"The Absence of Criticism"

by on Oct.11, 2010

On the blog Big Other, Ravi Mangla has written a noteworthy post on “The Absence of Criticism,” arguing that in small press publishing, nobody ever gives each other negative reviews and only over-positive reviews because everyone’s friends with all the other writers.

There may be some truth to that. At the same time, I think this kind of discussion gets stuck too much in the rut of is this a good or bad book, thumbs up or thumbs down, do we dare to have negative views. These may be real concerns, but I think the thumbs-up-or-down approach doesn’t usually lead to interesting perspectives on the books. I’m more interested in reviews that give a reading of the book. I’ve seldom if ever decided to read a book because someone said it was great; however, I’ve often read books because someone showed to me how they pertained to things I was thinking about, or just gave a good reading of the book.

It seems there are a lot of conversations going on right now about the nature of criticism in the Age of the Web.

7 comments for this entry:
  1. Ryan Sanford Smith

    A complicated subject; one of my favorite presses, Graywolf, has been sending me ARCS since early this past summer and recently I indeed ended-up giving a rather negative review of a book and wondered if I should have just not posted a review at all — I’ve heard the logic of ‘if you don’t like it, just don’t review it’, there seems to be a mentality of treating, particularly first books but emerging writers, with a delicate touch because ‘they’re young, they’re going to be bad’ or some other nonsense.

    This criticism, by Mangla, I think reveals as good a reason as any for reviewing even if it is negative — it makes your positive reviews seem more genuine, gives you a kind of cache.

    I agree though, that something as simplistic as ‘positive / negative’ is unhelpful, I’ve always been far more interested in ‘impressionistic’ reviews and critiques–tell me how the book made you feel, what it ‘enacted’ in/on you. We’re still going to walk away with, often, an overarching positive/negative takeaway, but at least being honest in this impressionistic way, I think, makes for more interesting discussions (I’m not sure I’m okay with the word ‘productive’).

  2. john

    The temptation to rely on simplistic binaries is certainly a danger, Johannes. But I think what Ravi is calling for are the exact readings you’re talking about, and he’s seeing people avoiding those readings out of fear of offending. In other words, it’s not that people are writing “negative reviews”; it’s that they only write P.R. copy about their internet friends’ books.

  3. Johannes


    Yes, that’s probably true.


  4. Nick Demske

    yeah, this is a complicated topic for me, something I’ve been struggling a lot with lately. As someone who’s reviewed a few (but very few) books, I’ve definitely felt the pressure of presenting–not even better versus worse–but more neutrally than decidedly, whether on the positive or negative end. Meaning, instead of saying “This passage is brilliant because of…” or “This passage is a bumbling mess because of…” I’ve noticed I holster my most opinionated comments and just try to strike a balance in the review, which is fine sometimes, but definitely not what every book review should be. I think, personally, one of my own reasons for holstering my most critical (as in ‘negatively” critical) comments is because I’m afraid of just exposing my own stupidity or something. I’m afraid that I’m unappreciative of a book or passage just because I’m giving it too superficial of a reading, I’m failing as a responsible reader. Honestly, i don’t even think that’s such a silly possibility to be conscious of…I just don’t think it should stop me from being as honest as I can in a review.

    The flip side of this, because my first book is coming out soon, is that I’m really, genuinely thirsty to receive candid criticism of my own work. It’s something I can’t usually get from friends or other writers I know…I had two mentors, Anne Shaw and Andrew Feld, who were both really excellent and generous with dishing out criticism and I feel like my work got a ton better when I was around them. It feels hypocritical to hope for harsh criticism when I don’t feel bold enough to deliver it on others…I do give it to others if I believe that they respect my opinion and are truly interested in receiving criticism, though. So maybe i should just start posting comments like this all over saying that I want people to trash my work, if they find it trash-worthy.

    To go along with that, though, I also agree with the comments that have been made on harsh, precise criticism kind of validating the praise-criticism someone gives. It is very very hard for me to take any praise seriously from anyone who hasn’t also given me some sort of scathing criticism elsewhere, and that goes beyond the realms of literature for me.

    Thanks for posting this, Johannes

  5. Montevidayo « NICKI-POO

    […] I don’t think I’ve mentioned the new uber-blog, Montevidayo, yet on this here mine own blog, but it has quickly become one of my favorite sources for info on poetry and criticism happenings.  Contributors include Johannes Göransson, Joyelle McSweeney, Lara Glenum and John Beer (all writers whose works I love).  And there’s many other contributors, too.  Here’sa link, though, to a thread I’ve participated in on the “absence of criticism” or the paltry state of literary criticism some people (myself included) would say we’re experiencing: http://montevidayo.com/?p=412 […]

  6. Nicholas Michael Ravnikar

    This topic has been coming up quite a bit lately. I remember that, when Jeff Side posted Adam Fieled’s article “On the Necessity of Bad Reviews” to The Argotist Online, it generated a fair amount of discussion around the topic on the Buffalo Poetics Listserv, in terms of both the essay’s general argument and its assumptions. As pointed out in the thread here, the good/bad or positive/negative duality tends to dominate, as though ethical deontic logic was germane to literary discourse.

