Inside the Critics’ Circle

From The Guardian:

Although I’ve been reviewing books for half a century, this little treatise caused me to do some anxious head-scratching. Phillipa Chong, a tenure-hungry assistant professor at a Canadian university, here presents an earnest sociological analysis of an activity that for me has been sometimes a chore, always a test of punctuality and proficiency, on occasion a wickedly thrilling chance for retaliation, but mostly a source of pleasure. Reading the product of Chong’s jargon-clogged research, I found that I lacked all symptoms of the professional malaise that afflicts her informants, who suffer, she believes, from “epistemic uncertainty”.

I may be a shallow fellow, but I’ve never worried about what Chong clumsily describes as the “lack of groupness” among reviewers. Who cares that no certificates of “accreditation” enrol us in “the institution of literary criticism” or that we “inhabit nonprofessional spaces”? I also hadn’t realised that I was supposed to function as a “market intermediary” or – with luck – as a “cultural consecrator”.

And none of the eight successive Observer literary editors for whom I have worked ever ordered contributors to “enact their duties”, which would have sounded unusually bossy. When they patted me on the back, was I being commended for “satisficing in the face of practical constraints”? I hope so, because satisficing, I gather, is a “cognitive heuristic” that defines an “acceptability threshold”.

Editors are employers and I’ve always been reluctant to question their reasons for commissioning me. Now I learn from Chong that they exercise “homophilous logics” resembling the algorithms that connect strangers on hook-up websites. This prompts her to liken assigning reviews to “making a good match”: well, then, next time a Jiffy bag arrives, I’ll regard it as the invitation to go on a blind date.

. . . .

“Well, I first try to read the book,” says one critic she quizzes. Another interviewee, mindful that sociology aspires to be a science, carefully spells it out: “I get the book in the mail. And I spend time reading it from beginning to end.” Chong, impervious to irony, describes this as the critic’s “review process”.

She seems not to notice that a third reviewer shrugs off her inquiry about his or her “physiological and emotional, or otherwise embodied, reactions”. “When a book is good,” this person replies, “a book is good.” A fourth reviewer almost audibly yawns when asked about his tendency to be lenient. “I’m from the midwest,” he says, “and I’m sort of a naturally nice person.” So much for the “culture of evaluation” Chong says we live in, which she aligns with the “audit culture” of high finance. “I am both expanding and contracting the generalisability of the framework,” she declares, unaware that the rickety scaffolding of theory has collapsed around her.

Applying the criteria of identity politics, Chong finds that her subjects are reluctant to “identify” as reviewers. “I’m primarily a book writer,” one reviewer defensively snarls; others announce “I’m mostly a writer” or “I mostly write”. Their epistemic qualms have a bottom line: reviewing is ill paid and Chong is bemused by the “nonmonetary form of profit” – AKA enjoyment – that we dedicated toilers derive from it. “What it means to be a writer,” she sighs, “is unclear.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

MERCUTIO: I am hurt.
A plague o’ both your houses! I am sped.
Is he gone, and hath nothing?

William Shakespear, Romeo and Juliet

2 thoughts on “Inside the Critics’ Circle”

  1. Well, that has generated a thread on the Guardian comments page that goes to show something; what that something is, is another matter. The propensity of people to comment? In which case, I’m guilty as charged for commenting here.

    Still, perhaps what we should takeaway from the review is that what is written for a Ph.D should stay in the academic library kept safe from critics reviews.

    • I agree, A.

      Plus, I think anyone could take a collection of book reviews from the Guardian’s book reviewers or almost anyone else who writes for the paper and cut/paste brief excerpts to make the authors sound like idiots.

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