Critical Mass
If everyone’s a critic, is anyone?

Issue 44


Arts & Culture

  • Words Hettie O’Brien

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 eve...

( 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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