Book reviews – The case for argued criticism

The case for old-fashioned, argued criticism

Lily Aphrodite

I write business documents for a living and spend most of my time either figuring out what people want to say and what they mean, or putting their thoughts into words. To allow me to do this well, I spend a great deal of time doing “close reading”. The practice of close reading as an academic exercise emerged during the early and middle decades of the 20th century as part of a scholarly approach known as New Criticism. The single most important skill of a student and user of language is the ability to close read a text.

Doing this allows you to show your understanding of a written work, analyse the use of language, frame discussions and arguments, and express interpretations, impressions, hypotheses and responses. To my mind, the ability to come up with readings of literary texts, and to write about these with detailed precision, are essential critical skills.

And what has all of this got to do with writing reviews and this website?

Reviewing and redaction

Most of the reviews I have produced were for Fairlady magazine, a South African national women’s magazine. As well as honing my analytical skills, producing the reviews improved my writing skills, because, no matter what my thoughts on a book, I had – with some exceptions – to express them in no more than 125 words. What this meant was that I had to do a critical or close reading, and then reduce the write-up to the required length, without losing the essential elements – somewhat of a process of redaction.

The value of literary cricism is constantly being questioned, including the methodology used in the analyses, and the same goes for book reviews. Particularly, the value of book reviews – literary criticism in which a book is analysed based on content, style, and merit – by amateurs, as opposed to professionals, academics or authors, is being questioned.

Is literary criticism for experts only?

According to Morris Dickstein, author and professor of English and Theater at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York , “The professional reviewer, who has a literary identity, who had to meet some editor’s exacting standard, has effectively been replaced by the Amazon reviewer, the paying customer, at times ingenious, assiduous, and highly motivated, more often banal, obtuse, and blankly opinionated.”

He disapproves of the ‘thumbs-up, thumbs-down’ school of reviewing, which works for a website like Trip Advisor but, as he explains:

“…most assuredly does not work for literary reviewing, which demands taste, training, sensibility, some knowledge of the past, and a rare feeling for both language and argument. Raw opinion, no matter how deeply felt, is no substitute for argument and evidence. The democratization of reviewing is synonymous with the decay of reviewing.”[1]

Against interpretation, by Susan Sontag, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966
Against interpretation, by Susan Sontag, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966

Susan Sontag echoed this sentiment when she said:

“Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.'”[2]

Dickstein’s point of view has been echoed by the chairman of the Man Booker Prize judging panel, Sir Peter Stothard. He has been quoted saying that book blogs are killing the art of literary criticism. He said discerning readers should pay heed to established critics rather than internet reviews written by amateurs. It is the job of Booker judges to identify books that are challenging and rewarding, rather than easy beach reads, he added. Sir Peter, editor of The Times Literary Supplement, said:

‘There is a general trend – and it’s certainly very prevalent online – for replacing argued literary criticism that allows you to compare books, to put them in context, to analyse how they work. That kind of traditional criticism is very easily replaced by unargued opinion.'”

Both Dickstein and Stothard’s arguments are valid – there are a great number of unconsidered, poorly motivated, poorly written, uncontextualised reviews out there, not only by bloggers but also by reviewers for the media. It does not help the state of the art that the criteria and scores of the adjudications of works for literary awards, such as the Man Booker, are not made public – so no-one can learn from the experts. How – by which criteria, on which scale – literature is judged, seems to be as big a topic of discussion as the fact that judgement is carried out at all. However…!

“Out, damned blog-spot!”

I am, indeed, one of those useless and damnable book bloggers to whom Stothard refers. In mitigation, I have formally studied Literature for some six years and have a Master’s degree in Linguistics and Literary Sciences. And I have produced published reviews for many years. The reason why I think my reviews may be more than useless drivel, is because I do actually try to do close reading of the books I am handed by publishers. Since most of these books were fresh off the press – often just a proof – when I reviewed them, there was nothing, no point of view, no take or angle – that already existed. There was just the book – the words, the thoughts, the œuvre of the artist, and, in the case of genre literature, the features of the genre. In the case of literature, or cross-genre works, there was not even a genre to reference.

Peering closely at books

Luminous Allusions
Luminous Allusions, a collection of analyses, reviews and musings about books.

Faced with the work, and not much else, I could only do critical readings. I have fairly good instincts about books, and I have been pleasantly surprised that, after my reviews were published, other more important reviewers have shared my assessment of some of the works. Sometimes I was faced with a book that, unfortunately, was just no good in most aspects. I know that publishers take a calculated bet on a new work, and rely on good reviews to push sales. But in all good conscience, I just could not give those good reviews. I also realize that my editor at the magazine was treading a thin line between recommending those easy reads and simple subjects that many readers prefer, and promoting difficult but quality literature. While aware of the “hot dogs vs pâté de foie gras” argument, I veered inexorably towards panning the pulp and praising the serious lit., since I compared all that I read to the best in the literary world – that I had previously read. Once you’ve read the old and modern classics, everything else has to match up. Some did, some didn’t.

