Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Reviewers versus critics

I’ve been thinking this week about the difference between reviewers and critics.

I suspect the same definitions or delineations can be made across a range of arts media, but for our purposes I’m going to talk about fiction.

For me, the difference seems to be in the context in which comment is provided on a novel.

A reviewer generally looks at the merit of a book in isolation, considering things like plot, style, characters, readability, and general appeal in a particular genre or market.

A critic, on the other hand, tends to look at a novel in a broader context, be it social, cultural or literary tradition – not only considering it on its own merit, but also how it fits in the wider canon of literature.
My pondering was prompted by an excellent article by Rosemary Sorensen in the most recent Weekend Australian Review, in which she critiques a new academic book analysing Australian fiction from 1989 to 2007 (After the Celebration by Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman).

In considering the authors’ predominantly negative opinions on the topic, Sorensen also considers the value of critical theory. She comments critical theory works best when the critic respects the writing they’re analysing, and actually derives pleasure from reading.

Sorensen says traditional lit-crit has tended to imply that “reading a certain kind of fiction was the domain of the cultured person”.

There’s no doubt literary snobbery is alive and well in many quarters, possibly bolstered by the sheer numbers of online reviewers (such as myself!), and the need to ensure there are still academic and purely intellectual approaches to fiction analysis.

In her criticism of a book about criticism, Sorensen says the Gelder and Salzman often critique the book they believe writers ought to have written, rather than the books they have written. They consider each novel as an ideological document, rather than a piece of fiction in its own right.

She says the two authors also regard readers generally as lazy, who “consume books without thought, and the best novelists are those who force or trick them into confronting their own unpleasant selves”.

This type of attitude assumes people are either consumers of mass marketed paperbacks or refined readers of quality literature.

I read both. And, in 18 months of blogging, I’ve discovered there are plenty of other book lovers who do the same.

Sorensen hits the nail on the head beautifully when she says readers often “enjoy novels because of the energy in the writing, the stylistic flair and the powerful attractions of the plot, as well as the way it opens us up to the thinking about the world and our place in it”.

Good books should do that regardless of where they are found in the book store. And surely the role of both reviewers and critics is to help us find those books?

My questions this week: Do you read reviewers, critics or both? What do you think the differences are, and which is most likely to influence your reading choices?

(And yes, I know the pic is not really relevant, but it makes me smile.)


Anonymous said...

Sorry it's taken me so long to catch up on this post.

I read reviews - I really enjoy reading a book review because it gives me a sense of whether or not I'll like the book and if it's got anything in there that appeals to me. Even if a reviewer says they hated it - I'll still give the book a go for myself, if I'm attracted to it.

I have read lots of critics articles from The Australian and I don't enjoy them so much because I'm not sure about half of the books they are mentioning and I obviously haven't studied enough english lit at university to know who the authors are they are referring back to. It can feel quite isolating and elitist.
Saying that however, when I DO know just who they are talking about and the books they are referring to and the sub culture and context - then it's wonderful and inspiring and I connect with the article. I just suppose it has a lot to do with the person writing the material and how similar we are.

BookPlease said...

Love the picture!

I don't read literary critics as much as I used to do, since finding reviews on blogs. This is because I want to know briefly what a book is about and not a detailed analysis of its place in literary, social or cultural tradition. I want to be able to assess whether or not I'd like it or not.

Sometimes I like reading for the sheer pleasure of the words and images they provoke, but I also like plot, interesting characters (they don't have to be likeable) and books that make me think. So reviews that open up books in that way are helpful - whether that's from a reviewer or a critic, I don't mind.

I read a mixture of books and sometimes I am a lazy reader and race through books without much thought - still enjoyable. But then some "quality literature" can be a bit tedious.

jeremy said...

I read some of the 'After the Celebration' book for an essay, and I read Sorensen's review and a couple of others. I didn't think the Celebration books was negative at all, and it didn't treat readers like they don't know about literature. Sorensen's review ended by calling a novel 'crap'. You can't get more negative than this!!! Most of her review didn't make much sense and seemed completely vindictive. It didn't tell me anything at all about what the book actually DID. I think this reviewer is from Queensland too. Is she a friend of yours?

Paula Weston said...

Ha! - No Jeremy, I don't know Rosemary. Queensland's a big place.

Thanks for the post. It's good to have a balanced view of any topic or book.