Millions, not only because her voice as a critic is so amply informed by her experience as an author, herself, but also because the character of her review work is distinctive—given to the work at hand, yet set within the context of a thoughtful point of view.

Update on Friday, June 28: The Millions has just posted Mandel’s latest criticism and you couldn’t ask for a better example of what I’m describing here.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookIn The Bulldozing Powers of Cheap, she is critiquing Edouardo Nesi’s highly regarded Story of My People. Mandel describes the book as “a microcosm for the decline of the Italian textiles industry and, more broadly, for the decline of manufacturing in the first world as industry has turned to cheaper labor markets elsewhere.”

Watch how seamlessly (sorry), Mandel crosses into and out of Nesi’s material, using her own experiences in apparel manufacturing and retail and drawing Elizabeth L. Cline’s Over-Dressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion into her essay, on “the changing nature of fashion, itself.”

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookCoincidentally, Publishing Perspectives Editor-in-Chief Edward Nawotka has just recommended Story of My People to me.

So not only are we talking about a work getting a lot of strong attention, but also some fine critical evocation, as we read here from Mandel:

Where Story of My People succeeds most brilliantly is as a vision of what a creative and ethical model of capitalism can look like. Nesi describes moments of exhilarating creativity: gathering with colleagues in the factory after hours, the conversation turning to the fabrics worn by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Nesi rushing to bring the books out of his office, designers peering excitedly at the clothes worn in author photos, a week later those same fabrics lying before them on the table. In the years before he sold the company, Nesi lived something of a double life. He was a manufacturer who wrote novels, and it shows in his prose.

And here is where I’ll disagree, respectfully, with Bethanne Patrick. When, in her first line, she writes of “objective literary criticism,” she’s naming a unicorn.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookNo journalist is objective, least of all the critic, whose job it is to form and promulgate an opinion. I’m guessing Patrick means fair. Experienced critics are adept at giving work a full hearing, at starting from what the author intends and evaluating the results on the terms of the attempt. They’re never objective. They’re trained, however, to be fair. You can see this at work in the critical writings of Mandel, too.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

Kyle Minor

Or see Kyle Minor’s criticism of the critics, Today in silly book reviews: Let’s all fight about Alice Munro at Salon. In that piece, bisected as it is by a Drugstore.com ad, Minor writes:

The critic of the sainting sort might shower the writer with unqualified praise, declare her a genius, and ignore or explain away the writer’s shortcomings — or declare them to be virtues. The other kind of critic might decide that the surest path to deflating the balloon of hyperbole isn’t merely letting a little air out the bottom. No, it might be more satisfying — and attention-grabbing — to spray it with a flamethrower.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookThis is critic-on-critic action, rhinos clashing on the veld, the sweaty and purposeful shaking of a ranking fist at another. In fact, Minor gets in some jabs at just about all of us. For example:

Martin Amis, in a New Yorker review of a story collection by Don DeLillo, said: “When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less.”

By the time you finish Minor, Wimbledon will be over. (The Salon piece is longer even than an Ether post, I’m pleased to tell you.)

But you’ll know more than you did when you started, about literary criticism, its zip-line way of sailing down one theme and back up another, its pile-ups of preferred phrasings, an art performed on an art. You’ll know a bit more about what we’re losing, about what’s being given away in our shrugging acceptance of terms, like “reviewing,” applied to marketplace jargon and shopping-cart flattery.


And most of all, you’ll know a bit more about the lack of consciousness that characterizes so many changes in our culture on digital drive-time.

We’re generally unaware of these cultural slips and slides on the grassy court of our progress—this value brought to its knees, that tradition flat on its ass, something important retired in early-round competition. It doesn’t matter, get out of the way. We’re mobile. We’re social. We’re subscribing. And we’re trying to get a few more “likes” onto the page before somebody drops a one-star in the locker room and runs.

If you asked one of these tennis champions I like so much? He might not even remember. “Shake my fist? I did? Come on. Show me the tape.” 

One of the things literary criticism does—hell, consumer reviewing might even manage from time to time—is  make us aware of a trend, a surprise, a turn taken, a discovery made.

But mostly, we just shake a little recommendation at it.

What do you think? Is that really good enough? 

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Main image: iStockphoto – BuddyM

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Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He's The Bookseller's (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He's a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he's a regular contributor of "Provocations in Publishing" with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal's SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.
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  1. Guilty. I only write reviews for books I love because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I do tell friends when and why I don’t like a book, but it’s not in me to be a public critic, so I’m not. On Amazon, I pump my fist for my favorites. I do enjoy a spot-on critical review though. I just don’t want to write it.

    • @darrelynsaloom:disqus

      Hey, Darrelyn,

      These are very helpful things you’re saying here, in that some people have never wanted the role of public critic.

      While it’s generally true that most people never tire of telling you what they think about something, lol, there are folks who don’t seem to have that instinct — you being a great example — and in that case you do what you’re doing: review when and how you feel right doing so.

      In professional practice, no critic wants to hurt people’s feelings. On the other hand, the higher allegiance is always to the work, as well as to the critic’s readers — the good critic feels they deserve and honest appraisal as potential consumers/customers of the author.

      So while it’s a somewhat more complicated relationship with a critic’s readers and authors critiqued, it’s still very much the same process and impetus.

      Interestingly, professional critics frequently find that a negative review gets a far higher readership (and interactive comment from readers, etc.) than a positive one does. There’s a slightly unpleasant interest for many people to reading negative reviews. Just a fact of human nature, it seems. but quite consistent in my experience over the years.

      Thanks for the input and great tweets, too – Keep pumping your fist, it will come in handy when you play Wimbledon. :)

      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson:disqus

      • Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a tough review and admire those who do it well. Btw, I’m not a tennis player, but my middle son played college tennis and now coaches juniors. Love to watch the game.

  2. I’ve long said there’s not enough time in my precious life to read everything I want to read (so I like Patrick’s phrase too). But you keep writin’ these, I’ll keep readin’ ’em. Love this one. And I enjoy literary criticism, though I’d never get any work done if I read it as much as I’d like. For my own blogging, I’m with Lev Grossman: I mostly like talking (blogging) about the books I liked, and I can’t bring myself to apologize for it. That’s what *my* audience is looking for.

    • @jamiechavez:disqus

      Hi, Jamie,

      Many thanks for finding the time to read the Ether — always honored that you choose to put that into your busy schedule.

      More and more, we’re all having these problems, of course, of what to read, when, how to budget the time and keep up with the best-laid plans. Between my Kindle Fire and my print books, the stack must be up to the ceiling, and I find I do better on the Kindle because I dip in and out of several books at once.

      An no need to apologize for your blogging preferences, that’s what makes it interesting!

      Thanks again,

      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

  3. I enjoyed reading this piece. A long time ago, I did an English Literature degree, at the point when the F.R. Leavis idea of quality and the idea of ‘the canon’ was moved aside to accommodate literary theory.

    Literary theory was never concerned with ranking books according to their serious nature or value – at first site an advertisement was given the same serious consideration as Shakespeare. But thinking about it, they did have a concept of value, with books that exhibited ‘narrative closure’ being disapproved of to some degree.

