What We Lose When Literary Criticism Ends

With mainstream media uninterested in books coverage that doesn’t get clicks, writers and readers are being left out in the cold

A black and white photo of a man looking down at an open book surrounded by illustrated mouse cursors pointing away on a bright yellow background.
The Walrus/iStock/Wikimedia Commons

In his 1998 prose collection, Ripostes, Philip Marchand lays out the operative conditions for a working critic: “You have to know your mind, you have to have read widely, you have to have discarded or modified early enthusiasms for certain writers or modes of writing—it takes decades.” Elsewhere in the book, reviewing a poetry anthology called The Last Word, Marchand puts these principles into practice. “Much of the work in The Last Word,” he writes, “is ‘language poetry,’ a highly intellectualized form. Language poets attack the assumption that words point to external realities—the way, for example, the words ‘dairy queen’ in the line, ‘at the ladysmith dairy queen i want to get out,’ refer to a place where you buy soft ice cream. In these poets’ view, language refers only to itself, and their poetry tends to consist of phrases that have no semantic meaning.”

Whether or not one agrees with Marchand, it is clear that the analysis comes from a knowledgeable and considered place. Marchand was arguably the last person in Canada who made a living as a literary critic for mainstream newspapers—his work in the Toronto Star and, later, the National Post found its apogee in the 1990s and early 2000s. Marchand also espoused an increasingly rare approach: elevating rigorous close readings over affective or emotional responses. These days, the status of the professional critic—that is, someone who can earn a living writing criticism for the general public—has largely been subordinated to enthusiastic amateurs giving thumbnail reactions on Amazon and Goodreads. Compare Marchand’s sentences above to Goodreads “reviews” of Sharon Olds’s 2019 collection, Arias: “There are a lot of poems in this collection and some of them are quite weak,” or “I could use, like, a 50% reduction in poems involving body fluids [sic].”

Complaining about the state of literary criticism in 2021 seems somewhat futile. First because literary critics have always been viewed as parasitic or, more damningly, irrelevant. Ever since there has been literature, there have been critics. And, ever since there have been critics, there have been writers, readers, and others accusing them of all manner of sins: jealousy, pettiness, poor reading, ad hominem attacks. In an epigraph to her 2016 book, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, American novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick cites eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope, who referred to “those monsters, Criticks!” But the bellyaching is also futile because, after years of being seen, in contemporary discourse, as highbrow irritants, professional critics are well on their way to becoming extinct. As Mark Davis puts it in a 2018 article in the Sydney Review of Books, “Traditional literary gatekeepers now live a kind of half-life; representatives of a zombie culture: the walking dead.”

Just look at mainstream review coverage in Canada. Or, rather, you can’t—there’s hardly any left. Those of a certain age will remember when our national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, had a pull-out weekend book section like that of the New York Times; currently, book coverage is limited to a handful of pages folded into the Saturday arts section (admittedly an improvement from the dark days of a few years ago, when the book reviews were consigned to “Pursuits,” so they appeared alongside the crossword and Sudoku puzzles). The books coverage at the Toronto Star, a newspaper with one of the largest circulations in Canada (and for which I occasionally write), has been similarly curtailed. The National Post, which, under former books editor Mark Medley, had one of the most robust and interesting book sections around (full disclosure: I wrote a column about short fiction for it), is now a virtual wasteland. The consensus appears to be that readers are uninterested in deeper coverage of books and literary culture, and newspapers are themselves uninterested in any coverage that doesn’t get clicks or otherwise drive online engagement.

True, there are small magazines, like Quill & Quire (where I spent more than a dozen years as review editor), the Literary Review of Canada, and Canadian Notes and Queries, that continue to produce book reviews on a regular basis, but these publications, alongside literary quarterlies usually tied to a university, are more specialized and reach much smaller audiences than the national newspapers or large-circulation periodicals. It’s also harder to make a proper living from these gigs. In 2018, The Writers’ Union of Canada found that, after factoring in inflation, Canadian writers are making 78 percent less than they were in 1998, a decade into Marchand’s career. It’s no surprise, then, that lack of outlets for literary critics to ply their trade, combined with Dickensian remuneration, renders popular book criticism unattractive to any but the most obsessive—or independently wealthy—practitioners.

