A Literary Critic Criticizes Criticism and, Of Course, Amateur Reviews

How can readers reap the benefits of reading without a critic’s essay that criticizes critics and severely censures “amateur” reviewers? In a glumly fascinating essay in The Walrus by Steven Beattie, “What We Lose When Literary Criticism Ends,” Beattie scolds critics for dropping their standards and amateur reviewers for sub-standard reviews.

We have all read articles by critics about the heinous nature of unqualified bloggers, Goodreads reviewers, and Booktubers. But Beattie will surprise you: he thinks critics are almost as careless as the amateurs. While critics of yesteryear mastered basic writing techniques, such as backing up statements with examples from the text (Writing 101?), now they make unsupported statements with no pretense of documentation.

What to do in an age of bad criticism? Beattie is not completely negative: he finds an example of good writing. He praises the expertise of Canadian critic Donna Bailey Nurse and writes, “Nurse, as it happens, is also one of the handful of working book reviewers capable of discerning good from faulty literary technique—willing to speak about an author’s language as opposed to a novel’s moral or social message.”

I agree with Beattie’s concern about the new emphasis on “moral and social messages” – though I wonder how moral the bluestocking “J’accuse” bacchantes really are. Are censorship and cancel culture the answer to disagreement and perhaps envy? There was Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, a well-meaning novel about Mexican migrants making a long, weary, dangerous trip to the American border. Latinx protesters raged that she was white and that they should have written the book. The peculiar thing: Cummins was on the side of Mexican migrants. But she received death threats and her book tour was cancelled.

Beattie cites another problem: not only is the thinking fuzzy but reviewers’ clichés horrify him. He writes “…the number of ‘compelling’ or ‘riveting’ books with ‘fully developed characters’ and stories that ‘will remain in a reader’s mind long after the last page has been turned’ are positively legion.”

Oops! Who hasn’t done that? I must stop saying “compelling” and “page-turner.”

And Beattie also provides a model of a bad review. He writes,

…[in a review] of Jo Owens’s debut novel, A Funny Kind of Paradise, about a septuagenarian woman who has suffered a stroke and now lives in a long-term care facility, mentions the author’s “direct and unvarnished prose,” “richly drawn and complex” characters, and “rosy but not saccharine” tone without providing any examples from the text, essentially demanding that we take these things on faith. The review ends by highlighting the novel’s message—“There is joy and meaning to be found in every stage of life”—but refrains from analyzing precisely how the author forwards this message on the level of language, style, and craft.

Are you feeling humble, fellow bloggers? Well, probably not. I even chortled a bit. Beattie does provide useful tips in the topsy-turvy age of what we can only call “tell don’t show.” (“Show don’t tell” is forgotten.) Perhaps it is time for the professionals to put not their money – there is no money – but their writing where their mouth is.