Wednesday, March 14, 2007

To Be a Critic or Not to Be...

(Sorry. I've been reading Greenblatt's biography on Shakespeare "Will in the World" and it's effecting my thinking)

Yesterday, Meg Rosoff posted an article on "The Guardian" weblog entitled Who'd be a Critic? In it, by way of questioning why anyone would want to be a critic, Rosoff seems to argue that not writing a negative review which might hurt the author's feelings is more important than writing an honest review.

Nowadays, I only review books I really like. It's cowardly, I know, but I figure it's not my job to make people unhappy.

To put it mildly, not everyone agreed with Ms. Rosoff. The folks at the Literary Saloon responded:

How can you possibly worry about whether or not you're hurting an author's feelings when reviewing their book ? Sure, it likely hurts them if you say nasty things about their baby, but the reviewer's only obligation is towards the reader.

And the first reply posted to Rosoff’s blog reads:

As a reviewer, you have one single duty: and that is to your readers. Sod the bloody author. If they have such a thin skin as can't cope with a bad review, then they really are in the wrong trade. Your job is to inform, or at least entertain, your readers. If you can't do that, then leave the reviewing to a professional. There's plenty of them about.

In my humble opinion I think Ms. Rosoff’s critics are right. A review, after all, isn’t about the author. It’s about the book. That’s the only thing a critic should consider when they compose their review, not that the author is “shy, unable quite to believe his luck, and really not a person whose feelings you'd want to hurt even if he hadn't (in my humble opinion) written a book worthy of selling like hot cakes.” The Literary Saloon points out that good people write bad books everyday, which is true. The fact that an author brakes for pigeons in the street and volunteers down at the local soup kitchen shouldn’t, and doesn’t, at the end of the day, have any bearing on his skills as a writer.

But Ms. Rosoff’s article raises a more important question than whether a critic should do what they’re paid to do: at what point does an author’s creative work become an entity of its own, separate from the author? At what point does the creative piece cease to belong to the author and become the possession of the larger community and culture? I would argue that as soon as a finished piece is printed and set out for sale, it is no longer simply the author’s book, it’s ours. As such, we have the right and the privilege to judge as we see fit. You, the author, are - sorry to say - a nonentity.

The Literary Saloon uses a common term often used to refer to an author’s novel: “a baby.” Like all parents reluctant to let their children go, authors are often possessive of their work. But novels, like children, after they have been given all the love and care that a parent can bestow, must stand alone and face judgment. Sometimes our children don’t perform as well as we’d hoped and no one wants to be told they’re a bad parent. But it would be less than unkind to lie or pretend otherwise. It would be a betrayal of literature, of culture, and in the end, of the author, for if you don’t know how bad you are, how can you improve? It’s elementary, really.

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