Inside the Critic’s Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times, by Phillipa K. Chong

Robert Eaglestone risks getting a bit ‘meta’ in reviewing a book about the failures of reviewers

February 13, 2020
Source: Alamy

Would I review an academic book about book reviewing? Of course! Might it risk getting a bit “meta”, as students say these days? Not really, as Phillipa Chong’s precise, insightful and fascinating book focuses on journalist critics of fiction who write with an eye to newsworthiness as well as literary value, rather than academics. And they have an unhappy lot: Chong’s focus is uncertainty.

First of all, “epistemic uncertainty” for book reviewers is “high, as aesthetic quality is difficult to ascertain in a determinative way”: in literary studies we’ve been worrying about this for over a century. Basically, this means that there is no easy way to know if a book is good, so reviewing is a kind of high-wire act. One reviewer’s early enthusiasm for a novel that many hated left him feeling embarrassed (“And in fact other reviewers I interviewed did make jokes about him,” writes Chong, in an early contender for 2020’s scariest sentence).

On top of this there is “social uncertainty”: how will a review be received? Because the pool of fiction reviewers is small, and often draws on novelists, Chong points to a “switch-role reward structure”: today’s reviewer is tomorrow’s reviewee, so people play nice. Moreover, being nasty is…not nice: another interviewed critic tells how they met the subject of one of their bad reviews, “the guy’s wife led this broken figure up to me and said, ‘you know, you’ve ruined his life!’”. However, it’s OK to “punch up”, as Chong sees it, since “Stephen King doesn’t need another book review” and sometimes, well, the emperor wears no clothes.

Finally, there is “institutional uncertainty”. What makes a critic? While many of those interviewed by Chong have English degrees, there’s no suggestion that this is a necessary qualification. In fact, academic critics and theorists repeatedly get it in the neck from these journalist critics (one claims that, apart from “invading small countries, the worst thing that men do is to invent literary theories”). And if journalist critics think academics are too specialised to write for the public (we’re not, by the way), bloggers are not specialised enough (“hobbyists” encroaching on their territory). Add to this the death of print media and the fact that “we’re tired of experts”, and it’s no wonder that journalist critics say their role itself is under threat. As they have, Chong points out, for decades.

All this has an importance far beyond what people think of the new J.M. Coetzee novel. Chong argues that we evaluate all the time and often on issues that have a high degree of uncertainty: where to eat, who to vote for, how to do the right thing. Her detailed analysis of this example from the literary world brings sharply to the fore the complexities in making these everyday evaluations.

Much of this book applies to academics as well as journalist critics. The uncertainties we face and the structures we inhabit can shape what we feel able to write in public. Yet our work thrives on and develops from dialogue: for us, ideally, disagreement is a kind of collaboration. Perhaps it’s better, then, for academics to be outside the critics’ circle.

Robert Eaglestone is professor of contemporary literature and thought at Royal Holloway, University of London – and a regular reviewer for Times Higher Education.

Inside the Critic’s Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times
By Phillipa K. Chong
Princeton University Press, 184pp, £24.00
ISBN 9780691167466
Published 4 February 2020


Print headline: The unhappy lot of reviewers

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