    However, as often happens with the distillation of ideas into popular culture, I think that what we have inherited (to some extent) is the belief that there is no primacy amongst written or other artistic products. To oversimplify massively, I think at one end of the spectrum there is the Harold Bloom school of criticism that ranks literary works according to quality, and at the other end there is the populist view, which seems consumer-driven, as you describe in your post – in other words criticism is reduced to ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’.

    I’m not sure whether this is a generational thing, but I have always read book reviews in the newspapers (or used to). With traditionally published books, there are many venues, online and in print, where one can still read what I would term serious or professional reviews, including reviews of genre fiction (entertainment?).

    The problem is that with the vast swathe of indie fiction, it is much harder to find (or obtain) serious reviews – by which I suppose I mean reviews written with the purpose of enabling the reader (or buyer) to make an informed decision, as opposed to the consumer reviews you talk about above.

    • @jessicarydill:disqus

      Hi, Jessica,

      You make a very cogent point here and that is that much self-published work — anything moving to market outside the traditional-publishing channels, has almost no hope of getting the kind of mainstream critical review attention you speak of enjoying in newspapers and other locations.

      This is not, by the way, always an effect of disapproval for non-traditionally published work. It also has to do with the huge volume of material being produced outside the major publishing routes. Critical outlets are simply overwhelmed, and many who would like to do more are also nonplussed as to where to start in terms of how to handle even the logistics.

      The major houses have standing arrangements to provide key reviewers at mainstream press outlets with whichever books they request for review – or will simply send over a copy of each of their catalog’s releases, if that’s the agreement. When you’re suddenly faced with having to entertain hundreds and even thousands of other possibilities — most of them produced by single parties (independent authors), in myriad formats and of completely indeterminate quality levels, just deciding how to incorporate such material is a hurdle few have yet been able to handle.

      Meanwhile, however, your concept of a review “enabling the reader (or buyer) to make an informed decision” is fully within the purview of good consumer review work when it’s taken seriously and practiced with stringent protocols in place. The problem is that the commercial interests of modern media (so frequently owned by entertainment corporations) can easily change the approach and intent, and soon the lesser, commercially-led crass “read” and “don’t read” impetus is in place.

      It’s a complex situation right now and will remain so for a time, as the industry itself shakes out and is reformed by the digital drive.

      Many thanks again, great to have you here,
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

      • Thank you, Porter. I think you are absolutely right, that critics are already inundated with book from traditional publishers.

        There are many impressive reviewing blogs, some of which will review indie books. I hope that when the music stops, some new means of reviewing will emerge that can avoid the one-to-five-stars approach.

    • @disqus_gjh5IRwg5y:disqus

      Hey, Dave,

      That, in a nutshell, is exactly what the best critiques and reviews do — they make a reader want to compare his or her reaction to that of the critic.

      I used to write this suggestion into my reviews, esepcially when they were fairly negative, asking readers to give whatever work was at hand a chance and let me know what they thought.

      We are, each of us, our own best critic, after all. Nobody knows what you like or don’t like and getting another’s careful, fair input frequently not only reveals a lot about how we might react to a work but also about how we see things in general, what’s important to us, and what types of material we might want to explore.

      It’s great that Schulz’s work did that for you. Thanks for the great example,


      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

  4. Lord Stanley’s cap has inspired quite a bit of fist-pumping here in Chicago, Porter. There’s no stopping it. It feels good to do it, but looks silly.

    I review books on my blog and on BroadwayWorld.com. I get to choose what I review, so it follows that I review books I like – or think I’ll like.

    I do strive for some kind of fairness (thanks for that word) in my reviews. If I love a book, but the author’s use of the same adjective dozens of times (I lost count) makes me cringe, I’ll say that. If I expected to be on the fence, but the story pulled me in, I’ll say that, too. I’ve been pleasantly surprised and occasionally disappointed. The important thing is to explain why. The answer to “why” is important to the person reading the review and to the author, too.

    Then there’s the other side: I’m not saying I would necessarily change my writing, but if someone takes the time to leave a review of one of my books on Amazon or Goodreads or their own blog, I’m going to read it. Good or bad, it won’t change my life, but I might learn something about how people respond to my books. And that is something you can’t learn until they actually read them.

    That said, the online equivalent of Ebert & Siskel’s thumbs up is the star rating system. I prefer reviews, which at least require the reviewer to explain themselves. Star ratings can be anonymous – separate from reviews, at least on Goodreads – and often confusing.

    I will admit that there are a few people whose opinions mean a great deal to me. One of them is someone I’ve written about, and last week I found out that he was wildly enthusiastic about what he read. It was one of the few times I’ve given a damn what someone else thought about my writing. Luckily, it turned out okay. If he’d hated it? I would been disappointed, but it wouldn’t have stopped me from writing.

    I find in general, reviews/recommendations online are difficult to take seriously. Were they paid for writing the review? Are they friends/enemies of the author? Do they have a professional ax to grind? Are they just normal people who read a book and liked/hated it? It’s harder and harder to tell.

    Standards, Porter, there are no real standards when it comes to arts criticism. Frustrating, but how could there be?

    Like I said, I review books. I don’t believe I qualify as a critic. But I will make a prediction: Djokovic/Murray final at Wimbledon, with my guy prevailing (unless the grass gets any more slippery).


    • Victoria, I’d welcome a criticism of too many adjectives. It’s funny because I appreciate fair criticism because I grow and learn from it. I just have a hard time dishing it out unless I’m working as an editor. Then I can put on my objective hat (which can turn me into a beast) because they asked for it. And it’s private.

    • @Victoria_Noe:disqus

      Hey, Viki,

      Thanks for the input.

      What you or I may see as a lack of standards is exactly what many others celebrate as a lack of gatekeepers. And yes, the results are exactly as you describe — you can’t tell the motivations behind customer-recommendation. In the era when criticism was performed by professionals who worked for major media, the standards were in place, they were very similar from one venue to the next, they were tested and long-standing and were easy to follow and fulfill.

      Now, even the highest standards may be missed — or criticized as gatekeeping — and thus we end up with a confused readership, confused customers, confused reviewers and criics, and unthinking “recommenders.”

      James Bridle has recently written about a “new aesthetic” and has run into a good bit of resistance, along these lines, writing, “this unwillingness to codify is a reproduction of the network’s own refusal to be pinned down, controlled, routed and channeled, which must be considered one of its core, inherent qualities”… and also, I would add, one of its biggest weaknesses.

      Meanwhile, the “short form” review tools — stars, thumbs up and down, and so on — are all a rather severe ripoff of the literary community. Even the shortest work needs to be read to be really understood and appreciated. The “review-at-a-glance” effect of these notations is a disservice to everyone, including the readers, let alone authors and everyone else involved in the production of literary work.

      AND? They’re here to stay. The public — that widest wash of folks I’ve mentioned as not caring too much about the niceties of excellent review and criticism? — they like the thumbs up and down. They outnumber the serious followers of literary criticism and thus the advertisers’ eyes are on those sparrows.

