A few years ago at a Zadie Smith reading I attended, a young man stood up during the Q&A and asked Ms. Smith what she thought about the role of the critic in contemporary literature. In addition to her terrific novels, Smith has also written some insightful essays and reviews on fiction, so her answer was authoritative and fascinating! She resisted the temptation to spout academic theories regarding New Criticism vs. Post-structuralism, and instead explained that she believes that critics are artists themselves, and that reviewers and literary critics who bring a new understanding (or new audience) to their source texts are infinitely valuable for furthering the cause of literature.
Now, I'm not sure if this particular idea of criticism has a name, but I love it and agree wholeheartedly! Anyone who has ever spent an hour rewriting the same sentence until it's just right — whether in a piece of fiction or in a piece about a piece of fiction — certainly understands the craft, skill and dedication required to write meaningful prose. To me, good writing in most forms is art. For instance, essays and other "creative non-fiction" that move or inspire are widely regarded as art, right? I mean, if you can spend 2,000 words describing a tree, and keep your reader interested and focused, and give him/her something to take away from your piece, I say you're definitely on par with the writer of a good story!
And at the end of the day, what is a book review but a piece of creative non-fiction about a piece of creative fiction? No, the Janet Maslins and Michiko Kakutanis (pictured, left) of the world aren't as well-known as the Dan Browns or Stephenie Meyers, but I'd argue that those critics have done tons more to advance the cause of GOOD literature. So, yes, I'm on board with Ms. Smith: Good critique of art IS art!
Not everyone will agree, of course. Cynics will spout their cliches: "Those who can't write teach, and those who can't teach, review," or "Critics are nothing but failed novelists." To that, I say: "Step down from your high horse, and join us here among the grounded."
But even if you do agree with the notion of criticism as art, there still may be discussion about degree. In talking about this with my friend Jeff — a very good bellwether on topics like this — he basically agreed, but also said "I suspect there is no substitute for those who actually create." I guess it depends on your definition of "create," but this point is well-taken, too...
The sad thing is, especially in this wiki world, where opinions and blogs are like noses (everyone's got one, and some are larger, more forceful, and more slanted than others), good, thoughtful criticism — the kind that Ms. Smith thinks is art — is disappearing rapidly. Too many newspapers are cutting their book review sections and it seems that amateur critics who, for whatever reason, thoroughly enjoy eviscerating a book, just to make themselves feel better, are proliferating. (And yes, I fully realize the irony of decrying blogs that exhibit bad criticism ON A BLOG — which may or may not be considered bad, depending on whether I've pissed you off at some point.)
There's really no agreed-upon definition of what "art" is. And what inspires folks (either to write or while reading) is as widely varied as opinions on particular pieces of art themselves. So I can't wait to hear what the community has to say about this one!
Your move, fellow book readers and reviewers: Is a book review a piece of art? Why or why not?
(Side note: Yesterday, I came across this post by David at Follow the Thread, which included a link to an Examiner article that spelled out 20 most annoying book reviewer cliches. I had to laugh, as I'm often guilty of many of these — especially "compelling," "nuanced," and "riveting." That said, (haha), I take issue with the David's point that cliche isn't cliche if it's in the right context. Cliche is cliche because the words or phrases are overused, regardless of the context, in my opinion.)