Book Critics at the Author’s Guild

For about the seventieth time this month, I attended a National Book Critics Circle panel about the crisis of book reviewing in the online age. This was hosted by the Author’s Guild at the elegant modernist Scandinavian House on Park Avenue in New York City.

Sidney Offit (whose Adventures of Homer Fink I enjoyed as a kid) introduced the event on behalf of the Author’s Guild and set the evening’s tone with an impassioned plea for the art of book criticism. Guild President Roy Blount Jr. took the stage and upheld the audience’s interest with some wry but withering comments about the state of newspaper book criticism, and about the triviality of reviews he found on

Not surprisingly, I felt some resentment towards the tone of superiority expressed by Blount and by New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, who drilled the point home that he did not feel serious literary criticism could be conducted on blogs. I believe Sam Tanenhaus is wrong about this, and I don’t understand how he can seriously maintain that people will not read long articles online, since people do so all the time. The NBCC panels tend to bring out these types of generalizations, and it can be frustrating to hear.

However, I found it easy to overlook this frustration, since many peaceful statements towards the blogosphere were also offered, and really I’m starting to think this whole NBCC vs. online fracas is nothing but a big group hug waiting to happen. Look, we all know how this is going to end. Even Roy Blount and Sam Tanenhaus were careful to point out that “there are good blogs”, while panelists Lizzie Skurnick and Publisher’s Weekly editor Sara Nelson emphasized the point that co-existing with and profiting from blog/online formats is the easiest thing in the world, once you get over the shock of it.

I was glad to hear Jane Ciabattari speak, having enjoyed her writing on Critical Mass and elsewhere. All the speakers were lively and engaging, and it was a better panel than most. The only disappointment was the question-and-answer session, which revealed that the entire audience was made up of Author’s Guild members who had “written a book once” and wanted Sam Tanenhaus to explain why they never showed up in the Book Review. It was slightly chaotic, but everybody emerged from Scandinavia House intact.

Even though the messages at these NBCC “book review crisis” panels sometimes make me cringe, I never doubt that I heartily support the protest on principle. Hell, I’ll support almost any protest on principle. And as for the cause itself, I completely agree. Myself, I grew up on book reviews, and learned everything from them. The New York Times Book Review, the daily New York Times, the New Yorker, the Village Voice Literary Supplement, Newsday, F. R. Leavis, T. S. Eliot, John Updike’s thick review collections … I would have been lost without these guides.

I want the book review form to continue to thrive for future generations, in every way, and I do think these panel discussions help. Even if they do all start to blur together after a while …

3 Responses

  1. big bangThe only “crisis” is
    big bang

    The only “crisis” is that these guys don’t corner the market anymore, and it’s only a crisis for them. They are the dinosaur and they see the comet coming, like the publishing and recording industries themselves. Back in the day the only place you could get a review was the paper. Well, the internet has Americanized the universe, and there is choice as to whose opinion you wish to listen to. They are no longer God of the literary world. There’s still power, so they should cease whining and find ways to appease the generations being raised online now, or soon, like the dinosaur, Dick Cheney and every other obstinate demagogue in the universe -BOOM- they’ll be gone.

  2. Plumbers’ HandbookCriticism,
    Plumbers’ Handbook

    Criticism, like sewers, is an essential public service. But some critics seem to think they’re the only ones with flush toilets. Among the functions of the book review is to advise the public if a certain book is worth their time and money. The critic cannot simply say “I like this” or praise the book’s ingenious plot or clever characters. The reviewer has to try to find what the reader might appreciate or hate about the book. Critics might respond “I can’t know what you’ll like” which is also a wonderful argument for editors, agents and publishers.

    Another function of the review is to explain what makes a book worth someone’s time and money. But again, it can’t be “this is what I like in books.” It has to be, this is what you the reader can get from a book. It’s very easy for the critic to say “my taste defines public opinion” but the truth is, public opinion defines whether the critic has a job or not.

    I’m not suggesting a dumbing down of literary critique; I am suggesting that reviewers wise up.

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