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  • Arts & Culture
  • Issue 44

Essay:
Critical Mass

Words by Hettie O’Brien.
If everyone’s a critic, is anyone?

If criticism is a service industry, who is it serving? Judging by a number of recent articles, the answer is nobody. Cultural critics live in an “unrepresentative internet bubble,” Yair Rosenberg wrote in a January edition of his newsletter for The Atlantic. “The contemporary reader is unhappy” because critics are “lying to him,” according to a recent essay by the editors of the literary magazine N+1. The dominant mode of criticism today is the “hatchet job” marked by “scornful hauteur,” Richard Joseph concluded earlier this year in the Los Angeles Review of Books. 

According to these accounts, critics are either desperate click-seekers or isolated internet users who have become inured from the cultural preferences of ordinary people. To Joseph, the worst traits of criticism resemble Amazon Marketplace: “The market logic of the contemporary book review, like the rest of journalism today, is the logic of virality: clicks equal revenue,” he writes.1 Before everything was available to read online, people might have turned to their regular newspaper or magazine to figure out which books were worth reading or exhibitions worth visiting. Now, the field of discourse has expanded and the attention of consumers is limited, so critics must ensure their reviews stand out among the competition, engineering their snarkiest sentences to later do the rounds on social media. The editors of N+1, on the other hand, identify the problem as one of skewed incentives: The critic is “a freelancer, jumping from gig to gig,” they write. One review is always an audition for another. The rewards of honesty here are slim, so we shouldn’t be surprised if the reviewer’s inflationary praise and “tepid verbiage” seem contrived as fluff for a dust jacket. 

“People love reading something
negative—seeing someone getting
taken down. It’s very exciting.”

 These arguments identify a certain dishonesty in contemporary reviews and a lack of good faith among reviewers. Part of this diagnosis has to do with the shrinking of editorial budgets of traditional media, which has been accompanied by a simultaneous explosion in the number of opportunities to express one’s opinions in writing.2 Speaking recently at a panel event hosted by the National Book Critics Circle, the literary critic and New Yorker staff writer Parul Sehgal identified how the breadth of critical opinion on social media “puts pressure on the reviews to stand out . . . on the critic to either have [their review] anoint or destroy” a work. 

There is also the simple fact that negative reviews are more fun to read, and therefore make a bigger splash on the internet. Larissa Pham, a literary critic and author of the essay collection Pop Song, tells me, “People love reading something negative—seeing someone getting taken down. Someone who is popular, a little mainstream, mass market. It’s very exciting.” But really good criticism should do something more than just lambast, she believes. In an essay for The Nation, Pham identified the great gulf that lay between two recent viral reviews: the ad hominem barbs that the critic Lauren Oyler laid on Jia Tolentino in her review of Trick Mirror (Oyler questioned whether Tolentino had ever met an ugly woman) and Parul Seghal’s quietly devastating skewering of Kristen Roupenian’s You Know You Want This (a “dull, needy book,” in Seghal’s words). Where the former took a dig at the author, the latter left such personal speculation out of it . Both reviews were negative, but Seghal’s was “generative,” Pham wrote; it evaluated whether the book had succeeded according to the terms the author had set for it.3 “Interpretation is a gift, because it requires such care to read something closely. That’s an act of generosity,” Pham tells me. “You have to approach a project on its own merits and what it’s trying to do.”

Yet a lot of criticism does not do this. Part of the reason people like reading spicy, negative reviews is because it makes a change from dull reviews that merely act as publicity for the book or exhibition in question. The diminished status of criticism in publications that were once the gatekeepers of cultural opinion has produced many short reviews of this sort, which are too brief for substantial interpretation and too tame to be critical. The number of people who have the privilege of being paid to read an author’s work or attend an exhibition or eat in a restaurant and then write about this experience in a newspaper or a magazine is shrinking.4 Those who find themselves in this position therefore have a responsibility to do a good job of it—to engage with a work sincerely, to grapple with the ideas of the person who made the work, to read around the subject. 