All of this is occurring, paradoxically, at a time when more books are being produced than ever before. According to the Association of Canadian Publishers, over 10,000 books are published annually in this country (to say nothing of the scores of books self-published each year via platforms such as Amazon, iUniverse, or Wattpad). Even COVID-19 did not make a dent in the global scene: an August 2020 article in the Guardian indicated that more than 600 titles were scheduled for release in the UK on a single day that September.

In such an environment, with a glut of new releases vying for decreasing review space, the fate of most books is to be completely ignored. In an article for The American Scholar, Phillipa K. Chong, author of Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times, suggests that fewer than 5 percent of new books get any kind of coverage in larger media outlets. That’s obviously a tiny fraction of what gets released in a given year; in many cases, those books that do luck out and land a coveted review in a mainstream newspaper or magazine often fall victim to lazy or hurried readings that more closely resemble book reports or plot summaries and usually come chock full of reviewers’ clichés: the number of “compelling” or “riveting” books with “fully developed characters” and stories that “will remain in a reader’s mind long after the last page has been turned” are positively legion.

The ubiquity of social media is often offered up as a solution to the paucity of mainstream book criticism. While it is no longer possible to earn a living as a working critic, the internet has provided us with arguably more amateur criticism than at any other point in history, from BookTube to Bookstagram to Twitter Books. The BookTube Network, found on YouTube, describes itself as “a unified collaborative project channel maintained by members of the BookTube community.” It currently boasts 5,900 subscribers. On Instagram, the #bookstagram hashtag has more than 60 million posts to date.

But the vast majority of this coverage goes unrecognized by a large swath of the reading public, with individual commentators usually maintaining small, fragmented audiences that are frequently genre-specific or otherwise limited in scope. Capsule reviews, such as those on Goodreads, can be said to serve as consumer reports or affective reactions from typical readers. This should not, however, be confused with rigorous literary critique. The elevation of an undifferentiated mass of online voices has instead resulted in a large-scale manifestation of what American critic Elizabeth Hardwick, in 1959, referred to as “a sort of democratic euphoria that may do the light book a service but will hardly meet the needs of a serious book.”

This is because serious works of literature require a response that is more nuanced, calculated, and considered than the rapid-fire rating system offered on user-generated sites such as Goodreads or the thumbs-up/thumbs-down gladiatorial verdicts in venues such as the reality-TV-inspired elimination contest Canada Reads, a CBC program that annually pits five titles against one another to determine the one book all of Canada should read. As far as critical dialogue is concerned, perhaps the nadir for Canada Reads occurred in 2012, when Quebec jurist Anne-France Goldwater accused Carmen Aguirre, author of Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter—which largely focused on Aguirre’s days as a revolutionary in Chile during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship—of being a “bloody terrorist.”

Expertise is sometimes dismissed as elitist, but what goes missing in the absence of professional critics writing for a general audience is the understanding that a book is much more than a piece of sociology or an educational tract meant to instill a greater understanding of injustice or inequality. The ability to successfully parse a work of poetry or prose fiction—to open up the engine and see what makes it run—requires sensitivity to technique, not morality. “In fiction and poetry we don’t read ‘characters’ or ‘setting’ or ‘meter’ or even ‘prose’ or ‘verse,’” writes US critic Daniel Green in Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism, “we read words shaped into sentences, figures, paragraphs, dialogue, stanzas, chapters.”

The focus on style is key to good criticism since language is the very thing that differentiates a work of imaginative literature from a polemic or an essay. In his foundational essay “Technique as Discovery,” American critic Mark Schorer complained that technique in novels was being undervalued—considered “a supplementary element, capable perhaps of not unattractive embellishments upon the surface of the subject, but hardly of its essence.” If this were true when Schorer first published his essay, in 1948, how much more true is it today, when novels, stories, and poems are evaluated almost exclusively not as aesthetic performances but as vehicles for communicating a particular message or improving a reader’s character?

