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Owl Criticism (earlier posting)

Editor's Note: This is an older posting of Charles Baxter's essay "Owl Criticism." For the complete version, please click here.


Charlie Baxter, AuthorIn college I had a friend who for the purposes of this essay I will call “Jerry.” He was an ungainly guy whose hair was, for that period of time, unfashionably short. He dressed in loud sweaters and suffered from acne. He also had a habit of over-enunciating his consonants, as if he had just come out of an elocution class and was determined to show everybody what he had learned. He was singularly unpopular with the unfortunate women who got to know him, but not because of his appearance or his habit of over-enunciating his consonants. No: what everyone came to dislike about Jerry was his insistence on reviewing absolutely everything that came to his attention and giving it a letter grade. “It’s snowing out,” he would say glumly. “Very slushy, B- weather.” You would have dinner with him in the dining hall, and he would suddenly announce, with his fork in the air, “This is C- Jello, but this, this is an A- cookie.” Instead of responding to what you were saying, he would reply, “What an A+ thing to say,” in a sort of Chatsworth Osborne, Jr. accent. Everyone hated him and called him “Jerry the Reviewer.” He reviewed the classes he was taking, the music he listened to, the girls he managed to date, the air quality, local traffic, streetlights, the weather, and his own moods. “I’m feeling very C- today,” he once told me, and I argued with him and said that, personally, I would give his mood an F.

Eventually he was ostracized, and the next year he moved to another dormitory, where he lived in a single room. He had to, because no one could get along with him. I believe he majored in chemistry, and the last I heard of him, he was working for Monsanto.

Anna KareninaI mention Jerry the Reviewer for a couple of reasons. First, he taught me that no one loves a reviewer. No one has ever fallen in love with someone because of a review. That’s an important life-lesson. Second, he taught me that some things probably shouldn’t be reviewed. You don’t review your partner’s behavior during lovemaking, and you don’t review the death of your grandmother. Also, and I’m going out on a limb here, you don’t really need to review Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, although amazon.com encourages you to do so, with the following result, and these are direct quotes: “Paintlady” from Jacksonville, Florida, writes: “Anna Karenina is the most boring book I have ever laid eyes on; I do not know how this book became a classic; it belongs in the circular file, not on the bookshelf.” About Madame Bovary, “photondancer” writes, “Dear lord, this book was awful. One of the very few novels that I have been unable to finish or indeed to get halfway through. It was just TOO BORING.” About Shakespeare’s King Lear, Daisy in Arizona writes, “The story overall was just unsatisfactory. At times it seemed idealistic and illogical.”

Everyone knows that such quotes can be found in vast quantities at amazon.com., often with the word “boring” put into play, but the point is that these reviews serve no purpose at all. Or rather, they do serve a purpose, which is to establish that in an Age of the Imperial Self, any one person’s opinion is equal to everybody else’s, and the mice can review the cat, if they want to. But, if I can go out on another limb, I’d assert that all these reviewers, like Jerry the Reviewer, are reviewing objects, in this case novels, that don’t need reviews, partly because the jury is no longer out; the jury has returned a verdict on these books by now, and it’s just plain obtuse to pretend that it hasn’t.

Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) via Wikipedia

Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) via Wikipedia

But the other point I’d make about these reviews is that they are untrustworthy for another reason. They don’t bother to provide the reader with an accurate description of the books’ formal or verbal properties. To say that something is “boring” is not a statement about a book, although the speaker may think that it is; it’s a statement about the reader’s poverty of equipment. One of the reasons that Randall Jarrell’s poetry reviews were so devastating was that Jarrell was a very good describer of a poem’s verbal economies and thematic gestures, and he had a well-stocked mind so that he could provide a cultural context for whatever he was talking about. The marks of a trustworthy review, therefore, have a kind of doubleness: the reviewer manages to assert somehow that the book under discussion is of some importance for one reason or another; and second, a good review provides a formal description of the book’s properties, so that you could reconstruct it from the reviewer’s sketch of it. This description is not the same as a plot summary, although a plot summary may figure into it. What a formal description does is to show what a book is about in relation to the form in which the subject matter has been shaped or located. In order to write such a review, let’s say of a novel, you have to have a basic idea of how novels are constructed; you have to have the technical knowledge that allows you to stand back from the book and to say how a book is put together. By these criteria, quite a few book reviews are worthless. They are made up of what I call Owl Criticism. With Owl Criticism, you have statements like, “This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.”

