I am not the most famous book reviewer in America, but I’ve been reviewing books on and off for 21 years, and it is how I make my living, such as it is. I have written hit pieces, appreciations, and mixed reviews. I’ve written synthesizing essays that attempted to characterize the literature of a brief era. I’ve had a few jobs as a literary editor. I’ve had a staff critic job. I’ve had years of pure freelancing. Sometimes the money has been good, and sometimes it hasn’t. Why do I do this? I enjoy writing criticism, performing literary analysis, and reading and thinking about books. One of my friends once justified our activities by saying you have to help create the literary culture you want to be part of.
When younger critics ask me for advice, I encourage them. I tell them to read widely and to immerse themselves in the criticism of the past. I suggest that they seek out subjects that will bring out their own best writing and to try always to be expanding their range. I hardly talk to them about money because the money just isn’t good. You do criticism because it’s what you’re interested in doing. I tell them to avoid my vices. Lord knows I repeat myself. I write again and again about the same writers. I make variations on the same points. As someone once pointed out, I use the word “glimpse” too much. The nicest thing anybody ever said to me is that I’m the only writer she knows who keeps getting better. I’m 44 years old, and I have yet to publish a book.
On Tuesday, n+1 ran an essay called “Critical Attrition: What’s the Matter with Book Reviews?” (On the cover of its new issue, the piece is billed as “LITERARY MERCENARIES.”) As usual with essays in its front-of-the-book “Intellectual Situation” section — the very first of which in 2004 was about negative reviews in The New Republic — the essay, written by the magazine’s editors, is unsigned. It deploys composite characters and other fictional elements to make a few points about the current book criticism scene. Nothing jarring to a regular reader about the essay’s style, but I found the points it made about book reviewing mostly irrelevant, distracting, and ultimately anti-intellectual.
The history of essays about the problems with book reviewing is as old as book reviewing itself, so I won’t rehearse it here. (My own contribution to the genre, about the erosion of reviews and their replacement with “books coverage” — that is, lists, recommendations, q&a’s, etc., all of which are intellectually worthless — appeared in Harper’s in 2019.) The n+1 editors focus on four problems: the lay reader’s suspicion that critics are lying, mostly through inflationary criticism; the muddled motives of the occasional reviewer; the muddled motives and unsatisfying experiences of the critic-practitioner; and the sorry state of what they term the Contemporary Themed Review, a genre mostly practiced by full-time critics.
Let’s begin with “the Contemporary Reader,” or “the earnest reader.” (Are there legions of ironic readers out there? I hope so.) This reader pays attention to jacket copy on books, uses the website Goodreads, searches Twitter for literary opinions, and doesn’t know very much about the literature business. I’ll be honest, I have no respect for this fictional character or anyone in real life who resembles him.
The next two parts of the essay attempt to explain corrupting factors in the book reviewing process that bring about the reviews that this reader doesn’t trust. But let’s linger on this reader for a moment. He’s buying books, presumably books that he’s going to spend many hours of his life reading. Yet when he has read a book he doesn’t like, he feels misled by its marketing. Is he as much of a mark for movie posters? For shoe ads? For vape juice promotion? This reader is simply bad at being a consumer. He doesn’t know how to spend his money on products that will please him. He is not in touch with his own taste and ways of satisfying it. The fact that he puts his trust in jacket copy, Goodreads (the literary equivalent of going antiquing in a garbage dump), and Twitter suggests that he has few friends or at least few friends who read.
What would a good literary consumer look like? Such a person would have a sense of their own taste and would find critics who, if not exactly sharing that taste, might at least speak to it. It does not mean looking at their mangled remarks on the back covers of books, but reading them in magazines and newspapers. Do you know the names of movie critics? If you don’t you’re flying blind, and the same holds with books. Book criticism doesn’t abide by the same logic of Wirecutter or the thumbs-up/thumbs-down popularized on At the Movies. Bad Literary Consumers (BLCs), I have a message for you: You are not hopeless. There are dedicated critics out there that you can trust or learn to mistrust in the right way (you may find that you love the books I hate and vice versa). All you have to do is learn our names and read the magazines we write for (most of them have very gentle paywalls). We will help you ascend from the status of literary consumer to enlightened reader. Stick with us and we might even turn you into a Real Literary Person (RLP).