      Watch out for the swooping hawks, and thanks again for commenting! :)
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

  5. The word “fair” makes all the difference. Many of the negative reviews from the consumer reviews/reader recommendation people aren’t fair, either. The review is written solely on the fulfillment of their personal tastes, and because their tastes weren’t fulfilled, the book must be bad. Totally untrue, and might be why many of the peoplein those two review categories choose to review books they like and don’t mention the books they don’t. Someone else might enjoy the book very much.

    Because of this, I think having literary criticism is important. Give me a review that looks at the positive, the negative and then give me your opinion. At least I have a little better grasp for why the reviewer did or didn’t like the book than “the action was fast-paced” or “the main-character was whiny.”

    And I do think there is room for literary criticism for the “entertainment” type books, not just the “serious” books. Each genre has it’s own requirements, each book requires a certain level of craft to be written well, each author writes a book with a certain intention (which can include looking at serious themes – even in a genre book.) Are those things done well? Does the author complete what they were trying to do? I don’t see why those types of reviews can’t be done for genre.

    Probably even Snookie’s autobiography, too, if there are some basis for what makes an autobiography good. Now, the problem would be finding a “serious” literary critic who would WANT to review Snookie’s autobiography! Okay, maybe now I’m just being fiesty. :) Did I get you to do a spit-take?

    • @laraschiffbauer:disqus

      LOL, hey, Lara —

      Excellent points here. One of the best being that even entertainment-based material can benefit from genuine criticism.

      When I was with the Village Voice and other papers with my primary beat being theater, modern dance, music, and visual arts as well as books, I wrote up both the Medea productions and the musicals. And you’re absolutely right. As long as the critic begins with what each work sets out to do — its context in the larger picture, its background, its creators, their intentions — then you’re doing genuine, viable criticism.

      I found it very easy at times to write something along the lines of, “My regular readers will know that this particular type of work isn’t what I necessarily enjoy most, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make the most of it if you do like this kind of evening. In fact, if you do like ____ kinds of musicals, then you’ll be pleased to see how much attention has been lavished on such-and-such element of the production,” etc. In other words, as soon as the critic serves the reader by declaring any biases and being sure to explore the points that reader who disagrees might want to know, then you’re working in a pretty fascinating range of criteria you’d never encounter if you stuck to just your own “cup of tea.”

      Books are particularly good for this. I find, for example, that as Kindle Worlds kicks off, it’s very easy for me to note it, report on it, acknowledgeit, understand the cleverness of its financial and legal arrangements — even though I’d never be personally quick to pick up a work of fan fiction, myself. I have no need to bash it because it’s not the kind of work I feel I want to spend that “wild and precious” reading time Bethanne Patrick describes, but I know others will and it’s no skin off my nose if they do.

      Somewhere along the way in our culture, we’ve made a mistake in how we talk of disagreement. We’ve come to believe that unless we can persuade others to agree with us that either (a) we’re doing something wrong or (b) the others are just idiots. It’s too bad because it hobbles us in terms of the diversity we all need. The opposite problem, though, is becoming afraid to say that your opinion of something isn’t as high as someone else’s. Many believe they can’t negatively criticize for fear they’ll be ostracized or disliked. That, too, is a big problem because we need to be able to speak plainly and comfortably or we won’t learn from each other. (A room full of people pretending to agree is fairly useless to personal growth.)

      It takes a little bit of distance. (This is the reason that some critics in formal mode never refer to themselves, no first-person work — that can be very wise.) And it takes a lot of “on the other hand” thinking to be sure you’ve looked at why something might have been the way it was in one book or another. Finally, no matter how astute and nuanced a strong critic’s work may be, it’s still the point of view of one person. I’m fond of saying, “Do I look like a committee to you?” Just one person. That can help people get past their unhappiness with criticism sometimes, as well.

      At any rate, thanks again for reading and commenting, always super to have you on the Ether!


  6. Porter, I use to love to settle in with the New York Review of Books much for the essayistic wanderings, which might be part author bio, part personal lit peeve or pleasure, part parsing of plot and character. But the contagious, helter-skelterish nature of Twitter Time today does seem to deter me from directly seeking probing reviews or reviewers. (Though I never turn away from their reading when I come across any book review in a magazine, online, or less and less so, in newspapers.)

    There is a loss when the thumbs up/thumbs down take-a-bite-and-move-on “review” supplants the measured, curious and even-handed (or even one-handed) investigation into the meat of a work. But we seem to have an appetite for the snack cakes, and not the slow cooking.

    However, I see that Jessica brought up Harold Bloom, which made me remember my own grimacing grad-school evenings spent with many lit critics, Bloom included. So much of the formal literary criticism seemed ponderous then—does anybody read Lacan or Chomsky or any of the deconstructionist set now? Wouldn’t it be Clockwork Orange eye-clamp torture to force any reader today to read six chapters on subtext? Thumbs-down.

    But a three-minute review from a discerning fellow traveler on Goodreads? Fist-pump.

    • Tom, I quite enjoyed some of those literary theory guys. But I’m not entirely convinced to this day that I understood what they were saying. I do recall one of my supervisors proclaiming the death of the novel, in about 1980. Perhaps he was a bit premature!

    • @disqus_z8blEym8w8:disqus

      Yo, Tom! Good to hear from you, thank you!

      And yes, the NYReview of Books is engaged, even now, in a just-off-the-campus academic model of criticism, highly prized in some quarters, totally vexing in those “snack cake” quarters you speak of. I worry for it and for other similarly broadly understood centers of critical purview and exercise — and not because I like to read it that much. (There are flights of fancy critical address really not at all worth taking, after all, lol.)

      On the other hand, we do live in the world of those snack cakes. And while I could always sit down and read Bloom, myself, most couldn’t. He and some of the others (including some in NYRB) haven’t necessarily done addressable, publicly accessible criticism a service, in that they present a really daunting extreme of critical density for the average reader. Your “ponderous” hardly begins to describe it.

      And that, of course, helps the boomerang digital development of too-short reactions (“no nasty literary gatekeepers!”) based in the recommendation culture.

      I’m a strong supporter of Goodreads and I see its acquisition by Amazon as extremely good news. But I’m not happy that over time (and not much time), recommendation is replacing criticism pretty resoundingly in terms of how readers think about and read about and understand books.

      This, of course, is the consumer culture hardening up in publishing.

      And while it’s exactly right to say to publishers, for example, that they have to learn to reach readers, the fact that this will be an exercise in recommendation is less than happy if you’ve ever known the importance and contextual grace of literary criticism. Most of our readers will never experience literary criticism, let’s face it. They’ll get something between consumer review and customer recommendation.

      The main thing is getting them to read. But as in so many things carried in on the digital tide, they’ll be doing it on a shallower basis than have readers in generations past who were supported by true literary criticism.

      Thanks again!


