Look out for reviewers who dislike owls

Essays about book reviewing, particularly those by authors, intrigue me. Certainly, the views Charles Baxter expresses in Owl Criticism are worthy of note.

Lots of people will agree with him that many Amazon reviews, such as those that dismiss Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary simply as boring, “serve no purpose at all.” Yet when he recognizes in the next sentence that they do serve a purpose, he may raise some hackles, particularly among online book reviewers and book bloggers. The Amazon reviews he criticizes just “establish that in an Age of the Imperial Self, any one person’s opinion is equal to everybody else’s, and the mice can review the cat, if they want to.” It is, though, one of a couple awfully broad strokes regarding a valid concern.

The title of Baxter’s essay comes from his contention that too many reviews are the equivalent of saying, “This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.” To him, a review must “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. If it doesn’t do either, it’s not a good review.” Certainly, Baxter’s bottom line assertion that some level of understanding is essential for a good review is well-taken. Conclusory statements alone aren’t a review but, again, the breadth of Baxter’s assertion may prove too much.

As Mark Athitakis points out, “The ‘formal properties’ of a book are important, but those aren’t the only aspects of it worth reviewing.” Particularly with literary fiction, it can be important to place a work in context, whether culturally or in terms of the author’s other work. At bottom, though, reading is a personal experience. If our assessments of what we read don’t reflect how a work affects us, then we tend toward the pedantic. As long as a reviewer explains why, I don’t see anything wrong with calling a work “boring” or “stunning,” another term Baxter disdains.

To be fair, Baxter’s essay should also be placed in context. He says passion is important to a good review. And his comments were originally part of a panel presentation on “Criticism in the Age of Book Blogs and” Moreover, that panel was presented at the 2011 conference for The Association of Writers and Writing Programs. The latter, of course, includes programs that actually award degrees, including masters and doctorates, in creative writing. Speaking as an self-acknowledged illiterati, I often fear MFAs spend a bit too much time pondering esoterica.

That said, Baxter does have has some legitimate points. A critic really should put their criticism in context and explain their reasoning instead of resorting to hyperbole. In that regard, I certainly hope I “review” more than I hoot. Yet even the hoots of an unwise owl may have some validity when considered in the context and universe of other sounds.

Honest criticism means nothing: what one wants is unrestrained passion, fire for fire.

Henry Miller, Sexus

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