Interestingly, sometimes a book from a much-hyped author arrived, and try as I might, I could not get away from the perception that it was pretentious tosh. Other times an unknown author would turn up, and be a pleasant surprise. These judgements, not reached by a snap decision, but rather after much analysis and mulling over, finally took the form of text as well as scores on a graph, and were self-published as a collection with the title Luminous Allusions in 2012.

Why write reviews?

Ultimately, apart from reviews being important to readers, publishers and writers, and improving my own thinking and writing, I also feel that it’s the natural obligation of readers to write about that they read – it’s a form of meta-cognition. A critical audience, who thinks, talks and writes about what they read, is essential to the continued production of good literature and the maintenance of a market of astute, appreciative readers.

Stothard and Dickstein, and others who think literary reviews and criticism are the sole domain of the intellectual elite, derive their arguments from the mistaken assumption that the word of literature belongs to them. In fact, with the arrival of the internet and the ability of ordinary readers to freely access literature and literary debate, and what’s more, self-publish, we are all now potential writers, publishers and critics. This democratization, derided by Dickstein, means the freedom to publish and comment, and in due course, people will learn the ultimate lesson of the internet: – if it has no inherent value, it won’t endure. The rubbish will be ignored, and the good stuff will stay live.

People can surf the web and compare. They can see for themselves which reviews have been copied/pasted from another ones, they can see which reviews are poorly substantiated, and they can see who knows what they are talking about. They can see for themselves that there are, despite the mass of verbiage on the web, actually very few original comments and reviews. So much is syndicated, repeated ad infinitum and ripped off, that an original review in which the voice of the critic is clearly heard, can be easily recognised and appreciated.

So, not to put too fine a point on it, in terms of reviews, the cream will eventually rise to the top. I hope that my reviews are examples of the cream, not the crud. They were certainly hard enough to produce. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said,

“There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.”[4] 

Disambiguation of assessments

In Luminous Allusions I scored each book I reviewed. The scoring was particularly tricky, since my gut might tell me one thing, but the numbers to back up my opinion were relentlessly objective and sometimes proved the opposite. It was quite hard to motivate the overall score. Why did I quantify my reviews? Because people do read figures easier than words, and because, unlike the Man Booker judges, I wanted to make my judgement transparent.

Each work of fiction (genre or literature) was scored on a scale of 1-5 (1 being poor, 2.5 being average or adequate, and 5 being the best). I used 10 criteria:

  • RECEPTION – How was it received by the reading public? On average, how did it score?
  • AUTHOR’S PORTFOLIO – How does it compare to previous works in the artists’s œuvre? It is better or worse?
  • GENRE – How well does it compare to other works in the same genre?
  • CHARACTERIZATION – To which extent do the depiction of the characters support the theme or plot of the book?
  • THEMES / MOTIFS – How convincingly or thoroughly is the theme or motif depicted?
  • PLOT / STRUCTURE – To which extent does the plot or structure support the theme/motifs?
  • STYLE / AESTHETIC – How well does the language used by author appeal to the user and support the theme?
  • DEPTH – How thoroughly or intensively are the theme, style or structure dealt with?
  • LONGEVITY – Does this book address classical or universal themes that will still resonate with readers in the future? Will it be remembered as the best of its genre or its type?
  • OVERALL SCORE – The average score for all 9 criteria. (Not the “gut feel” impression.)

A cat may look at a king

While I am not a real published author, and I haven’t spent years laboring on a book, I am one of those darned members of the public, for whom, like it or not, books are written. They are, after all, written to be read. So I, the cat, am humbly making my opinion heard in the presence of literary royalty. In Luminous Allusions, I rated famous authors like Cormac McCarthy, Breyten Breytenbach, Jenny Erpenbeck – and what’s more I did not give them perfect scores. This cat has some nerve. I hope, dear reader, that you enjoy sharing my point of view.  



[1] (The Future of Book Reviews: Critics vs. Amazon Reviewers, May 12, 2011, retrieved from
[2] Susan Sontag (1933-2004) American author. From “Against Interpretation and Other Essays”, a collection of essays by Susan Sontag published in 1966.
[3] (Man Booker Prize judge has little time for book blogs, Anita Singh, 9 Oct. 2012, retrieved from
[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) U.S. poet, essayist and lecturer, from “The American Scholar”, a speech given by Emerson on August 31, 1837.

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