A case in point would be the reviews during the past year of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom. The positive and negative reviews were often so extreme in both directions that they were paragons of untrustworthiness. Both kinds of reviews assert a claim upon your attention, but only because they’re extreme and not because they supply a sense of how Franzen’s novel was put together. Both kinds of reviews supplied an answer to my first criterion for a review, but neither review (I’m thinking of the positive review in the Sunday New York Times, and the negative one in The Atlantic) had the slightest interest in the formal properties of Franzen’s novel—in the ways, for example, certain dramatic events duplicated themselves, or the instances of crucial scenes that Franzen chose not to present directly. Both reviews were examples of Owl Criticism and therefore take their place in the history of American hype. It’s a long history, going back to P. T. Barnum, and contemplating it is a singularly dispiriting pastime.

It’s quite possible for a reviewer to write a valuable negative review. Dwight MacDonald’s review of James Gould Cozzens’s By Love Possessed is a classic of the type, as is Robert Hass’s essay on James Wright’s poetry. Both reviews give an accurate feeling for the content and form of the books under discussion and present what they’re doing in a wider cultural context.

A reviewer is entitled to any opinion at all, but he or she earns that opinion based on a description and a judicious citation of evidence. Otherwise, the reviewer is the literary equivalent of Michelle Bachmann, making outrageous statements simply in order to become famous.

ABC of ReadingIs it too much to ask of a reviewer that he should know what he’s talking about? That the writing be accurate and clear? To quote that unreliable critic, Ezra Pound: “You would think that anyone wanting to know about poetry would do one of two things or both. Look at it or listen to it. And if he wanted advice he would go to someone who knew something about it.” That’s in ABC of Reading, in which Pound separates a knowledgeable author from a lay person. I’m not doing that, but I am making the claim that a good review, if it is to serve any purpose at all, has to take the trouble of telling us where a poem or a novel or a book of stories fits into our cultural life, and then has to tell us how its content is located in its form. If it doesn’t do either, it’s not a good review.

What are the reviews that perform a great human service? The ones, of course, that are written with knowledge and passion, and which assert that a great precious object exists that you need to discover for yourself, because it will change your life. A great review suggests why your soul might be altered if you read a particular book. A review should therefore be a gift: something unimaginably valuable is being passed on from the reviewer to the reader. But a good review doesn’t, and can’t, resort to hype, because hype language has the familiar odor given off by falsehood and merchandizing. Hype belongs in the history of publicity but not in the history of literature. Its recognizable adjectives—“important,” “stunning,” “game-changing,” and “significant”—are the touchstones of falsehood and meaninglessness. The great review has to practice the arts of precision; if it doesn’t, you can’t, and shouldn’t, trust it.

Editor’s Note:

GryphonIt is our great pleasure to publish this essay by special guest Charles Baxter. Baxter is the author of five novels, The Feast of Love (nominated for the National Book Award), The Soul Thief, Saul and Patsy, Shadow Play, and First Light, and the story collections Believers, A Relative Stranger, Through the Safety Net, and Harmony of the World. He has also written two books of criticism and three books of poetry, as well as edited several anthologies. He teaches at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. His most recent book, Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, was released by Pantheon at the beginning of last month.

An earlier version of “Owl Criticism” was delivered as part of the 2011 AWP panel “The Good Review: Criticism in the Age of Book Blogs and Amazon.com,” moderated by Jeremiah Chamberlin. Joining Baxter and Chamberlin were Stacey D’Erasmo, Gemma Sieff, and Keith Taylor. The goal of the panel was to examine how criticism is changing in a literary landscape increasingly dominated by new media, as well as to discuss how books get reviewed and by whom, why vigorous reviewing is necessary, and ways to write reviews that matter. It was a vigorous discussion, both during the talks and after. And so in the spirit of continuing that conversation, as well as bringing it to those who weren’t able to attend the panel, Fiction Writers Review is publishing talks by several of the other panelists throughout the week. Please join in, and help us spread the word.

