12.30.2003

The Critical Reviewer

The idea that a reviewer is a separate entity from a critic isn't a new one. Northrop Frye called reviewers "public critics" as opposed, I assume, to academic rather than private critics. I hate to harp on this when it might be viewed as a matter of opinion, but I think the difference is absolutely...critical. Sorry.

Building on what the others have said, I'd like to refine my last post a bit. I think where I disagree with Jonathan and gabe is in the idea that critics and reviewers are one and the same. I can't see it. The reviewer is the critical faculty of the reading public, the critic is the scientist studies the literature. As Trent wrote, of both species I imagine, neither are mere book peddlers. In point of fact, I believe the reviewer's most valuable function is quite the opposite: They are the filter. Their job is to eliminate the buying, by their reading public, of bad books. If they operate upon a consistent standard, they can be trusted to render an honest opinion consistently. And that, I think, is the exact crux of the difference between critic and reviewer. To a critic there should be no such thing as a bad book. Unsuccessful books to be sure, but never bad.

Reviewing is an art form and a damn fine and demanding one. Each practitioner can safely approach it in a different manner and each can proudly display their results, no matter how different from their peers'. Criticism is a science, or endeavors to be. As far back as Plato's Rhetoric, Actual and Ideal the critic has attempted to analogize their work with that of the hard sciences. To, in fact, build it into one. Every careful reading should render results that can be repeated or it's nothing more than a failed experiment. That's where we get literary theories. Flawed and ultimately agenda skewed as they are, they're the scientific method a critic uses to open up the hood of a particular piece and see how it works. Sometimes it seems more like a horse doctor trying to fix a flat tire by putting new shoes on it, but at least they're trying....

That's not to say that reviewer and critic can't be two hats on one person. In fact most of the best of critics were and are reviewers. But the product they produced was conspicuously of a different species, because the audience and the intentions were completely separate. Where I do think we can learn from professionals like Leslie Fiedler and Harold Bloom, et al, is in the manner in which they approached the two. On the one hand, Fiedler gives us works of literary criticism like Love and Death in the American Novel that dissects the works of Gothic writers like Poe on a microscopic level, and on the other we see that he treats the review process just as seriously and completely differently with his article on Alberto Moravio's Two [The New York Times, April 30th, 1972]. In his criticism he examines the text as a part of the whole of Literature and fits it in with the entire model. In his reviews he tackles the work and the author on their own terms and judges them only against their own aspirations.

But I think what we're trying to do here, at least as I understand it, is to promote a third cousin. The hybrid bastard love child of the public and academic critic, the critical reviewer. I think, if we're successful, what we'll see is a better merge of the two disciplines. Something along the lines of a combination the enthusiasm and exuberance of the "fannish" reviews and the esoteric critical dissection we find in the scholarly journals and reference books. We're trying to Frankenstein ourselves the twisted offspring of John Clute and Amazon.com's all-time number one reviewer Harriet Klausner. And God I hope Clute doesn't read this....


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