Monday, January 18, 2010

Is a Book Reviewer an Artist?

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.)


  1. If book criticism is an art or book analysis, then I believe some reviewers could be considered creative. I think of my review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog for instance, to be a work of art :) I haven't seen many people with my take on the novel.

  2. There are some book/film/art critics who write in a much more artistic (read: creative and insightful) way than others, that's certain. But it's true I don't believe there really is any substitute for those that actually create. At its most fundamental level there's this: without the creators, what would the critics have to discuss?

    But, also, more vital to this discussion, I believe that there is a certain risk in creating that for the most part isn't there in criticism. After all, what is criticism but an opinion? If people disagree with your opinion, oh well, that's what opinions are for! I think there is a more visceral vulnerability for the brave soul that puts a song or short story or exhibit or performance out there for the public to see than there is for someone who comments on that piece.

    I think in some way at least, my point of view develops from personal experience. I have always fancied myself a pretty good critical writer. I appreciate the essay form, the making of an argument and then supporting that stance. In grad school we had to produce a "substantial scholarly work" for our masters thesis. OR we could choose to do a creative thesis (i.e. write a play or novel, etc.) Though I wish I had, I didn't have the courage (nor likely the talent, I suppose...) to choose the creative thesis, and instead spent 40-some pages formulating a detailed theory on the use of technology in Michael Almereyda's Hamlet. I think the paper was solid; it was logical and original and thoughtful -- but I wouldn't classify it as art. But, again, just my opinion ;)

    One final note on critical analysis though: I think that close readings of other works only makes an artist better when creating his or her own art. Which leads me to say that I love the profoundly brilliant talents like Zadie Smith (and perhaps Greg Zimmerman?!) who have the capacity and wherewithal to both create and critique.

  3. Any thoughtful and insightful analysis on a art form can be artistic as it's subject,in my opinion. In film criticism,for example,it's always been one of my standards for a good critic is someone who can hate a movie you love and yet still keep your respect due to their well written reasons for doing so. Pauline Kael was one of those big kahunas and Roger Ebert is still,to some extent.

    Making you fall in love with a book or a film is just as tricky,a slippery slope between celebrating true talent and fawning all over someone. I don't claim to be anywhere near the level of a reviewer who writes for the NYT but I do try to recommend titles that either I would read on my own or suggest ones that I know others would like. Sort of what I used to do back when I was a bookseller,only with YouTube clips on hand:)

  4. Maybe not artists per se but creative all the same. I'm surprised at the reviews I got for my recently published novel. Some of the things I never even thought of while writing were brought to the fore by the reviewer. Impressive.

  5. I was going to point out that criticism is, by is nature, reactionary, rather than creationary (that's not I word, I know), so maybe that's why its not thought of as an art form in its own right. But then I thought about all the art that's been created in response to other art (and life, of course) and now I think that argument doesn't hold. But, to me at least, its still an interesting thought.

  6. At the end of the day it doesn't matter what you're writing - if you write it well with flair and hold the audiences attention you've created a piece of great writing. Is it art? Maybe not, but it sure is an art form.

  7. You had me at "New Dork Review". New visitor, but I enjoyed this post. I think I'm mostly innocent of the use of the top 20 most abused reviewing phrases over on my own blog -- but I think that's more a factor of my own inexperience writing reviews than stellar ability doing so!

    However, I will definitely be refraining from using the phrase "unputdownable"...

  8. @everyone - thanks so much for all your thoughtful comments. I am thoroughly enjoying this conversation. I posted this piece in a group on, too, and a member posted the following comment, which I thought was very interesting and added to the conversation:

    "Is a book review a piece of art? It can be - just like breathing properly can be an art form - after all, we're talking words here and words can build anything in the imagination so if a book review is done in an artful and creative way , then yes, it's art. I have heard speeches that bedazzle me more than many paintings I've seen and put my mind into another sphere so in that case - yes, a speech can be art - so I guess if the reviewer can capture and recreate and draw in and inspire - a book review can be art. After all, some folks look at a picture and paint what's in front of them and call that art...what's the difference except words are used instead of paint. Salud."

