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.

11 responses to “A Parliament of Owls

  1. It seems to me that Baxter wants to have it both ways. On one hand, he rightly calls out for knowledge and passion. But even the “formal and verbal properties” proviso lead one quite naturally to a staid and academic form of review. If a reviewer is prohibited from using such words as “stunning,” then he’s certainly going to be prohibited from exuberance. If you get excited about something, chances are that the first words out of your mouth are going to be somewhat typical. If anything, Baxter’s aesthetic has considerably narrowed the book review format’s possibilities. What’s needed is smarter informality, perhaps more over-the-top enthusiasm and informed rage.

    As for James Wood, give the “hysterical realism” canard a rest, Mark. That was ten years ago. Last year, I witnessed Wood address a young audience before the 92nd Street Y and speak with enthusiasm about David Foster Wallace’s BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN. I have my differences with Wood, but, like some finger-wagging moralist, you’re trotting out that damn essay like it’s a rape charge. At what point do we move on and assess the James Wood of 2011? That seems a more fruitful approach in considering the present direction of book reviewing.

  2. I don’t think it follows that the Baxter school of reviewing leads to academic or informal types of reviews. I think the Baxter review of Lethem’s Chronic City from the New York Review of Books is a good example of the kind of review the essay in fiction writer’s review talks about. Baxter is clearly sort of befuddled by the book, some of the ambiguities seem to frustrate him. But you can also see him, I think, attempt to sort out what it all means, an attempt at Baxter trying to put himself in Lethem’s shoes to try and figure out what Lethem trying to do, even though it doesn’t seem to be Baxter’s cup of tea (owl?). Thus, what we get is a sort of thinking aloud on the page. I interpret the section of the essay at fiction writer’s review where Baxter rails against words like “stunning” to mean that not that he wants to control a reviewer’s vocabulary, but rather that those words must be earned (proven?) within the review, not simply utilized because the reviewer has already come to the book with the diagnostic bias of like or dislike.

  3. Just to clarify, I meant “formal” not informal in the first line.

  4. An emphasis on “the formal properties” of fiction is mainly of interest to other critics, writers and college lit students. That stance is what I’d suspect from a writer who has made a career in academia. I’m just someone who reads a lot of books and reads a lot of reviews to turn me onto good stuff and help me avoid bad stuff. A discussion of formal properties is low on my list of qualities in seeking out novels — not that I ignore those qualities, but in-depth discussions of such matters are better left for the essay form, not the review.
    (I’ve been a subscriber to the NYRB, the London Review, and other journals, so I’m not unacquainted w/r/t these matters.)

    • Tom, a good point, but I think it depends on the nature of the particular work. With regard to many of David Mitchell’s novels, for example, a reviewer would be remiss in neglecting their formal properties, which are key to what he’s attempting.

      • Mark Athitakis

        I think it’s possible to discuss formal properties in a “regular” review—it just may have to be addressed more casually, or even glancingly. In a daily newspaper review, it may simply involve explaining how much a book is going to ask a reader to work—and that’s something I imagine most review readers would want to know before making a purchase or going to the library. But it’s tough to fit in. To pick Mitchell as an example, I couldn’t do much in my review of “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” (http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/98559879.html) besides acknowledge Mitchell’s reputation for playing with form, and to suggest that he’s slyly working modern allegories into old-fashioned narrative.

        There’s no room for genuine close reading in a 400-word review of Mitchell—at least, I can’t pull it off—but it’s possible to give a few suggestions of what the writer’s up to. And Lee’s right, I think, that formal properties with Mitchell probably have to be addressed first. That’s not always the case: I recently filed reviews of Alan Heathcock and Stewart O’Nan where that stuff was secondary to the broader themes they were exploring.

  5. Updike’s take on book reviews is interesting, and pretty compatible with Baxter’s it seems to me.

    In Picked-up Pieces (1975), Updike’s second collection of essays, he lists his rules for reviewing:

    1. Try to understand what the author wishes to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
    2. Give enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
    3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.
    4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending….
    5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

  6. Mark, have you noticed a trend towards longer reviews in online editions of newspapers? And if not, why not? It seems to me there ought to be more opportunity for the critic-reviewer (or reviewer-critic), with at least a taste of close reading, in a medium where space is actually not at a premium.

    • Mark Athitakis

      I haven’t seen a trend toward longer reviews online, and I think there’s a simple explanation for that: Just because newspapers have more space online, they don’t have more resources to fill it. Even doing things like running a long review online and running excerpt in the print edition requires coordination and effort, and newspaper chiefs have seemed loath to support that work. If we’ve learned anything from how book reviews work online, what succeeds isn’t longer reviews but quick-hit video reviews. Think of what Ron Charles at the Washington Post has done with his “Totally Hip Book Reviewer” series. Charles himself has publicly scratched his head at the fact that a print review he slaves over might get only modest attention while a tongue-in-cheek video with only a modicum of what you’d call “criticism” goes over like gangbusters. For better or for worse, it doesn’t automatically follow that “infinite space online” means “more hunger for longform book reviewing.”

      But I still support book-review sections at daily papers, because I think they’re one of the few places where people who aren’t necessarily big readers will hear about and discover new books. In the bubble of litblogs, its easy to think that “Freedom” is an unavoidable juggernaut, but the truth is a lot of people (amazingly!) go entire days without thinking about Franzen at all, and their only experience of the existence of a novel by him that isn’t run through a marketing filter is a review in a newspaper. Newspaper book reviews don’t play the civic role they once did, but I’m not ready to say they’re meaningless—despite those damned word counts.

  7. I agree with Mark, and I love how he will post a link to one of his published, low word count newspaper review, and then post further thoughts on this website. That said, even with low word counts, I think we can expect certain things from a reviewer, including much of what is discussed above. A short sample of the prose? That’d be nice. So many newspaper reviews are ALL plot synopsis. Also, even with a 400 word count restriction, the reviewer can still get SOMETHING in there about what they think the author is trying to do and how well they do or don’t do it.

  8. I agree with Mark, and I love how he will post a link to one of his published, low word count newspaper reviews, and then post further thoughts on this website. That said, even with low word counts, I think we can expect certain things from a reviewer, including much of what is discussed above. A short sample of the prose? That’d be nice. So many newspaper reviews are ALL plot synopsis. Also, even with a 400 word count restriction, the reviewer can still get SOMETHING in there about what they think the author is trying to do and how well they do or don’t do it.

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