    Another important question to consider which might get beyond good and evil is whether literary criticism and the review happen to share objectives or functions at all. If so, which ones? There’s a contradiction at the heart of the review, as an inherited “form” or “genre” (or “type” or “kind”) of presumably non-fiction writing. (For the sake of discussion assume that we can and have ascribed truth-values fictive and non-fictive writing text and/or speech acts.) It seems to me that the function of the review (and I’m trying to speak descriptively, here) is, for the majority of presses and writers, is to market or sell the book. Do the majority of the links on press websites lead to the “positive” reviews, the “negative” reviews or the neutral reviews? This might not (and quite likely is not) the sole intention in the mind(s) of any particular small press publisher who does send review copies or gift copies to non-contributors. The notion of poetry or small press as a “gift economy” has seen a good deal of promulgating lately.

    And isn’t the review as such a formal institution with its roots in the market? Some reviewers adopt the position that they function as a curator for the public taste, letting readers who follow their reviews know of their judgments as to a particular work’s literary merit or sheer enjoyability. And some readers — perhaps those excluded implicitly or explicitly from the “gift economy” of the publisher — do consult sources for exactly this reason: they have limited funds and want to know what books and chapbooks are worth forking over money. So there’s a conflict, we might say, between consumers (readers) and producers (publishers). We might also add that many writers don’t really care about the book sales so much as readership. But readership tends to come with some degree of prestige, doesn’t it? Which only begs the question: Does publication by a well-marketed press lend prestige, and why?

    I would propose that literary criticism, while it does seem to have an implicit interactive (and reciprocal) relation to the market, does not have as one of its ostensible aims the marketing or sales of publications, outside of perhaps the publications in which a particular piece of literary criticism appears. Even this latter qualifier seems intuitively specious. Rather, literary criticism attends to the investigation of what constitutes the ontology of various literary texts (or, if you like, what factors contribute to their literature value). Ultimately, this practice of either ascribing or denoting literary value seems to accept the “good/bad” and “positive/negative” distinction in one way or another, which troubles the discipline’s integrity, in my opinion.

    I would argue (if we’re arguing, and if and only if we’re allowing deontic logic into the argument) that criticism should have the responsibility of describing the features of the text without reference to its (primarily cognitive) effects as either superior or inferior.

    I don’t think it’s a matter of brute fact that either type of writing (review or lit-crit) must have the causal relationships to the market sketched above — which comprises readers, publishers and writers, as well as entailing printers, distributors, etc. But these do seem to be (and I’m borrowing from Searle when I say this) the institutional, epistemically objective conditions along which they respectively operate.

    Of course, actually proving any of this would require a deeper, more empirical interdisciplinary analysis that attempts to account for the mental states and intentions (individual, collective) of the aforementioned market constituents, other forces operating on textual production and dissemination, and the (epistemic and ontological) constitution of social reality more broadly, with particular attention to the institution of “literature” and “poetry.” But I’d wager that getting a grant to conduct any scientific cognitive investigation waits some time down the road.

    I want to be clear, before I finish up, that I’m not saying that either markets or gift economies are inherently right or wrong. Either position can be (and has been) argued. I’m just saying that, on the whole, the latter can’t help but interact with the former when it goes beyond a small output, because market economies have swarmed the globe.

    Granted, many of these conditions are changing as we speak, with open source technologies and the general ethos of free-as-in-beer and free-as-in-speech distribution. Many academic journals are starting or migrating to open-access online formats. There’s a proliferation of small web-based e-chap, POD, and HTML publishers, as well as those who keep the short-run xerographic/letterpress/deskjet/handbound fires burning — along with an equal if not greater amount of web zines and journals publishing both reviews and criticism. My hunch is that these two forms are perhaps being referred to or conceptualized indiscriminately.

    That we’re openly discussing the subject bolsters my opinion that we might gain a real semblance of what we happen to be doing. But I don’t know if we can make any projections or predictions without serious experiment and research.

    Those are my thoughts thoughts at 11:03 on a Thursday morning, Racine, Wisconsin, 2010. Thanks for the opportunity to think.

  7. Johannes

    Thanks for thinking!