A Parliament of Owls

There isn’t too much to disagree with on the surface of Charles Baxter‘s brief essay on book reviews in Fiction Writers Review, “Owl Criticism”: Amazon.com reviewers can be impossibly shallow, he asserts, while more credentialed reviewers are often only slightly better. “[Q]uite a few book reviews are worthless,” he writes. “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.'”

But every critic performs a sort of owl criticism, including Baxter. After dismissing the reviews of Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom in the Atlantic and the New York Times as hyping the novel as either dull or a timeless masterpiece, Baxter points out what those reviews should have addressed: “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.”

The “formal properties” of a book are important, but those aren’t the only aspects of it worth reviewing. Neither the Atlantic‘s rant about the shift of American literature toward the drably quotidian or the Times‘ trumpeting of the novel’s political savvy were especially convincing, but they are reasonable positions from which to address the book. Indeed, it may be the sign of an interesting work of fiction that it can absorb all sorts of criticism, accommodate many owls.

“[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,” Baxter writes. It’s sensible advice, followed up by less sensible advice: Great book reviews “assert that a great precious object exists that you need to discover for yourself, because it will change your life.” Apart from echoing the kind of breathless tone common to the Amazon.com reviews that exasperate him, the statement implies that the best reviews are the positive ones, constrained by their proclamations of “formal and verbal” successes but courting worthlessness if they apply a different kind of filter.

Every good critic has a grip on the “formal and verbal properties,” sure, but every good critic is sick with prejudices as well. James Wood‘s owl, to pick one example, is hysterical realism (“this book has busy prose and lots of proclamations about how various social constructs conspire against us, and I don’t like busy prose and lots of proclamations about how various social constructs conspire against us”). It’s understandable that Baxter took a look at Amazon.com and despaired of where criticism (or precise writing in general) is going, but in complaining about the noise of empty criticism he dismisses much that makes criticism lively and valid as well.