      On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

      • Thanks Porter. I thought a bit more today about the divide between old-school formal criticism (with its sometimes stifling impenetrability) and the snack-cake recommendation culture, trying to recall instances of delight with the former AND with the latter. I remembered that Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lectures on Literature” was as much a frolic as an edifying tome. He looked at the works of some of the biggest names in 19th and 20th century lit (Dickens, Austen, Joyce, Kafka, et al.), but even when he was discussing structural or technical aspects of the craft, it was never fussy, at least as I remember it. Probably because Nabokov was opinionated, cranky and obviously, such a master of language himself.

        Then I remembered one of my favorite pieces of lit crit: Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” And here I am gleefully splashing with all the good company in the shallow side of of the reviewer’s pool: it’s such a hilarious skewering of Cooper. Even when he lights aflame Cooper’s every blunt scraping of literary bark, I laugh, because it’s so well done. We do so enjoy a takedown, cheap thrill that it is.

        Twain himself hated Austen’s work; he and Nabokov should have had a chance to spar. Thinking of Twain reminded me of a famous (and at the time of publication, near-infamous) essay on Huckleberry Finn by Leslie Fielder, where Fielder suggested a strong homoerotic subtext between Huck and Jim on their journey down the river. Twain is my favorite writer, and I’ve read Huck Finn ten times, and had never considered that aspect. Now, such a take would be unlikely to ruffle any feathers—perhaps as much because the wings of literary critics currently don’t have much flap.

        I’ll stop rambling, but before that how about an example of contemporary “critic lite” that yet might spark reader interest: the June issue of San Francisco magazine has as its title article “Writers on Writers.” It’s a series of short accounts of Bay Area writers getting to spend an interesting encounter with other Bay Area writers they admire. Some go bowling, some go on extended S.F. hikes, some have a cookoff of spaghetti and meatballs and martinis (the martinis remained uncooked) over Skype. It’s all kind of frivolous fun, but in almost all of the pieces, the admiring writer specifies what it is about the work of the admired writer that’s so admirable. The very casualness and easy exchange in that context made me want to read many of the cited works. Whatever brings readers to the table…

        • @disqus_z8blEym8w8:disqus

          Hey, Tom,

          I think I’m a little less impressed than some by such set-ups as the San Francisco magazine “Writers on Writers.” Those who enjoy it, should do so thoroughly, and, I’m sure, will. It’s OK.

          To me, it’s a well-meaning stunt.

          Getting readers to read is certainly the goal, you’re right about that. I’m just never happy when we haul literature in the direction of “fun” … as if it weren’t fun in and of itself. That’s anti-intellectualism in city-magazine clothing. The intent may be genuinely good, too. Nobody wakes up in the morning and announces, “I’m going to be really anti-intellectual today and fool myself thinking I’m doing something cool for literature — bowling and cookoffs!”

          That’s just me, though, the ancient journalist, wondering why somebody needed to go bowling to make us think of reading their books.

          I’d prefer a series of in-depth (not short) interviews with these writers.

          Years ago, I was doing a major feature on a young classical pianist for what then was Dallas’ city magazine. The photographer sent in to shoot the pianist working in his New York apartment was obsessed with getting a baseball cap on the kid at the piano because it would make him “more fun and normal.” This guy was neither fun nor normal. He was extraordinarily talented, really, and a terrific fellow trying to understand himself and his art. And he was mortified by that stupid baseball cap. Begged me not to let them use the shot. I never forgave the magazine (which folded) for using that photo despite my direct appeals that they not use the baseball cap picture. They wanted him to be “more fun and normal,” as the photog did.

          This is the way the world has of thinking it’s doing serious work a favor. Make us “more fun and normal.” I hate it. It’s usually anti-intellectualism unawares, something intended as generosity and “fun” — a baseball cap slapped on the head of a stunning classical artist.

          Bowling and cookoffs, huh? I’ll just drink the Martinis and read the writers’ work, myself. :)


          On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

          • Porter, ugh, the baseball cap story makes me writhe a bit; your disdain was on point. Yuck. Yes, the Writers on Writers piece was a swirl of frothy meringue, but undoubtedly struck an agreeable chord with the mag’s audience, before they turned to the next celebrity chef article. I can’t fault the magazine for that, nor the writers for participating, but I’m in full agreement that such flashy table dips aren’t really in the service of literature, which has so many more intriguing chambers, passages and vaults beneath the table.

            But me being the shallow sort, I still liked it (though I’ve forgotten some of the author names already, so there’s that.)

            Your reply to Elizabeth Craig was rich and subtle in the assessment of the flickering candle of literary work contrasted with the klieg lights of digital populism. Kind of a jeremiad and rallying cry (once more unto the breech dear friends) at the same time. Thank you for your considered thoughts on these subjects. I’ve learned a great deal from your work.

  7. Pingback: WRITING ON THE ETHER: Let's Review Criticism | ...

  8. Great discussion of a real problem. But it’s important to note it’s been brewing for decades. Oprah did a lot to get the average woman to read, but she also elevated the sentimental over artistic merit. “Serious” literature came to mean “weepy”. It also meant the most influential critics in the NYT, etc, tended to ignore women writers entirely. I think both factors have added to the disappearance of real literary criticism.

    I also think a big influence on the current review climate comes from the fact the first Amazon reviewers were young men reviewing video games. These were individual consumers reviewing hugely expensive products, so peer-to-peer reviews really mattered. And they tended to be adversarial.

    But when that attitude is applied to book reviews, things get skewed. Many of the original “top Amazon reviewers” are gamers who view an author as the enemy, as if they were equal to the marketers of X-boxes. Their reviews tend to have nothing to do with literary merit, and lots to do with ease of use. I get “rave” reviews that praise the ease of reading my prose, with no mention of the content. Others call everything “padding” that has to do with theme and character, because they read only for plot.

    We still need real criticism. I think it will survive. But I’m not sure where.

    • @annerallen:disqus

      Hey, Anne,

      Thanks for these observations in which you’re putting your finger on something very true about the “recommendation culture,” as I call it — for the most part, these retail-based, non-professional participants in the most rudimentary level of consumer review aren’t prepared to handle products as anything but that — products.

      You couldn’t ask for a clearer demarcation of how limited the consumer-review and recommendation culture can be than this. The folks who started as gamers tipping each other off — or warning each other — about games and consoles are completely unequipped to critique other material. And yet they do. Many people who feel they can properly rate a garden rake somehow seem they also can make a cogent comment about a novel. Some can. Many can’t.

      The darker side of all this “democratization” is that without any gatekeeping whatever you do get some huge anomalies in terms of who’s evaluating one thing and another. I’d never think of reviewing a game console, for example — I have no valuable experience or expertise in the field and wouldn’t dream of trying to tell gamers what to think about a new offering. Those same gamers, however, as you point out, feel perfectly fine about weighing in on what you do for a living.

      Along with the “down with gatekeepers” energy has come, as you know, a kind of backlash against experts, against anyone who focuses and builds up some currency in a given field or type of work. Frankly, that’s a shame. We need experts now, maybe more than we have in the past. The down-with-experts/everybody-can-do-it business will pass — it’s an over-compensation already starting to ease. But it has taken a toll and one area in which it’s done a lot of damage, as you’re perceiving, is in criticism, largely abandoned to the generic amateur, as you’ve noted. (And yes, not least because of the type material elevated by Oprah and such endeavors — always a price to pay, weeping all the way.)

