Novelists and Critics

There always seems to have been a rivalry between novelists and the critics who interpret and evaluate their books. Critics assume an air of superiority while novelists assume an air of untouchability. Either way, the discord can create confusion among readers who undertake a type of reading that goes beyond the purely recreational. The question, then, seems to be: who has the right to claim ownership over the interpretation of literature? Of course, the lay reader has historically had very little legitimacy in the world of criticism and the academic critic has had all too much. However, with the advent of the overwhelming popularity of reviews on sites such as Amazon and Goodreads, even the lay reader now is taken seriously, further complicating the relationships. All the while the novelist maintains an aloof fixture looking down on it all.

The novelist spends enormous amounts of time alone, writing away, working on getting it right. The writing process is different for all writers, and writing comes more easily for some than others. Nevertheless, writing is hard work, and it can sometimes take years, even decades, for the writer to feel that the work is mature enough to send out into the world. This commitment constitutes the essence of the writer’s craft; nothing is superfluous in the writing that really matters. All writing that follows this rule becomes “serious literature,” regardless of genre. I know of no writer who does not take his or her work seriously, even the most popular of genre writers.

Can we speak of the critic’s craft? Does the craft of writing criticism resemble the craft of writing fiction? Do we privilege one over the other? Certainly the creative writer is writing for a different audience than the academic critic. The academic critic, the scholar, makes use of jargon and builds upon an already existing conversation. In fact, this is what scholarship is: joining in and contributing to an ongoing conversation. One need only peruse the pages of the latest issue of the PMLA is order to discover the length to which the academic critic will go to make himself or herself unintelligible to anyone outside academe. The creative writer, on the other hand, can use existing testimony, but will inevitably pervert what has happened. Fiction writers are essentially storytellers, whereas the critic, academic or otherwise, functions to elaborate and evaluate and not to create.

And what of the public critic, those who write books reviews and provide commentary for a general audience? Where do they come in when it comes to literature and literary studies? Certainly they take far less time to think about their subject when it comes to writing under a deadline. But does the comparatively quick turnaround in regards to writing books reviews mean that we should take this type of criticism less seriously? When writing for a general audience one must assume an air of the common reader. Some of the most insightful criticism has come from non-academics writing for a general audience. One forgets that George Orwell never attended university when reading his essays. Yet, he has provided us with some of the most insightful criticism on any number of topics. John Updike’s articles for The New York Review of Books on art and the art scene are perhaps better than any of his novels, or at least most of them. V. S. Naipaul’s articles for the same publication are also some of his best work. Another non-academic who seems to be at the top of his game is James Wood. To label Wood a reviewer is to drastically reduce his role and influence in contemporary literature. He may be the most influential critic around today.

The war between the novelists and the critics is certain to heat up with the inclusion of the lay reader in the mix with Amazon reviews and Goodreads. This may leave the traditional academic critic out in the cold if he or she doesn’t stop publishing for such a limited audience. All of this may or may not be good for contemporary literature. We will have to wait and see.

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