“The journalists had their reviews already
written out. They just went back on the train
and filled in the blanks.”

Despite this, it can seem as though some critics are phoning it in. “I remember going down to see the Turner Prize in Margate. The press person told us that when all the newspaper journalists came down for the opening, they had their reviews already written out. And they just went back on the train and filled in the blanks,” Zarina Muhammad, a British writer and art critic, tells me. “No wonder their reviews end up regurgitating press releases.” In 2016, Muhammad founded the White Pube with Gabrielle de la Puente. The arts criticism and curation platform has since become known for its irreverent reviews and memes about the art world, published through its website and Instagram. It was born from a sense of frustration that Muhammad and de la Puente shared toward contemporary arts criticism: the “white people, white walls and white wine” that dominated the industry, as Muhammad has previously described it.5

In 2016, Muhammad visited an exhibition in London that de la Puente had recommended. After the exhibition, she caught a bus and found a copy of the free Evening Standard newspaper on a seat. Inside was a review of the show that she had just seen. “I sat on the bus, secretly furious. How was that a review? It had just described what was in the room and given it three stars—no justification,” Muhammad says. When she arrived at the studio she shared with de la Puente, she “slapped down the newspaper on the table, and that was our conversation for the day. We spoke about how weird it was that as art students we didn’t really read art criticism. We didn’t read contemporary writing about our field of study. How odd is that?” 

Six years after first buying the domain name for the White Pube, the work that de la Puente and Muhammad are most proud of is the grants they award to working-class writers and critics. Every month, the White Pube gives £500 ($650) to a new writer, with no strings attached. “It doesn’t help that writing is quite a middle-class thing. I’m middle class. I wouldn’t be a critic if I wasn’t,” Muhammad says. “This is such a bizarre way to make a living—it’s so precarious . . . and unrewarding. I think a lot of it comes down to access.” 

I sometimes wonder why anyone would want to read what someone else has written about a book, when they could have the experience of reading it (and blasting it on Goodreads) themselves.6  Then I remember that the best pieces of criticism are works in their own right—writing that pays careful attention to the work of others, vindicating the attention we pay both to that work and to our own lives. “When I think of criticism, I think of interpretation. When I finish a book and I have questions, the first thing I look for is reviews,” Pham says. “At its best, a review allows you to look at something in a new way or shines a light on something that might be ambiguous or highlights the beauty of that ambiguity. Ideally, you’re always trying to give someone more ways of looking at something.”

NOTES

( 1 ) Joseph identifies middlebrow authors as the most likely to be subject to a hatchet job. “It has a goal, and that goal is specifically to skewer commercially successful authors for aspiring to elite literary modes," he writes.

( 2 ) Not all reviews are written. On TikTok, content creators have used the #booktok tag to share short, snappy reviews of what they're reading. Several book retailers, including Barnes & Noble, have a recommendations section dedicated to books promoted by these influencers.

( 3 ) Kristen Roupenian, the author of Cat Person, spoke in subsequent interviews about feeling that the acclaim of her first story had led to unrealistic expectations for her book. “Loads of people congratulated me on the story going viral but I didn’t celebrate it. It was just scary," she told The Independent.

( 4 ) Criticism feels fun and fair only when an industry is thriving. During the pandemic, when the restaurant industry was all but shut down, critics became understandably unwilling to write negative articles. As Sam Sifton, The New York Times' food editor, predicted in 2020: “There’s going to be, I imagine, a drumbeat of boosterism and cheerleading."

( 5 ) The White Pube's founders are also keen to break down traditional boundaries of what gets reviewed and what doesn't. The site often publishes video game reviews written by de la Puente. As she explains in one blog post: “I used to be an art critic but suddenly exhibitions were locked away. Games were there in my bedroom with me, ready."

( 6 ) Authors have a love-hate relationship with Goodreads, the world's largest online book community. One issue is review bombing—a coordinated attack on a book's star rating by a group of people who object to its message or, in some cases, want to extort the author by demanding payment to stop the trolling.

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