Over the weekend, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan lightly chided the editorial staff of the paper’s book review for a perceived imbalance in the way it chooses its reviewers. At issue is a question of intimacy or closeness. “How Close Is Too Close?” the article’s title asks (mirroring the oppressively Socratic form of theReview’s Bookends column). When a reviewer knows the book’s author, does this constitute a conflict of interest?
“What editors may see as compelling expertise, readers may see as bias,” writes Sullivan. “That’s something that assigning editors should pay even more attention to as they try to get the balance right.”
The fantasy inculcated by Sullivan is one of dispassionate critical distance. But the literary and academic communities — indeed, virtually any community regarded in the pages of the Review — are defined by closeness and proximity, by a web of professional relations that boil down to impassioned respect and disdain, not to mention favors. When you read a book review — any book review — you are, on some level, witnessing a rehearsal of that critic’s location within (or outside) of this web of relations. This performance is part of what defines what you might call the “literary difference” that bolsters a book review. And if you’d rather read something with pretensions to “blind” critical distance, reach for an academic journal instead.
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Certainly fairness is one thing — mean spiritedness is gross and unenlightening, as are public displays of affection — but “evenhanded” and “dispassionate” critical ideals are not as old and historically justified as one might think. In fact, it’s possible to argue that literary humanism itself is founded on the idea of literature as “letters among friends.”
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As Elizabeth Gumport wrote in “Against Reviews” in 2011, this dispassionate pose can be traced back (at least) to the poet and critic Matthew Arnold, whose obsession with cold analysis makes the review into something like an autopsy. Noting the fruitlessness of this professionalized review, Gumport reminds us that when we write boring, dispassionate reviews, it’s only our friends who read them anyway:
Who reads reviews? Occasionally a lot of people. But usually just the book’s author, if she Googles herself, plus any pals, parents, exes, etc. who also search for her. Otherwise, our only readers are our friends, who feel obligated to at least skim our boring review because we liked theirs on Facebook. Why do we prioritize some imaginary “public” over people we actually know, and who read our work? Why don’t we want to write, and read, for our friends?
If we wouldn’t describe a book to someone we wanted to sleep with, we shouldn’t write about it. It is time to stop writing — and reading — reviews.
Link to the rest at Flavorwire