      Thanks for these thought-provoking notes, really appreciate your time and input!


      On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

  9. How interesting. A few months after beginning my blog on historical fiction, I began receiving requests from publicists and PR types as well as indie authors to review various books. Flattered was my first reaction, after all someone had noticed my little blog. Too busy was my second reaction. What will I say if I don’t like it was my third thought. And I’ll admit that the fourth reaction concerned the possibility that I might somehow make a useful connection.

    Ultimately, I decided to offer author interviews as a way to generate synergistic publicity. Since that first request, I have done a few book reviews but I’m not trained as a critic nor am I steeped in literary education (I studied math and computer science), however, I have been writing novels for seven years and learned a little along the way.

    What’s the point? These days anyone with even a relatively small platform can be asked to conduct a review. No credentials required.

    But I’d like to offer another point. Having investigated the book blogging phenomena, it seems to me that readers like to talk about reading. Not a particularly profound point but it was twigged by your statement that ‘digital is about distribution’. I would add that digital is about conversation, the two-way or multi-way connections amongst like minded individuals. And what could be better than people talking about books?

    I wonder how all this will shake out? Will critics resurface as a major force in the book world? Will bloggers become even more sophisticated? Will Goodreads become the kleenex of book review sites or merely a puppet adding more revenue to Amazon’s coffers? Will bloggers tire of writing for no remuneration?

    Pretty interesting world.

    By the way, if you’d like a little critique. I found the twitter inserts particularly distracting :-)

    • @A_Writer_of_History:disqus
      Hi there. Since your Disqus registration provides us with no name, I’m unable to address you by name, as I like to do with commenters, so do forgive me. (You may want to reconsider your handle — we teach authors that the very best thing they can choose as a handle in any social-media formulation is the closest thing they can get to their actual name. Then we know them as people.)

      Your point about readers liking to talk about reading is very well taken — quite true — but in no way counters our understanding of digital as an energy and force of distribution. The very conversations you’re seeing among readers — our very conversation here at the Ether — are both digitally enabled and a part of distribution. Readers happily gabbling about their reading are some of the best distributors of their favorite books. Their communities are just that: distributional elements of the widening, deepening digital reconfiguration of our world. So for my part, you’ve said nothing but what’s true — they love talking about their books. I see this as part of distribution. “Hand-selling,” as we like to say in reference to bookshops, now is the digital conversation going on worldwide around publishing.

      Glad you’re a part of it, thanks for joining us. Sorry you don’t care for the “cameo tweets” in the column. Some do find them distracting, yes. Many more seem to enjoy them. (It’s my suspicion that some folks read only the tweets! :) If you’re new to the Ether, you may find them a bit more distracting than they’ll be after a little time. You get good at just jumping them if they’re intrusive for you.

      Hope you’ll return, even if unhappy with the cameo tweets — one can always just shut one’s eyes when reading the Ether. God knows I do. :)



      On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

      • Hi Porter – thanks for your reply and for pointing out that I needed to change my Disqus registration. The first name is Mary .. but I’m publishing under M.K. Tod otherwise Google assumes I’ve misspelled my name and meant to refer to Mary Todd Lincoln.

  10. Years ago I wrote for American Theatre magazine, which didn’t review but did survey new productions of note. The editor, Jim O’Quinn (who’s still there, bless him), gave me some interesting advice. To paraphrase: Most magazine readers will never see the show, but they want to feel as if they had. They want to be au courant, keep up with trends and names.

    When I later wrote theater and book reviews for other pubs, I kept that in mind.

    I haven’t reviewed in awhile, but I often scan the fresh reviews, interested in books and shows I may never experience myself. After all, I gotta keep up.

    PS: Porter, I know you love and champion Twitter. But I agree, it induces ADD in this format.

    • Hey, Mary,

      Great to hear from you and especially to be reminded of Jim O’Quinn, a great friend for whom I’ve written many times at American Theater, he’s a super guy!

      And of course his point is right (he’s always right, that Jim): people do, in fact, want to feel as if they’re on top of things and I’ve run into a number of people over the years, for example, who would religiously read my dance or theater or music criticism without even considering going to see something. A little weird to those of us who do like to see things but of course, readers of this kind are most welcome and can be among the most discerning, I’ve found.

      Thanks for your note on the cameo tweets, too. As I was saying to M.K. (Mary) above, some folks do find them distracting. Many more love them and even vie to be chosen to have a tweet on the Ether, if you can imagine that, lol. As I said to Mary, just shut your eyes. I do. :)

      Cheers, and thanks again!


      On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

  11. What a great read, Porter. Talk about an overhead smash that scores the winning point :)

    Kid gloves? Yeah, those things over in the corner next to the tattered, jacketless copy of The Da Vinci Code.

    Oh my, I do make a point of writing a review, a measured critique but a no-holds barred assessment, of any bad books I happen to read. If the industry! the industry! ever needed knights errant, it’s now.

    Recommendation is all well and good. It serves a role in our digital economy, and a needed role. There’s just too much good stuff out there, and we can’t be expected to find it all on our own, or trust advertisers and marketing gurus to pitch it at us correctly, or in digestible ways even. So we naturally turn to those like us, the common folk on this side of the cash register. We thrive on trusted opinions and feel more confident about our purchases when we make them based on a “review” written by another human being.

    Of course, this gave rise to falsified review mills. Locke, et al, duped the buying public, and now there’s a pervasive stigma attached to “reviews” of books. As well there should be, I say. Literary criticism doesn’t come with an old saw, like the one embedded in teaching.

    “Those who can, write. Those who can’t, criticize.”


    Those who critique, who review in the professional sense, do so from informed positions. I’d never have accused Angry Robot Books of shoddy editing if I hadn’t had the benefit of being both a writer and (admittedly pro bono) an editor. I might have said I didn’t care for the book, but a pointed critique that lays bare what’s wrong with the book has to come from a place of know-how.

    And in today’s world of anybody-can-publish, it should come as quickly as possible.

    • @f8089fc9074b34812a8c6b0347bb80ba:disqus

      Right, Aaron.

      There are several levels of difficulty as we see the new recommendation culture rise alongside literary criticism and consumer reviews.

      You’re certainly right that there’s a place for recommendation and that the mad overwhelm of too much material is making that all the more pressing.

      Where Bethanne Patrick is right, however, has more to do with the recommendation culture’s love of the enthusiastic response. Unlike your own willingness to negatively critique something, many (even at least one in these comments) is talking of not being able to risk “hurting people’s feelings” by saying something negative about a work. And this, too, opens a wide arena of problems because if responders to work at any level (critics, reviewers, or recommenders) aren’t willing to say what needs saying, then the work, itself, is in trouble.

      Literature, like all other arts, grows in honest soil not in fatuous praise or amateur glee.