  9. Hmm, I've never thought of myself as an artist when it comes to writing my opinions of books. An artist in writing fiction, maybe... an artist of pen and paint, yes. But never an artist of the critical genre.

    Then again, I started my blog just for fun... it's still very much based on being fun. Maybe that's why I don't consider it art? At least not for me, I can see other people making art when they critique. It's just that... to me... My art is what I work hard for and my book blog is simply for fun (well, sometimes). I read for fun. Although, once in awhile I'll read a book and not really like it but stick it out just to get that review out there. Maybe that's when it becomes art. When I sweat a little and fight to get my opinion out there. I just don't know.

  10. I think book reviews that are well thought-out can be art, but not the three sentence reviews.

    BTW, I have an award for you at my blog (scroll down that page--it's the Honest Scrap award).

  11. I agree with Erica, I started my blog as a fun way to discuss books with other avid readers. I'm not looking to create critical masterpieces with my reviews. I'm just happy to share my thoughts and insights and recommend a few titles that I think others would enjoy too.

    Having said that, writing is writing, no matter the subject - and writing is most certainly an artform. I'm sure there are critical pieces out there that are every bit as inspiring and thought provoking as the works they're about.

    Great topic, Greg!

  12. Ooh! I love Zadie Smith, and I'm kind of jealous that you got to see her do a reading. That must have been amazing and powerful.
    I have so many other comments that I could make on this post, but I feel like they've all already been made.
    In a sense, I agree with Zadie - critiquing is, without a doubt, and art, and I think it even can be when it's not done well, in the same way that, just because a book is crap doesn't mean it's not art.
    At the same time, I also agree with everything JB said: critics can't exist without the creators.
    Anyhow, very insightful post. I enjoyed reading it!
    (And I am definitely guilty of overusing some of those most annoying "cliches," but, in my opinion, a lot of times they're necessary. I think my favorite is "that said.")

  13. As a book and music critic myself, I do believe the critiquing a piece of art is an art in itself. It is true, however, that many critics are people who tried to be novelists or musicians at some point. I know I did. But the truth is that some people who love literature or music just as much as writers and musicians simply do not have that kind of creative spark in them.

    That's not to say that critics do not have a creative spark, though. It takes a lot of pure knowledge mixed with creativity and perspective to be able to critique a piece of art.

  14. Fabulous Examiner article and great post too!

    It was a tour de force! Seriously, a great link, thanks! Love your blog...

  15. I'm not sure if I would call literary critique an art form, but I agree that it's an essential piece of keeping the literary world alive and kicking.

    The "book review" in my local paper - the LA Times - has become a joke, so I now subscribe to the Sunday NY Times, which is the only newspaper I know of that still has a complete and robust book review section. I depend on it heavily to make decisions about the books I read.

    During the week I also look at their great book blog - Paper Cuts (

    Whether or not critiquing is an art form, I have to agree that good writing is a skill and talent no matter what form it takes, as is the ability to identify and communicate the essence of a book.

  16. Good call on choosing this, I like it.
    I think this is a gray area, really. It all depends on what you put of yourself into it. Not all writers create art; anyone can slop something down, but if you are *crafting* something and pouring yourself into it, then it is an art. You have to work at art, and hone your artistic skills. Same is true of a reviewer. If you are thinking about what you're writing, and trying to improve and craft something meaningful, it's artistic.

  17. According to Chambers 20 century Dictionary (rev, ed)- Art is practical skill, or its application, guided by principles:Human skill & agency ( as opposed to Nature) using this definition all writing, creative or reactionary would count.Although whether all writing follows the above said tenets, is another subject & one I'd be too scared to post on.

    I liked the piece whether its art or not