The critic’s temperament and the problem of indifference: Orwell, Teachout, and Scalzi
In “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” George Orwell points to an idea that almost any critic, or any person with a critical / systematic temperament, will eventually encounter:
[. . . ] the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash–though it does involve that, as I will show in a moment–but constantly INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about.
He’s not the only one; in 2004 Terry Teachout wrote:
[. . . ] I reviewed classical music and jazz for the Kansas City Star. It was great fun, but it was also a burden, not because of the bad concerts but because of the merely adequate ones–of which there were far more than too many.
Teachout uses the term “adequate.” Orwell says reviewers are “INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever.” Together, they remind me of what I feel towards most books: neutrality or indifference, which is close to “no spontaneous feelings.” Most books, even the ones I don’t especially like, I don’t hate, either. Hatred implies enormous emotional investment of the sort that very few books are worth. Conventionally bad books are just dull.
Still, writing about really bad books can be kind of fun, at first, especially when the bad books are educational through demonstrating what not to do. But after a couple of delicious slams, anyone bright and self-aware has to ask: Why bother wasting time on overtly bad books, especially if one isn’t being paid?
That leaves the books one loves and the books that don’t inspire feelings. The books one loves are difficult to praise without overused superlatives. The toughest books, however, are Teachout’s “merely adequate ones,” because there’s really nothing much to say and less reason to say it.
Critics may still write about indifferent books for other reasons; John Scalzi describes some purposes criticism serves, and he includes consumer reporting, exegesis, instruction, and polemics among the critic’s main purpose.* Of those four, I try to shoot four numbers two and three, though I used to think number one exceedingly valuable. Now I’ve realized that number one is almost entirely useless for a variety of reasons, the most notable being that literary merit and popularity have little if any relationship, which means that critics asking systematic questions about what makes good stuff good and bad stuff bad are mostly wasting their time. Polemics can be fun, but I’d rather focus on learning and understanding, rather than invective.
* Scalzi also says:
there are ways to be negative — even confrontational — while at the same time persuading others to consider one’s argument. It’s a nice skill if you have it, and people do. One of my favorite critiques of Old Man’s War came from Russell Letson in the pages of Locus, in which he described tossing the book away from him… and then grabbing it up to read again. His review was not a positive review, and it was a confrontational review (at least from my point of view as the author) — and it was also a good and interesting and well-tooled critical view of the work.
All of which is to note that the act of public criticism is also an act of persuasion. If a critic intends a piece to reach an audience, to be heard by an audience and then to have that audience give that critical opinion weight, then an awareness of the audience helps.
I think that one challenge for most modern writers, and virtually all self-published writers, will be finding people like Russell Letson, who are capable of producing “a good and interesting and well-tooled critical view.” Most Amazon.com reviews default to meaningless hate or praise, both of which can be discounted; getting someone who can “give that critical opinion weight” is the major challenge, since most people are lightweights. Even the heavyweights don’t waste their energy on weak opponents who aren’t even worth engaging.