Trademark Taste

John Matthew Fox, discussing the diminishing clout of the standard-issue newspaper and magazine book review, writes:

[W]hen James Wood reviewed “Atmospheric Disturbances” in the New Yorker, I listened to his complaints about the book’s postmodern elements, recognized them for his trademark taste, and his argument backfired—instead of avoiding the book, I knew I’d love it (it ended up being one of my favorite novels of 2009).

From there, Fox makes some good points about how the proliferation of word-of-mouth outlets online practically demand that newspaper reviewers do better than just deliver yeas or nays about a book. To survive, he argues, reviews need “more critical interpretation, less personal opinion.” But his complaint about James Wood reveals a common bit of bad logic, a close cousin to the line “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded”: “I hate that critic, I disagree with everything he says.” A good critic isn’t necessarily one whose opinions you agree with, just a person with a set of beliefs and attitudes stable enough that you can bounce your own off them.

Like Fox, I tend to tune out when Wood begins keening about postmodern writing. But there’s a reason why Fox has instant recall on Wood’s name (and Michiko Kakutani‘s), as well as his “trademark taste”: They write consistently enough, and at length enough, to make their biases familiar to readers. If the value of print reviewers has diminished for committed readers like Fox, it’s due at least in part to the fact that thinned arts sections jettisoned their regular staff critics (a problem more pronounced in film than in other arts). That any arts coverage is left at all is something to be thankful for, but anybody looking for a consistent voice to argue with today will have a hard time doing so amid the crazy quilts of freelancers, wire copy, and somebody yanked off the statehouse beat to review a book on politics.

Small wonder, then, that recommendation engines like GoodReads and Amazon are appealing—I use both, and while I know I won’t find a Wood or Kakutani there, at least there’s a vibe of consistency there, a particular kind of noise all the chatter makes. I’d like to think that this supplements more formal reviews instead of replaces them, though. Because a critic voicing “personal opinion” isn’t really the problem; the problem is the decreasing ability for readers to know, over time, that the critic is a person with a few habits and peculiar tastes, somebody you know well enough to care about disagreeing with.

(via Electric Literature)

5 thoughts on “Trademark Taste

    1. Absolutely—I don’t think it helps if a critic is stubborn or stuck in his or her ways. But if the critic doesn’t have an opportunity to get opinions out regularly, those shifts in taste won’t even be recognized as an evolution. As a result, the reader likely won’t be able to make a very strong judgment about how well his or her tastes match up with the critic’s.

      What I was driving at is that I think critics now, especially the younger ones who don’t have the opportunity to get hired by publications, need to have a kind of hybrid career, where they do some formal writing for print outlets and supplementary writing on their own blogs or other websites. If you don’t do the formal writing, you lose certain degree of credibility; if you don’t do the online writing, readers miss an opportunity to know you better.

  1. Interesting about the hybrid career, which probably applies not just to critics and something I myself struggle with. I’ve chosen the solely online route for a number of reasons, which definitely does undermine my credibility.

    As to critics, I tend to read those who I find provocative enough to (re)send me to the fiction itself; or who make me tear out my hair for not having had the smarts to think of the stuff for myself. Consistency of a critic’s voice/style is just as important to me, though, maybe even more important – one of the real pleasures of Wood.

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