      I’ve turned down an offer of reviewing in one setting because the managers weren’t willing to have commentary on self-published book covers included in the critiques. Ridiculous. But that’s what we’re up against in this odd transitional moment.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting, always good to have your input.


      On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

      • “Literature, like all other arts, grows in honest soil not in fatuous praise or amateur glee.”

        You say it all right there. I appreciate the position of the commenter who fears hurting other’s feelings. I’ve been guilty of that myself, but pushed through anyway.

        Another reviewer friend put it this way. “I have my integrity as a reviewer to consider.” Reputation, when distilled down to “ranking” or “feedback % positive/negative” gets diluted, almost obviated, by the recommendation culture. That makes it an even more necessary consideration.

        • @f8089fc9074b34812a8c6b0347bb80ba:disqus

          Right, Aaron, this reputational point of the reviewer/critics/consumer is what I’m getting at when I talk about what happened as professional critics were told we had to use stars and thumbs up and down and whatnot.

          Our reputations — certainly those who do this seriously as a career, depend hugely on what we can do en-critique, in searching for that fairness, that fine balance between what works and what doesn’t, that expertise brought in from years of study and experience and observation (so we know the artists, know their work, know their influences, know their capabilities, and — the ineffable part — the peculiar taste a critic brings to bear, which will work for some readers and not for all, this is a given, not a controversy.

          Once the graphical representations are in place, (a) readers don’t read the actual critiques nearly as well, they grab the stars and run, “too busy!”; (b) various media (still a plural word, as I point out to everyone, not just to you, lol) cut back on space and word count for reviews; and (c) the critic thus begins to lose credibility and reputation because his or her arguments just aren’t being played out in the way they were in the past.

          Trying to reduce the 15-column-inch review to a set of stars in the newspaper days of column inches was the initial disaster for this segment of the journalistic crowd.

          This was impacting us in the late 1980s. When I moved into a new critic’s berth in the early 1990s, that paper offered me six column inches for a review. No more. And demanded stars. And this was still true criticism, the second paper was hiring actual critics but wanted only six inches for a review and use of those stars. You see how the change was occurring…the industry itself had not realized that actual critical efficacy was no longer the hire…they simply were trying to pour genuine stuff into tinier, faster containers…which was not going to work for the long haul.

          In my case, I would make the jump to hard news shortly after that, mid-1990s, with criticism as my eternal sideline.

          Thanks again for all the good input.


          On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

          • “the critic thus begins to lose credibility and reputation because his or
            her arguments just aren’t being played out in the way they were in the

            This happens, I’ll suggest, because the range of consciousness has narrowed:


            Consumers are pressured by the pace of the digital economy. Everything feels faster now, more urgent. And so we resort to the most expedient action and claim a sense of victory.

            “We like it! Huzzah! Now where’s the next funny cat picture in my news feed? Is Godot here yet?”

          • @f8089fc9074b34812a8c6b0347bb80ba:disqus

            Precisely, Aaron, that AND — as I’ve just been commenting to Elizabeth — the fact that the consumer reviewer’s main interest IS selfish, the patron’s prerogative, the paying piper feels he gets to diss the tune, whether he’s dissatisfied with the book or the garden rake. Unlike the literary critic, the consumer reviewer just thinks of no need to be constructive or thorough (usually, with some fine exceptions) — his or her main purpose is to say the third button on the left doesn’t work. And as you note, to say it fast. :)

            Thanks again!


            On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

  12. Oh, well put. And writers can *learn* from criticism of their books–it’s tough to learn from a customer review (especially since bad reviews are along the lines of: “Didn’t like this book. Didn’t finish it.”) As a reader, I like to see what *didn’t* work in a book I’m considering purchasing…maybe what didn’t work won’t even matter to me.

    Question for you (and I apologize for going a bit off-topic—you only briefly brought up the issue). While digital distribution has been very good for commercial fiction (I’ve noticed/enjoyed the results), I do think it could be good for literary fiction or niche fiction, too…mainly because of the sheer numbers of readers out there that it could reach. I’d heard literary authors saying publishers were getting stingy about accepting lit fic (only so much room in the catalog for books that likely wouldn’t make as much money as the bestselling commercial/genre fic) and bookstores only want to stock so many copies. Is there hope for literary fiction with digital distribution? I like to think there is…although I do see a visibility problem.

    • Elizabeth S. Craig

      Hey, Elizabeth (with that great new photo, love it — and you made the change at Disqus, lol.) Great piece on the picture issue, btw: http://mysterywritingismurder.blogspot.com/2013/06/author-photos.html

      You’re bringing up a couple of my favorite issues.

      First the diss-the-book “review” from a consumer, from which it’s almost impossible to learn anything.

      Remember you’re in the land of true consumer-review on such reactions, near-anathema to actual literary criticism.

      If you can ever tie down a genuine critic, the nice thing is that he or she will have been trained never to just say “didn’t like it.” The job is to figure out why one didn’t like it, justify the objections, search for whether they lie in an avoidable “mistake” or evident conscious choice on the part of the artist/writer, and even to try to shed some light not necessarily on how-to-fix (a very dangerous side-swamp) but on how something else nearby (another book, another writer) has coped with a similar issue, either with success or similar “didn’t like it” effect. In short, you get something to hang on to, to think about, to test against your own interests — and you can still reject the entire body of comment, but at least you have some understanding of what was going on for the reader.

      In the consumer-review “didn’t like it,” you’re hearing from the entirely self-interested customer whose concept of the author is “person whose job it is to please me.” My advice in such instances is to reject the rejector.

      “I didn’t like it. Didn’t finish it.” is a suspect brick in itself — readers who don’t finish books have not given their authors a full chance to explicate and justify their work. Many, many books, if jumped out of early, wouldn’t remain in the mind as favorites, after all.

      And, overall, that simply is a form of comment not worth the author’s time or interest. Delete it from your mind. Ironically, it’s also useless for other readers. So even on the most basic functional intent of consumer review, “Didn’t like it. Didn’t finish it.” is a failed consumer review. When you see one of those, you’re seeing the shortfall not of an author but of a customer.

      Now, to your second point, the question of literary work in the digital dynamic. This is such a tricky issue, but one I’m fascinated by, since I’m a known fan of literary work — with no disrespect for genre work, by the way, as you know.

      If we go back to the digital dynamic, one way to think of it is not unlike a house fire or forest fire. The fire seeks oxygen and fuel, needs both, to expand and grow and intensify. The digital dynamic is similar. It seeks and needs audience and content to grow and intensify.

      Because it’s an energy of distribution, it seeks the widest possible audience and the content that will appeal to that widest possible audience.

      This is one reason the arts have had so much trouble benefiting from the digital disruption: serious arts don’t find as big an audience in the world as entertainment does. This part is not new, it was ever thus, after all, as we know. But many gorgeous online exhibition walk-throughs from museums, many live-opera afternoons beamed live from the Met to local cinemas with stunning camera work and Dolby sound, many wonderfully interactive debates on the literary merits of one great author’s oeuvre in cyberspace? — still are working with a smaller audience, the subset receptive to this material.

