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.)