A problem arises: There are few staff critics. This brings us to n+1’s second character, an occasional reviewer. This person, identified as female though I don’t think gender matters much in this piece, seems to be a former graduate student (“eight years in the library”) whose main economic activity is adjunct teaching. This reviewer has money problems and doesn’t seem to enjoy writing book reviews. Mainly she sees them as instrumental: a means of getting better paid assignments or an academic job. This, n+1 says, is the real problem: “the contemporary American book review is first and foremost an audition — for another job, another opportunity, another day in the content mine, hopefully with better lighting and tools, but at the very least with better pay.”
At least one Twitter wag has said this aligns with a statement I made recently: “More than realism or its rivals, the dominant literary style in America is careerism.” I don’t agree, mostly because n+1’s occasional reviewer doesn’t seem to me a very good careerist. A true literary careerist would have to take book reviewing very seriously: she would have to develop a recognizable style and a consistent framework for evaluating books. She would have to focus on becoming a good writer, because that is the thing that keeps editors calling you. Her work would amount to a portrait of her own taste. Then she can do the thing a proper careerist does: ink book deals, be profiled, attend literary festivals, campaign for prizes, whatever satisfies her vanity.
N+1’s next parable is about a novelist asked to review a novel by the New York Times Book Review, which they rename, lamely, the Major Times Book Review (sorry, but the jokes in this piece could have used some punching up). Worried about being perceived as an asshole (and thus being blacklisted from magazine serialization and bookstore events when her next novel comes out), she turns in a tepid piece about a bad book and a mangled quotation of hers appears on its next edition: “A tireless, dutiful book whose primary research nevertheless yields fascinating details that make it worth the read” turns into “‘A . . . book . . . [of] fascinating details . . . Worth the read.’ — The Major Times Book Review.” This has never happened to me, but it happens. It doesn’t matter because marketing doesn’t matter.
Certainly tepid reviews by critic-practitioners appear in the Times Book Review and elsewhere. A lot of trite talk about “being a good literary citizen,” on the one hand, and the perception of critics as envious sadists polluting the otherwise genial literary ecosystem — a major talking point during the Snark Wars of the 2000s — on the other, don’t help matters. The critics interviewed by the sociologist Phillippa K. Chong in her 2020 study Inside the Critics’ Circle seem concerned primarily with managing their own reputations in a way similar to n+1’s critic-practitioner. A reviewer who approaches the task with an eye mainly to reputation management is easy to spot. Their pieces just aren’t very good.
So a sorry situation, as n+1 paints it. Readers who don’t know how to find the books they like and reviewers writing pieces that are tepid and compromised, secretly driven by their misplaced hopes for minor advancement (n+1 is too sympathetic to their plight to call them grifters, but that’s the idea). I think these problems are irrelevant because they constitute the sort of mediocrity endemic to any endeavor. If they are most prominent in places like the Times Book Review, well the Times Book Review has a lot of problems and it always has, but it still publishes good pieces once in a while.
And now we reach the last part of n+1’s diagnosis of the problem with book reviewing, something it calls the “Contemporary Themed Review,” or CTRs for short (not to be confused with CRT, though as we will see, it’s culture war that’s on n+1’s mind). If there’s something you really dislike, give it a made-up name with three initials: this is a recent tick of the professional managerial class (PMC). In any case, these CTRs tend to be written by dedicated critics, a class to which I belong, and I have arguably written several essays that fit this description. N+1 has arguably been the best home for CTRs since its founding: examples include Marco Roth’s essays on neuronovels and clone novels; Nicholas Dames on theory novels and novels nostalgic for the 1970s; an unsigned piece on globalized literature (written, I believe, by Nikil Saval and Benjamin Kunkel); and myself on something I called “magic feelism.”
The CTR, n+1 argues, has become a degraded form and mutated from the Marxism-informed work of the anti-Stalinist critics writing in Partisan Review in the middle of the 20th century to the “counterintuitive take” that has risen in the clickbait-incentivizing social media environment of the past decade. This is a shoddy genealogy. The heyday of kneejerk counterintuitivity was the first two decades of Slate, and its roots weren’t in literary criticism but in the neoliberal political writing of the 1980s in Washington DC (the New Republic, Washington Monthly, etc). The substack contrarians of today (counterconsensus is a better term for what they do than counterintuitivity) do media criticism, and they simply don’t have many ties to the book review world — I doubt they read many novel reviews. The fictional essay that n+1 invents and then criticizes as a debased example of the CTR form is a review of a nonexistent novel called The Passenger’s Brother by Roland Luxner (not sure what the joke even is there). The book putatively under review is hardly mentioned and the “failures, offenses, and excesses of Rooney, Lerner, and Cusk occupy the bulk of the piece — until the final fourth, which seems to be about Christopher Lasch, as well as cancel culture.”