      To bring it down to one guy of the moment? Henry Cavill, the actor. Did he get more viewers in the several seasons of the Tudors (he played Suffolk)? Or as Superman? The world loves car chases, laugh-riot comedies, caped crusaders, and romance. It’s less fond of costume dramas about Henry VIII. We know this.

      Is it the fault of digital? No, it’s human nature that the more “serious” (there I go with that word again) expressions of creative imagination — of any art, any genre — will find a smaller audience than the more populist feel-good offerings.

      What digital does is exacerbate this. Digital successfully distributes far more entertainment content than traditional analog modes could. (You can beam your car-crash action-adventure film to cinemas all over the world, no more need to fly and drive physical cans of tape to each one, for example.) What this means is that great swaths of audience start to receive and enjoy and call for entertainment material they never had in the past. As their time and energies and financial resources go that way, less and less is there for even the potential interest in serious work.

      So to your point, you’re very right, completely right, that more eyeballs are brought into the marketplace by digital. Books in digital format can reach so many more people. Book culture can reach many more people. You’re not wrong, that IS the hope.

      However, what we then see is an accentuation of the age-old divide between populist and serious interests. We know this divide even in ourselves. Me as the example:

      I’m a fan, as you know of tennis, and have spent many hours of my life I might have contributed to reading — watching live matches from around the world because digital distribution now brings the whole of the ATP and WTA tournament seasons right to my desk live. Until digital distribution, I’d have had to wait days or weeks to see such things without traveling to them (which I do at times), and then I’d get only highlights in hindsight, one big match or two at best, nothing like the coverage we see of women’s tennis now as well as men’s (we get full WTA coverage, I’m glad to say). I have the Tennis Channel, ESPN, NBC, others, devoting major parts of their delivery to world tennis, it’s fantastic. In Europe, I subscribed online to full-tournament live coverage, just as good, missed nothing.

      And how’s the reading coming along, Porter?

      You get the picture. I may carry my Kindle Fire into the stands but reading between points is a herky-jerky thing.

      This is digital playing on my personal entertainment interests, which, in terms of my available time, directly compete with my literary interests. And we all have such dilemmas to face, daily. From some guilty-pleasure TV show to “cheap” but “potent” music, as Coward called it, gaming, more sports, more sports, more sports…maddening.

      Now, let’s say the chief advantage of digital we’re talking about is self-publishing. You can say, and you’d be right, that a literary author can just as easily put a book online, create it via KDP and have it printed per CreateSpace, for example, mount it on Amazon and get going just as you and so many do in your genre of great cozy mystery series and others. But because literary is “genre-less,” if you will, it’s far, far harder for readers to identify it, find it, understand it. In a way, literary stands as a sort of invisible default in the world of literature. And historically, we’ve depended on the great publishing houses to promulgate literary work. They announced it, cultivated it, described it to the buyers, delivered it to the distributors, schmoozed it into the stores, won awards with it the next year, and made their names on it as the “great” work in the end.

      Where is that pathway for the independent writer of digitally produced and distributed literary work? Very, very hard to find. So far, we just don’t really have it.

      I do know a few literary writers who are very adept at creating both ebooks and print editions of their work. Admire them hugely, just as I do the many genre-based talents doing the same. The literary folks, though, are having a much harder time of it.

      What’s more, digital’s love of the biggest audience does little to help categorize and display literary. Instead, it does its best work in pre-understood populist memes. So E.L. James gets the big, big sales because soft porn is far more easily distributed on familiar populist channels than Barbara Kingsolver’s literary work.

      People who don’t like to hear about literary work will say that I’m belittling the power of populist entertainment to leverage digital distribution to its advantage — no matter how much I talk about tennis, which is precisely that. I am not, however, belittling populism.

      What I regret is that the museums reach only a proportionately far, far smaller crowd than movies; that classical dance and music concerts find only a relatively modest bump in attention from their efforts to use digital distribution; and that literary authors are very hard-pressed to find their place as independent creators of books in the digital marketplace.

      Bottom line? Digital amplifies what we already had and knew.

      If something is popular and followed by huge crowds, digital will come-hither ever bigger crowds to it and make it ever more popular because the fuel and oxygen that big fire seeks (content and audience) are there to “burn” to its advantage. We are in an age, therefore, aflame with entertainment. Even what once was news, as I’ve discussed, becomes info-tainment, if it survives at all.

      If something is “specialist” and “niche” and “refined” and “cultivated” and, God forbid, “intellectual” and other terms unloved in populist circles, chances are that digital will “burn” far less brightly for it, finding less audience and content. Serious work is comparatively ill-defined and categorized, less robustly supported by word of mouth and avid social-media churn.

      AND I have no answer for this yet. I have ideas of things that might help — concretizing the literary interest, per se, online in hubs that interested readers can find, etc. “Come here for your literary fix,” lol. This would include working with Amazon and other retailers to fully categorize and attract the literary readership that way, cross-linking to other interests, as well. (Science readers love Kingsolver, for example, because she’s a scientist as well as a literary author.)

      All those, however, involve stating explicitly that “literary” is the interest. And that can be daunting in a world that loves entertainment and trends toward the anti-intellectual.

      The non-literary side inevitably feels it’s being criticized by the literary, although this is rarely the case. There’s a rather considerable chip about literary work on many genre-based shoulders, even as they out-perform and out-sell their literary brothers and sisters right and left.

      Ironically, it seems that everybody wants to be literary and feels shut out by it when they turn out to be even spectacularly good artists of genre. This is a strange, but painful situation that compounds the fact that digital is getting a lot more tennis into the world than literary fiction.

      So there you have it. And thanks to you, Elizabeth, I realize I probably need to make a full Ether out of this topic. (Court Three at Wimbledon — and you — have always been good for my head, lol.)

      As a community, we need to start thinking about this. There are, I’m grateful to say, a lot of grand artists in genre like yourself who do care about literary work. (Many, for example, will concede that they began their reading lives in literary as many of us did.)

      And as thrilled as any of us can and should be to see authors accessing their own readerships for their work in digital, what a nightmare it will be if this essential element, literary fiction, suffers more decline next to the white-hot fires of genre popularity.

      More to come, then.

      And how fabulous of you to take the time to read and comment today — knowing the kind of schedule on which you live and work, and how much good experience and observation you play back to us, I’m really grateful, Elizabeth.



      On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

      • I’m fascinated by this all too, Porter–thanks so much for the food for thought here. This is perfect material for a complete Ether!

        Yes, my eyes just float over the unhelpful, negative consumer reviews…and I’m always *looking* for those critical reviews so that I can find something constructive to work with. They’re few and far between, for sure. Interesting point–yes, they are self-centered, aren’t they? Hadn’t considered that.

        Wondering, as you mentioned, if the path for independent literary writers might, after all, be found with Amazon…but you’re right, it would be daunting to persuade them to create a sub-store for literary works. Still, it seems to me that it makes more sense. Maybe their algorithm could still work in between their commercial offerings and literary, persuading some customers to wander over. But that couldn’t be the perfect fix. Amazon’s clunky search engine isn’t helping, though. It’s just not as easy to find what you’re looking for there (well, to *browse* for what you *might* be looking for there), as it is to walk to a literary fiction section of a physical store.

