Bad-Faith Criticism

Writing in the Boston Globe, Steve Almond regrets his callow youth spent as a music critic. After expending energy muchwriting snarky reviews, he attends an MC Hammer concert, sees people enjoying themselves, and the scales fall from his eyes:

The very idea of music criticism — of applying some objective standard to the experience of listening to music — suddenly struck me as petty and irrelevant. I spent several more months as a critic, but my essential belief in the pursuit evaporated.

From there, he tees off on music criticism as a “pointless enterprise” that’s engineered to neglect the joys of music, proceeds to extend this alleged pointlessness to all criticism—and not for a second does Almond consider that the problem might, in fact, be Steve Almond. ARTicles’ Glenn Kenny pretty thoroughly skewers the article, calling it out as further evidence of an increasingly “reflexive notion of criticism as a bad-faith enterprise.”

Of course, you don’t have to actively dislike criticism to feel that critics are often dealing in bad faith. That’s something book blogger Michelle Kerns wrestl s with in her post “What is the purpose of a book review? And are book reviewers writing anything useful?” After reading numerous book reviews, Kerns figures that they generally fall into one of two types—the unsatisfying and the snarky.

Unlike Almond, Kerns is invested in book reviewing, and her list of most popular book-review cliches is a must-read for anybody thinking about entering this deeply gratifying, poorly paid industry. But I suspect that Kerns is vigorously bayoneting strawmen—or at least provides little evidence that the reviews that displease her actually exist. She does call out one review in the Christian Science Monitor for using the word “unputdownable”—a crime to be sure, but not proof of book reviewing’s thoroughgoing uselessness.

It may be that Kerns avoided linking to or naming these failed reviews to spare their authors some embarrassment. But part of the critic’s job is to back up one’s assertions, so let the unsatisfying and the snarky be called out by name—draw attention to them so they can be part of a conversation about books. Kerns instead proposes a new template for a book review—a list of questions a critic ought to answer in order for a review to be in some way complete. (“What feel does the book have?” “What worked magnificently?” “What books are most similar to this book?”) As a list of things a reviewer might consider when sitting down to write, it’s decent enough (though some of the questions imply that the critic’s job is to sell books, which it isn’t). But the fill-in-the-blanks method won’t make criticism any better or more useful; those blanks could easily be filled with answers that are unsatisfying, or snarky. Just try to satisfying, try to write in ways that avoid the easy crutch of snark—or recognizing that, like Steve Almond, you’re incapable of doing that, get out of the business.

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