Fine Incisions: Reflections on Reviewing
by Eric Ormsby
Of making many books there is no end.
So spoke old Ecclesiastes, centuries ago. Whatever physical forms the book may take in the future, it seems pretty safe to predict that many will continue to be made. And as long as books are made judgments will be made about them. The Preacher doesn’t mention critics, perhaps because he was one himself, a reviewer of life and death. But he may have had them in mind. Don’t critics also “make” books—make them read and talked about; make them into either glossy best-sellers, buzzing with manufactured huzzahs, or wretched remainders, accumulating dust on the back-shelves of Liquidation World? The Preacher said too that “much study is a weariness of the flesh. Everyone who reviews books knows that weariness. It's a fatigue which comes from the application of considerable ingenuity, concentration, and judiciousness to a supremely ephemeral object: the composition of a thousand or so words—more if you're lucky—which may catch a reader’s attention for a few minutes and then be quickly forgotten. Vanity of vanities, indeed! In fact it gets worse. Only the most clueless critic imagines that those books which arrive day after day in the mail will themselves last forever, let alone long endure. The review is little more than a snowflake riding the back-draft of a book’s larger meltdown. Only a few books will survive their blurbs. Of the unmaking of many books there is also no end.
In considering literary criticism and reviewing, as practiced nowadays in Canada, Britain, and the United States, it helps to take a long view. Since antiquity, authors have despised their critics; and while readers may find critics useful they don’t often hold them in high regard. The Greek philosopher and physician Galen, who died sometime around AD 200, expressed the author’s perennial lament: “I long ago realized that if the Muses themselves were to write a book, it would still not win more renown than the outpourings of complete imbeciles, and so never had any ambition that my works might be valued among men.” Never mind that griping Galen’s works remained influential for a millennium and a half, his bitterness rings fresh. For poets and novelists, even the praise of critics has a dubious value; it’s usually “praise for the wrong thing,” as T. S. Eliot put it, and of course, it’s never ever enough. Is the critic just a parasite, an obnoxious practitioner of a dying profession, superfluous in an age of blogs where everyone is an authority, at least on the subject of his own opinions? Or is there a valid role for the critic today? Can literary criticism be called an “art,” even a disregarded one? And if so, where does this art flourish, if at all, in the Canadian, American, and British reviewing media of the day?
excerpted from Issue 113