Yesterday Niall Harrison wrote an in-depth response to my essay on "Why We Write Literary Reviews." I appreciate Niall taking the time to respond. As I mentioned in the comments on his site, my essay's main point was to explore what causes someone to take the first step toward writing literary criticism. Where the criticism goes after that initial step depends upon the reviewer, the subject, and a thousand different subjective points.
Niall is correct in saying I approach reviewing from the point of view of a fiction writer. That's quite natural since I mainly see myself as a fiction writer. However, I also approach reviewing from a reader's point of view. I was a reader before I began writing fiction and it's as a reader that I learned what makes great fiction great. At the risk of making a grand assumption, I'd say all fiction writers—and indeed, almost all writers—come to their craft through the same process of first being readers.
But that's not to say literary reviews and criticism are secondary to fiction writing, or that I take reviewing as being less serious than fiction writing. As with all creative endeavors, there are great stories and great reviews, bad stories and bad reviews, and a wild mix of everything in between.
The Relationship Between Fiction and Criticism
Even though literary criticism and fiction writing are equally valid means of creative expression, their relationship to each other is not the same. Fiction writing can be created totally apart from literary criticism while literary criticism can't be created apart from the texts it critiques. But paradoxically, while the creation of literary criticism is intimately tied to the texts being critiqued, the criticism which results exists totally separate from its subject matter.
To understand this distinction, consider how often you've read and enjoyed reviews of books and stories which you have no intention of ever reading. Those reviews couldn't have been created without the original texts, but once created they were independent of those texts.
Again, none of this means literary criticism is a lesser creative art than fiction—it merely has a different relationship to its subject matter. And this relationship can be parsed even more if you separate literary reviews from literary criticism. For example, on Niall's comment thread John Scalzi states that he tends to see "reviewing as closer to consumer reporting and criticism as exegesis, for which consumer reporting is not a primary goal. Most reviewing/criticism falls on a line between those two end points."
I agree with Scalzi's points. When I write a book review, at the review's core is whether or not I recommend the book to readers. When I write literary criticism, the core isn't so much to recommend certain books as to draw larger understandings and ideas from a reading of literature. And as Scalzi says, those are merely the extremes. The elements of reviews and criticism often flow back and forth so that one can both recommend a specific book and address larger literary issues, or vice versa.
Reviewers and Ego
The part of my essay which really irritated Niall and others was when I said that one reason people write literary reviews is to bring attention to themselves. This was only one of many reasons I gave—and it is definitely one of the less likely reasons—but it still attracted most of the negative attention.
The simple truth is that human creations can not be separated from human ego, and criticism is no exception. As Niall says, "of course reviewers want attention; reviewing is an act of communication, it takes a certain amount of ego just to stand up and say your piece in public, and we want to know that our communication is valued."
I totally agree. Critics want to know that their ideas have entered into the larger cultural discussions continually engaged in by humanity. The same can be said of fiction writers, poets, and all artists.
However, the point of my essay was to ask why a person takes that first step toward writing literary criticism. If that first step toward writing criticism—or the first step toward writing fiction or taking part in any creative affair—is dictated MERELY because you want attention, then you have engaged in a bastard exercise which rarely creates anything worth remembering.
Many of the problems with today's artistic world—hell, with the world in general—result from people focusing solely on drawing attention to themselves. It's as if people see becoming self-centered Hollywood superstars as the natural way of life. This results in CEOs of financial institutions deciding that looting the economy is more important than creating jobs or manufacturing worthwhile products, or parents deciding that forcing their son to lie about being a "balloon boy" is worth doing if the whole world ends up watching.
Humans are by our very nature ego-centric. But when you can't see anything beyond yourself, how can you call yourself a true creator? After all, to create something—to bring into existence something new—means you must both engage your own self and reach beyond your self. Creation involves both yourself and more than your self.
So yes, everyone has an ego and we all want to know that our contributions to life are noticed and make a difference. That's basic human nature. And yes, great artists often have great egos. But the best art is created by artists who are also able to look beyond themselves and see the greater goals and patterns of life. To my view, having an ego doesn't mean you can't also aim for more than merely satisfying your ego. Only by aiming for that greater goal does one have a shot at creating great art.
The Stereotypes of Literary Critics
But all that said, Niall is correct that by raising this "ego" point I treaded very close to the stereotypes many fiction writers have about reviewers, such as the mistaken belief that literary critics speak only from ego or that critics are failed fiction writers. I should have clarified this because it wasn't my intention to promote these false stereotypes.
Unfortunately, these stereotypes are believed by a number of writers and artists (even if most won't mention them in public). For example, in Tobias Wolff's classic short story "Bullet in the Brain" we are introduced to a literary critic who witnesses a bank robbery. Despite what common sense states about not insulting violent men with guns, the critic can't stop making snarky comments about the clichés erupting all around him. As the story makes clear, this critic makes these comments because nasty opinions have become entirely ingrained with his essence. Being snarky is perfectly melded with this critic's ego.
Is Wolff's uncharitable view of literary critics how some fiction writers see critics? The answer is likely yes. It's natural for people to dislike criticism. Instead of seeing the critic as expressing an actual truth, writers want to ascribe negative comments to the critic simply being cruel. Do a few literary critics attack writers because they want to hurt them? Of course. But critics like this are an extreme exception. The vast majority of critics have far more noble goals in mind with their criticism.
And in fact, this truth is also shown in Wolff's story, and it's why his tale rises above being a joke about a nasty critic and becomes a true work of art. As the critic is dying he remembers what brought him to a love of criticism—the musical words spoken by a friend during a childhood baseball game. This love of words clicked into the critic at that moment and for the rest of his life he sought to understand the greater art all around him. The story's tragedy—and the reason why Wolff elevates the literary critic's character into a creation which resonates with readers—is that the critic had forgotten how life first brought him to criticism. It took death to remind him of what he'd lost in life.
I think Wolff's story ties in closely with the point I was making about why people take the first step toward literary criticism—and by extension, the first step toward anything in life. Something catches our eye. Something jangles into our brain. And from there we walk forward, exploring all we can. But the reason we take that first step remains extremely important, and taking the first step for the right or wrong reasons heavily influences everything you eventually create.
To close, I want to share a great quote from Gary K Wolfe, which Niall gives at the end of his essay:
"One writes reviews because reviews are what one writes: they are essays about literature, and literature is worth writing essays about."
Amen to that. No matter the reason for taking your first step toward writing a literary review, the most important thing to remember is that literature matters. As does literary criticism. And the things which matter in life are always worth expressing an opinion about.