Appreciating technique is especially germane when treating the work of racialized writers. Looking back over 125 years of The New York Times Book Review, Parul Sehgal notes a historical presumption that Black writing is nothing more than coded autobiography. She praises Wright Morris’s review of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man as an outlier, locating Ellison within a literary tradition that includes Dante and Virgil. “It feels startling to see the Black novelist praised purely for technique and inventiveness,” Sehgal writes.

In Canada, the disappearance of professional critics has coincided with the need for more critics of colour, more Indigenous critics, and more LGBTQ critics able to cogently assess, for a general audience, the linguistic and cultural traditions from which various diverse works arise. Last September, The Writers’ Union of Canada hosted a session for Black writers, moderated by Lawrence Hill, that focused on personal experiences of navigating Canadian writing and publishing. The resulting report noted that Black writers encountered “challenges with getting press and having reviews written about their work.” Speaking to Quill & Quire, Hill pointed out that the only Black critic in Canada he could think of who had worked consistently over the past three decades was Donna Bailey Nurse.

Nurse, as it happens, is also one of the handful of working book reviewers capable of discerning good from faulty literary technique—willing to speak about an author’s language as opposed to a novel’s moral or social message. She understands that technique, as Schorer argued, is the only way a writer has of “discovering, exploring, developing his subject, of conveying its meaning, and, finally, of evaluating it.”

When a reviewer proves unable or unwilling to engage on this level, a full explication of a particular work suffers. A Winnipeg Free Press review of Thomas King’s 2020 novel, Indians on Vacation, emphasizes themes that “seem sorely appropriate to our present moment.” But the only technical evaluation regarding the story of an aging Indigenous couple on vacation in Prague involves a passing acknowledgement that “King’s dry, acerbic wit is in full force.” No direct evidence of this is provided, nor is there any comment on the unique qualities of King’s wit, nor how it is used specifically to further the other elements of the story. There is nothing, in other words, to indicate precisely how King has rendered his story “sorely appropriate.”

Similarly, a recent Vancouver Sun review of Jo Owens’s debut novel, A Funny Kind of Paradise, about a septuagenarian woman who has suffered a stroke and now lives in a long-term care facility, mentions the author’s “direct and unvarnished prose,” “richly drawn and complex” characters, and “rosy but not saccharine” tone without providing any examples from the text, essentially demanding that we take these things on faith. The review ends by highlighting the novel’s message—“There is joy and meaning to be found in every stage of life”—but refrains from analyzing precisely how the author forwards this message on the level of language, style, and craft.

By cutting off the oxygen from discussions of how writers achieve their effects, what traditions they are working in (or subverting, whether consciously or otherwise), how their use of language reaffirms or breaks with what has come before, we lose out on an important level of understanding. In The Death of the Critic, Rónán McDonald writes that “treating literature as social document, though it momentarily gives critics the more primary aura of the social historian, undermines the disciplinary ground on which they work.” Yet we are now at the end stage of this undermining, when thoughtlessly enthusiastic approaches dominate and more rigorous, evidence-based critiques either are vanquished on the sword of false democratization or disappear altogether.

Alexander Pope’s 1711 treatise “An Essay on Criticism” is written in heroic couplets and lays out the guidelines for good criticism. A satirist at heart, Pope is unable to refrain from indulging his wit, writing early on, “In poets as true genius is but rare, / True taste as seldom is the Critic’s share.” Pope was speaking as a practising poet; it’s understandable that writers feel the urge to protect their creations from what they perceive as the misreadings or misunderstandings of ill-informed respondents. But he might be surprised to learn of a world in which his verse essay on best practices turned out to be an elegy.

Steven Beattie
Steven Beattie’s writing has been published in the Globe and Mail, National Post, and Canadian Notes & Queries. He lives in Toronto.