Home » Reviews » Literature as a Chain Letter Among Friends: On the Fantasy of Critical Distance

Literature as a Chain Letter Among Friends: On the Fantasy of Critical Distance

31 May 2015

From Flavorwire:

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.

. . . .

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.”

. . . .

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?

Gumport concludes:

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


26 Comments to “Literature as a Chain Letter Among Friends: On the Fantasy of Critical Distance”

  1. It’s not an intellectually and culturally closed circle. It’s a Friendship ring!

  2. Perceived bias is important to most people reading reviews in a business setting. The idea that a random reader should know how exactly the author and reviewer are set in the “web of relations” is bizarre.

    Or maybe newspaper food critics trash restaurants because a waitress is the cousin of someone they hate. How could we tell unless we knew that web?

  3. Smart Debut Author

    Sooo… the NYT’s bookreviews are mostly buddies trading reacharounds?

    We need some hard-hitting investigative journalist to look into this… better get David Streitfeld on it right away! 😀

    • @Smart Debut Author

      [T]he NYT’s bookreviews are mostly buddies trading reacharounds?

      Made me smile. Yeah, I’m wicked, too.

      God, I pray you to lift this malice from my heart . . . but not just yet. 😉

  4. “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.”

    Ah … I have several friends that I help with their writing and a couple that help with mine —- none of which I am interested in sleeping with! 😛

  5. The word that both Sullivan and Sturgeon are pussyfooting around is: INCESTUOUS.

    The so-called (east coast) “literary” establishment is as much a cozy little country club as the Washington beltway bandit revolving door “community” of lobbyists and appointees.

    Handwringing over the “appearance of bias” or the need for “impartiality” is a joke since the whole establishment is, like the DC political scene, so tightly bound together that any attempt to play the “Six degrees of separation” game will barely get you three leaps deep.

    This has been documented repeatedly, most notably here:

    Short, and free, version:


    • Should have read more carefully – Felix got it first.

    • Yes, but what is fun about all this is that the rise of self-publishing makes it laughable rather than tragic.

      That little country club used to determine what was read in America, and what couldn’t be read. That was so depressing, after taking a couple creative writing classes in college twenty years ago, and getting a sense of the “literary” landscape, I completely wrote off any idea of trying to break into the book world. It was so clearly a closed system. I knew it would not accept the kinds of stuff I liked to write (and read).

      Now I wake up every day excited about the fiction world and all the possibilities.

      Meanwhile, it’s fun to watch them skirm as they’ve not only lost control of the gates to the castle, but they’ve been banished onto a little island of irrelevance, spending what time they have left in the fading light trying to justify their past tyranny.

  6. I cannot say I follow this. The writer charges book reviewers with bias. Or maybe with writing reviews without caring one way or the other. Where is the proof? Let’s have some names to show the incestuous nature of this business. Let’s have some examples of reviews that are biased and show where the bias was.

    The assumption that all academic writing is biased because all academics belong to the same group (a very sizable one!) is also nonsense.

    As for the NYT book reviews: one assumes that readers read them. Libarians read them. Book store managers read them. And yes, the authors read them, too. Expertise in review writing comes from having read widely in the same genre and in having the proof to support one’s opinions — not to mention the fact that the review has to stand up to all other reactions to the book.

  7. The word they are seeking to express the relationship is ‘incestuous.’

  8. So, are sock puppets still a bad thing?


  9. RealityObserver

    That Gumport quote should, in my opinion, get one of your top-level “philosophy” slots…

  10. Reviews still matter. A lot. The ones on Amazon and Goodreads, that is.

    • Taken with a grain of salt. They are not all legit. Neither are they all unbiased. Keep in mind that the anonymous nature of reader reviews allows all sorts of trickery and nastiness.

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