        At least, the sheer retail longevity at online bookstores should work a bit in lit fic’s favor…more time to get discovered. In the physical stores…well, you know.

        I’m wandering off-subject (tangentially related I know) again, but on a topic that interests both of us, I know–watched a story on the NewsHour (well, I think it was the NewsHour) the other night on classically trained musicians and what a tough road they’re facing. Tremendous student loans at Julliard and then no positions available. The audition process was amazing…getting eliminated in the 9th round or something (very reality-show-esque). They blamed digital for that a bit, too…saying that people felt they didn’t have to spend money on a night out when they could get a perfectly-recorded rendition of the same selections on iTunes to listen to in the comfort of home. Made me a little sad.

        Thanks again. It’s impolite of me not to comment more! You know how much I enjoy the Ether here and at http://publishingperspectives.com/?s=porter+anderson&searchsubmit= . I *could* find the time….but so frequently your excellent commenters have made the perfect point or asked exactly the question I’d have asked. Nice community here.

        • @8c7ec7376be7df2b0bdcd28e437836b5:disqus

          Impolite, Elizabeth, you?? Never! No, not at all — I’m still in awe of all you get done in a day while I’m still trying to spell my Twitter handle correctly, lol.

          The point of so many consumer reviewers being self-centered, by the way, isn’t to say that these are bad people — after all, we’re consumers, too. :) I’m sure you got that, but just to be clear in case someone feels unhappy with that, it’s the purpose and function of the review that changes when it moves into the hands of the customer. The consumer is responding as the patron, the one paying the piper. Being of use to the author or to the literature culture in general may be nowhere nearer that consumer’s mind than being supportive and constructive of the refrigerator manufacturer. The foundation of a consumer review is “the customer is always right” (something Amazon knows better than most retailers), and as such we simply can’t look to most consumer-review as a viable replacement for literary criticism or even as that hopeful an improvement on the recommendation culture.

          I do have a lot of hope for what Amazon might be able to do for literary fiction, actually. Their Amazon Publishing wing is really committed to literature and its place in the culture, and I think can serve as a sort of in-house hub to promote the needs of literary fiction and its readers to find each other.

          It may not take a separate “store” within Amazon, either (although I wouldn’t be averse to that at all). I think that simply parsing out a more straightforward set of categories could help.

          Right now, literary fiction falls, obliquely and without specific designation, under “Literature and Fiction.” Sooooooo broad.

          And as some subset breakdown occurs, there’s never a remaining label for “literary.” There’s classical and contemporary, both very helpful as far as they go. But under “Literature and Fiction,” those can both mean werewolves and faeries at the bottoms of gardens. NOT that there’s a thing wrong with werewolves or faeries (especially at the bottoms of gardens) but ultimately, there is no clean label called “literary” into which. a great Doris Lessing or Joan Didion or Ian McEwan or our Barbara Kingsolver might fall.

          Nothing just finally says, “Here is what we call “literary.” And I think that’s a mistake.

          My guess is that those chips on shoulders I’ve mentioned earlier might be involved here, the Amazonians fearing that they could honk off the vampire lovers and Shirtless Men Kissing Beautiful Women readers by suggesting that “literary” is also on sale here…it subtly sends the messages that those bare-chested guys and toothy pale people aren’t quite “literary,” and this, of course, then gets our we-feel-maligned-by-literary folks into the streets for a march or two again.

          Not easy, this topic, so many emotional components that really have little business making it all so fraught.

          We must keep thinking and looking for ways to take this peculiar air of threat away from literary.

          Oh, and your comments on what “contemporary classical” musicians and composers go through are right on the money. You’ll remember from kindly letting me post at your site about my interests in this music in New York, in particular, that I follow it closely. There are composers now who at times can’t even get a good taped copy of their new works when they’re performed by a major ensemble, meaning that one of the few chances they may have to preserve a world premiere or major performance of their work is lost to them. Rights issues and legal controls on how and in what circumstances a recording of a performance can be used are fiendish and contribute to the kind of confusions you’re relating to.The question of recording taking the place of getting to a concert is very real, even among the most ardent fans (who are cash-strapped, too, though most classical concert tickets are far below what pop tickets go for). This is one reason that @Q2Music, the NY Public Radio affiliate I support, has become so critical to so many. It at least moves their music out into the world on the Internet on a 24/7 stream so these living composers are being heard and discovered. If, that is, they have a recording of their work for Q2 to stream, of course.

          Nothing is easy, is it? LOL Thanks again, Elizabeth — yourself included, we do indeed have a wonderful group of responders here, and that’s in no small part, of course, to the amazing work Jane Friedman has done with this site over the years.



          On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

  13. I think of the process as one that has come to equate the critical faculty with rudeness, even cruelty. It happens when readers are groomed to imagine themselves bonded in some way to writers. Social media makes this possible. People who are unlikely ever to meet the author end up high-fiving, liking friending etc. Once the bogus connection is put in place, what’s required of the reader is a show of solidarity, of loyalty to a “friend,” nothing more. This applies largely to light reading, not to more weighty books, and it applies most of all to indie-published books. But good entertainment–the narrative equivalent of the musical for tired businessmen, indie or otherwise–should not be disparaged. A well-written entertainment is far more worthy of the reader’s time–be he tired or not–than is the bulk of “serious” novels dripping with pretense and navel-gazing.
    The best answer is for two things to come together: a discerning reader, and the “Look Inside” feature at Amazon. I flatter myself as being such a reader, and all I need is a page or two of most books–especially novels–to know whether they are worth my time.

    • @923dc3851043320b8856d289f934ce07:disqus

      Hi, BW, thanks for your comment.

      I’m glad you find the sampling process useful and are using it — I think it’s one of the best developments that has come to us primarily through Amazon’s arrival in literature’s retail. Before sampling, we were all staggering up and down aisles in bookstores trying to sort out what we wanted and pawing the actual inventory to do it. Unlike many who long for the perpetuation of physical bookstores, I find online sampling a far, far more efficient and telling way to select material, it’s a great boon to the industry.

      I’m sorry to hear you refer to parts of literary fiction as “dripping with pretense and navel-gazing.” I hear folks talk of literary this way frequently, and yet — heavy reader that I am of literary fiction — I don’t encounter this sort of “pretense” or “navel-gazing” at all. I fear that assumptions of literary having these qualities are one reason that so many people think they don’t like it. Many have never tried it. They were told it was dripping with pretense and navel-gazing,” so they stayed the hell away, as might we all. Most good literary work is nothing of the sort.

      Lastly, I agree that entertainment need not be disparaged. I am happy, however, to disparage its prevalence in our culture. We are inundated by entertainment and too rarely bothered by serious art. Nobody in our culture needs to “sit back and relax.” We do far too much of that. It would do our folks much more good to sit forward and be tense every now and then, and this is the blessing that serious work can give us … if you can find it behind the tinsel and the hype of the entertainment glut.

      Thanks again, very glad to have your input.

      On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

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