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  • On Tuesday we published “The Good Review,” by Jeremiah Chamberlin.
  • On Thursday we will publish “An Education in Book Reviews,” by Stacey D’Erasmo.
  • On Friday we will publish “Some Thoughts on Reviewing Poetry in 2011,” by Keith Taylor.

  • Contributor

    Charles Baxter

    Charles Baxter is the author of five novels, The Feast of Love (nominated for the National Book Award), The Soul Thief, Saul and Patsy, Shadow Play, and First Light, and the story collections Believers, A Relative Stranger, Through the Safety Net, Harmony of the World, Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, and, most recently, There’s Something I Want You to Do. He has also written two books of criticism and three books of poetry, as well as edited several anthologies. He teaches at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.


    Join the Discussion

    • “the last I heard of him, he was working for Monsanto.” Cute…. :)

      “these reviews serve no purpose at all.” That’s simply not true. The kind of person who gives such critiques is probably also the kind of person who reads them with interest and in fact needs to know nothing more than the fact that a person like them finds this novel “boring”. With all the erudite uses of criticism, people sometimes forget that its first purpose is to share your own reaction to a work, whatever form that takes. There are both readers and critics who care only if a particular book engaged or is likely to engage their interest. They don’t care one whit about the details.
      By giving such simplistic criticism, readers express two things: their opinion of the work and their general attitude towards literature. The fact that the latter is completely foreign to some of us is irrelevant to those who share it.

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    • As a critic and a blogger, I heartily concur with Charles’s point that there is no need to review the story of Anna Karenina or other well known texts- but I do think it’s perfectly in order, if not urgently necessary, that we review each new translation or new edition. Reviewers have a responsibility to pay equal attention to how a new translator or editor has worked with the text and what new insights they bring to the preface, introduction or annotation.

    • Thanks to each of you for your comments and for lending your voices to this discussion. I think it’s an important one, which has often been left to academia. So I’m happy to have fellow writers and readers and critics weigh in.

      To Jim,

      I certainly think that there is room in criticism for a reader’s reaction. In fact, I think that it’s essential. But I think what’s important in Charlie’s review is the idea of “describing the object.” And without that component a review really doesn’t matter much because there’s no context.

      For example, I hate sushi. I’ve tried for years to like it, I know it’s healthy, and I’ve read all the literature that discusses the longevity of individuals who eat the stuff. But other than the smoked eel–preferably done in a barbecue style–I can’t stand it. So if I happen to accompany some friends to a sushi restaurant and you later asked me how it was, I would tell you my honest opinion: It sucked.

      Obviously this isn’t a fair assessment. It’s based purely on personal tastes. As such, my “review” of the restaurant has done you little good as a diner.

      However, if you asked me to “describe the object” (in this case the restaurant and it’s food), I might say the following: “The rice was sticky and fairly uniform, the wrap tasted like seaweed, and the green stuff was so strong it burned my nasal passages. The miso soup was cloudy with bits of green onion in it. And everything tasted like it had come right out of the ocean.”

      Now, if you’re a lover of sushi, you might say, “That sounds exactly right!” And by having given you this description of the food’s properties, you can accurately separate what is bias or “taste” on my part from what’s a legitimate assessment of the work at hand. In short, you can sort out whether I’m a lover of sushi who appreciates its nuances and just wasn’t impressed by this particular chef’s food, or whether I’m simply the wrong critic for the job.

      Now, I won’t go so far as to say there’s no such thing as a boring novel because I’m sure that collectively we could come up with one. But I would argue that most “boring” books have simply found their hands into the wrong readers, just as diners end up in the wrong restaurants. So unless the reviewer can talk about the formal properties of the book, it’s difficult to understand what the writer was trying to achieve. And if we can’t judge what the writer was going for, it’s hard to say whether they succeeded or not. Each book has very different goals, after all. So to judge them against one standard is a bit like complaining that sushi isn’t like Italian pasta.