The implied argument is that literary criticism, like much media discourse, has fallen prey to culture war. That’s why n+1 asserts that the conclusions reached in CTRs are “completely obvious” and “never not obvious.” This repetitive point about obviousness would be more convincing if n+1 either named names or at least made their actual targets more easily recognizable in their Luxner piece parody. But as far as I can tell, there aren’t any pieces out there that discuss both Ben Lerner and Christopher Lasch (I Googled it). His presence here seems to be dog whistle to associate n+1’s unnamed targets with other unsavory millennial media figures who like to talk about Lasch. How pointlessly coy!
One actual target of n+1’s attack on CTRs seems to be Becca Rothfeld’s recent Liberties essay on “Sanctimony Literature” because something like the title of her essay sits among an otherwise generic list of CTR subjects: “the internet novel, the sanctimony novel, the millennial novel, the #MeToo novel, the climate change novel, the autobiographical novel, the permalance novel.” Rothfeld does discuss Lerner and Rooney (though not Cusk; her other examples of sanctimony lit are Emma Cline and Celeste Ng) and she does bring up cancel culture. A reductive version of her argument would be that cancel culture (does it exist?) is bad and that novels written to demonstrate the “Unimpeachably Good Politics” of their characters and by extension their authors are boring. The problem, n+1 implies, is that literature has been dragged in to decorate a political argument (or position in the culture war): “Readings are deductive rather than inductive — theses in search of evidence.”
If that were true, it would be bad, I agree. But I don’t think it’s true generally in literary criticism that attempts to describe broad thematic trends in contemporary fiction, and I don’t think it’s the problem with Rothfeld’s piece. I have my own arguments with that piece — I think it misreads The Topeka School and it seems to be infused with a misplaced paraliterary anxiety about the relative moral status of Warren voters vs. Sanders voters, a classic case of the narcissism of small differences — but Rothfeld musters arguments from the very Marxist tradition (James Baldwin, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe) n+1 would imply we’ve all left behind. Anyway, if you’re going to argue with it, argue with it directly rather than arguing with your own deficiently designed caricature. N+1 says doing culture war in book reviews is bad because it’s obvious. Rothfeld argues that novels that do culture war are bad because it’s boring. Could it be that they actually agree? N+1 goes a little further in its implications when it posits that “the CTR critic” will exploit the virality of her essay by writing more CTRs, an op-ed “that disposes of the literary pretense altogether” or, horror of horrors, “her eye is on a bigger prize. Next up: book deal.” It strikes me as rather ungenerous to criticize writers merely for being paid to write books.
The “Intellectual Situation” is anti-intellectual in three ways: it’s sympathetic to lazy readers; by describing a couple of predicaments that bring about bad writing in book reviewing it validates those concerns and by implication lets those bad writers off the hook; and it indicts more ambitious form of criticism by presenting a bad-faith fictional version of that form’s worst examples. Excusing unambitious writing and discouraging ambitious writing is malpractice on the part of editors. N+1’s essay concludes with an exhortation to book review editors to pay their critics better if they have the means and for those who lack the means, “Just say no to CTRs.” This is weird! They might have said, “Just say no to culture war,” and I would have broadly agreed, but in its backhanded way what this piece is doing is culture war, which is another reason why it’s ultimately anti-intellectual.
But worse than its anti-intellectualism, the picture n+1 paints of criticism is a joyless one. If there is a problem with book reviewing the problem is that those of us who are good at it aren’t good enough, there aren’t enough of us, and we aren’t doing a good enough job of expanding the scope of literary discourse, to put it in touch with tradition and open it wide to new writing. I recoil at terms like “thought leader” and “gatekeeper,” but we do have at least the duty of helping to create the culture we want to live in, and that world should be full of infinitely various delights. The imperatives are to be stylish, to be thorough, to be funny, to be generous, and occasionally to be cruel. Boredom, envy, gray skies and gray sentences — these are the things we were born to kill.
Christian Lorentzen is a writer living in Brooklyn.