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What Do We Even Want From Book Reviews Anymore?

Slate’s Mark O’Connell has some issues with the Hatchet Job of the Year, an annual award the Omnivore has been giving out for three years to celebrate “the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review.” According to O’Connell, it isn’t only a bad thing because it “publicizes and rewards mediocre and shallow criticism by the kind of people who’ll shoot a baboon point-blank in the tits for their own amusement”; the award also “actively promotes such criticism, going out of its way to ensure that more of it gets written.”

Of course, arguing with O’Connell’s harsh criticism of an award given out for harsh criticism is a difficult task because, yes, “awarding” criticism that takes a book to the woodshed seemingly for the sake of committing a bloody massacre is a silly thing. O’Connell believes that “[r]eviewers are going to seek out bad books precisely in order to display their dull hatchets to the utmost” — which I don’t totally believe to be the case, but even if it is, is it really so wrong to want to be harsh about a book you think is garbage? A critic’s job, after all, is to be critical. Isn’t O’Connell’s criticism of other critics a little bit like a snake eating its own tail?

While O’Connell’s bigger issue is what he sees as the overall poor quality of the nominees’ reviews, his thoughts provide an interesting counterbalance to another Slate post from 2012, in which Jacob Silverman wrote about what he saw as an “epidemic of niceness in online book culture” and book critics who yearn for the good old days and “old talk-show dustups,” but are “unwilling to engage in that kind of intellectual combat themselves.” In many ways, Silverman predicted the dust cloud that BuzzFeed’s Isaac Fitzgerald kicked up when he told Poynter that he’d follow “the Bambi Rule,” and keep the popular site’s book section positive. Fitzgerald’s comments got everybody from Gawker to The New Yorker talking, with some nervous people wondering if they finally signaled the end of book criticism as we know it.

Yet what nobody wants to talk about is that in constantly complaining that reviewers are either too nice or too mean, we’ve lost sight of the most important aspect of literary criticism: the books themselves. This should signal that it’s time for us to pause and re-evaluate what, exactly, we expect from the cultural conversation around books.

Amid all the discussion about what critics should or shouldn’t do, it’s rare to hear any substantive debate over what criticism actually is — and, specifically, what function it currently serves for readers. There are plenty of talented book critics whose work we should be talking about, many of whose jobs are in constant peril, yet we seem more interested in arguing about what tone or approach the profession as a whole should take than these writers’ specific reviews and the books considered within them. This is what’s so troubling about the level of abstractness with which we approach book criticism these days. Not only is it weakening the already shaky position of the book review, but it’s making us forget why the form is so important in the first place.

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