      I think there’s plenty of room in reviewing for exactly what you describe, and I’m sure that many people do read simply for a “thumbs up, thumbs down” assessment. But a good reviewer needs to ALSO be sure to let us know what he’s describing so that we can verify that it’s not simply taste that’s skewing things. As I said, I would always give sushi a thumbs down. Ditto tomatoes, which I hate. At least raw ones. Can’t stand green peppers either, if I’m being honest. Otherwise, I’m a big fan of vegetables. Particularly Brussels sprouts, which many people seem to dislike. Not sure why. Cook them with some shallots, a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg, and then toss them at the very end with pomegranate seeds. Divine! Goes really well with Thanksgiving, as it adds a lot of color and something savory. Highly recommended.

    • Tom

      I like this: “if it is to serve any purpose at all, has to take the trouble of telling us where a poem or a novel or a book of stories fits into our cultural life.” As a reviewer, I just hadn’t thought of doing this before. It’s making me think … differently. Thanks.
      :^)>

    • Jackie

      “No one has ever fallen in love with someone because of a review.” I love the funny truth to this sentence, and that the implication is someone has fallen in love with someone because of a story. It is the difference between criticizing and creating, then, that makes a writer lovable. And good books, I would argue, seduce you a little bit, you fall in love with reading.

      Also I think it’s funny that even with the comment boxes we are using methods of thoughtful analysis– meta-reviews!

    • Credibility matters. Let’s not fall into their traps. These comments are more reliable than those outrageous reviews.

    • Thanks for this. Always find Charles Baxter’s take on literature (and in this case, the writing that orbits around literature) insightful and interesting. And funny. “This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.” Great stuff. Nailed it.

    • Fabio Franco

      Something is missing from your analysis of what constitutes a good review. You write of the necessity to “provide a formal description of the book’s properties, so that you could reconstruct it”, and of “how novels are constructed”. These “construction” analogies allude to the schools of thought that have done the most damage to the reader during the past century: structuralism and Derridean deconstruction. These only serve to stupefy and thus it is best to steer clear of them.

      What is missing, then? What the reviewer must have is the ability to express something of his own experience of the reading; he must also possess an intuitive capacity to perceive the literary art work. Here is Benedetto Croce on the topic: “Poetry, certainly, is not to be sought in its structure, but beyond it; not in the walls that serve to support it, but in the organism that grows and flourishes there.”

    • Amazon reviews (and most) often tell us more about the reviewer than the work itself. And that’s not nothing. But the content of an Amazon review doesn’t really matter that much. All—good, bad, indifferent, thoughtful, well- or poorly-written—are part of the vast hype machine that is now the book “industry” simply by virtue of their being on the sales page. They have one and only one purpose: generating interest, moving the product, and getting you to dump the book in your shopping cart. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    • Oh dear God. I am a book reviewer and the next book I have been asked to review (a new translation) is Madam Bovary.

      (Takes gun to head.)

    • I just turned in my first negative review to my editor. You provided more concrete terminology for the very things I had been striving to do. Thanks!

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    • I agree wholeheartedly with everything but one statement, “…the jury is no longer out.”
      The Jury is always out. Literary critics dismissed Shakespeare’s plays for a solid part of the 19th century. Freud was wrong, then he was right, then he was wrong again. Plato was the most important Greek philosopher, then Aristotle, then Plato again.
      We are a capricious lot, taken generation by generation, even those of us who are capable of discussing the formal properties of works.

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    • Amy

      This is a fascinating essay and for the most part I agree, but in regard to Amazon reviews, I am an admitted hypocrite. I post reviews there as well as my blog, but only to help drum up interest in a book I like. Do I actually use the reviews to find reading options? Not a chance. Too few people read ANYTHING, the ones that do usually read mass-market offerings, and too few people read the literary translated works that I prefer. So I’m hesitant to let someone else tell me, or worse, use stars to tell me if a book is worth my time. Yes, I do the stars too, but not on my blog, only on Amazon (they make you).
      I think Amazon does serve a purpose, because I can order a title from them my local store will not carry. And I do like it when they suggest similar titles based on what I review and buy. So I’ll support the Amazon owl machine by contributing reviews and purchasing from them, but I’m much more likely to read a book recommended by a blogger with similar taste. For that matter, the reviews I read in the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, or New Yorker seldom motivate me to buy at all. It’s finding someone who shares my niche (Eastern European works in translation) that is truly helpful (as is the websites of small presses; Open Letter’s Three Percent website reviews books in a helpful way).

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