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Why Book Criticism and Literary Culture Needs a Poptimist Revolution

When bestselling author Jennifer Weiner was profiled by The New Yorker in January 2014 in an article called “Written Off,” writer Rebecca Mead made sure to outline Weiner’s two audiences: one, the loyal readers of her books, who propel them onto the best-seller list, and number two, a pricklier sort, consisting of the “writers, editors, and critics… who have given Weiner a parallel notoriety, as an unlikely feminist enforcer.” The short version is that, through Twitter (and her following, which currently numbers about 93K), Weiner used her platform to needle such august institutions as The New York Times Book Review and everyplace else with mediocre VIDA counts regarding the amounts of space they give to reviewing and considering the three books that “matter” for the season written by male authors like Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides, while simultaneously ignoring the span of women’s writing, and, additionally, commercial fiction.

Like any provocateur’s performance, it was equal parts annoying — if you see book reviewing as advocacy for the little guy, a review of a Weiner novel is certainly not part of that performance — and righteous truth. It’s sexist that book critics can ignore Weiner while making sure to cover the next book by a Stephen King (who bridges “commercial” and also gets literary cred all the time).

Ultimately, Weiner won: after Pamela Paul took the senior editor position at The New York Times Book Review, the publication has taken a turn towards the more inclusive, getting a broader range of reviewers to review a broader range of books. As one of (if not the) last freestanding dedicated books supplement in a major newspaper in a time of very limited book reviews and resources, The New York Times Book Review carries a heavy load of influence. It’s important that the Review is relevant to the times and to what people are reading, so Weiner’s desire for it to acknowledge genres that she writes in makes complete sense.

However, sometimes it feels like there’s a divide in the world of book criticism. That divide is embodied by the very fact that Weiner has to make the point to a small community of committed, ardent readers — Serious Book People, basically — that she’s one of the most successful writers working today. It’s a divide between those who have an interest exclusively in “literary” literature, and those who have an interest in books generally. The former is unfortunately becoming a niche — and not the most interesting one, either. To me, the situation is starting to echo one of the fights and divides that lights up music criticism today: poptimism versus rockism. (Interestingly enough, spell check wanted to correct “poptimism” to populism. Symbolic!)

The simple version of rockism is that there have been music critics who judge everything they hear from a Bob Dylan-is-god, canon of boring dudes perspective. Poptimism, at its best, argues for a more inclusive view of what matters and what’s pleasurable in music, like the manner in which Jessie J’s “Bang Bang” (featuring Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj) is impeccably structured. (To quote Kathleen Hanna: “I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe.”) People have been fighting about it for years — in 2004, Kelefah Sanneh, then at The New York Times, wrote: “rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.”

Poptimism isn’t perfect, but on the whole it’s changed music criticism for the better, and its rise has addressed systemic problems in music criticism. Similar problems exist in the world of books, and they also need to be addressed.

First, there’s the scope of what book criticism covers. Lots of people who are professionally writing about books are also snobs, and snobs to the point that they won’t even consider what the specific alchemy and magic is that makes something like 50 Shades of Grey save the book industry for a year. Considering that the profits on that book are fueling our most obscure writers at Random Penguin at the moment, it is worthy of consideration as a phenomenon — as the lucky recipient of an ereader’s secrecy firing up a generation of women who love erotica — even if it’s not particularly well written.

If book review sections wanted to be relevant, they’d take a look as to why 50 Shades happened. The people buying 50 Shades of Grey are people buying books, even if the writing is, to quote William Giraldi: “the cartoonishly erotic suppurations of a hamstrung, not terribly bright adult trying to navigate a midlife crisis, and you get the feeling that the sentences arrived on the page as if by osmosis, unaided by even a sub-literate serf.” (Giraldi is a critic who has the stuff, but too often slides into misogynist cruelty — even if I admire his bitchy moxie.) Ignoring the biggest literary phenomenon of the decade is not good criticism.

Secondly, when I read book criticism — and the New York Times Book Review embodies this to a T — much of the time, I’m bored by what I read. Oftentimes, I’m not sure what’s the thing behind the thing, what makes the book matter in the world, because there’s no discussion of wider social context or cultural relevance. Instead, all you get is a rote summary of the book, couched in some cursory praise and prose that seems more interested in demonstrating the critic’s own literary prowess than anything else.

Part of the reason for this is that the people doing the reviewing are the writers and people in the book industry who are working in a similar genre. Book criticism, unlike other genres, is notoriously insular, like a meeting of Harvard men making Harvard plans for world domination at the Harvard club in NYC. It’s a snake eating its tail; it is empathically not the separation of church and state. In a situation unique to book criticism, there are too many vested interests for anything but lukewarm praise and a plot summary. (It is why a website like The Talkhouse, which offers “musicians on music” and “filmmakers on film” is clubby, insular, and boring.) And even if a review is critical, it’s only in the context of a discussion of whether or not the quality of the writing is good. But that’s not the only way to judge a book’s merit — or, crucially, its importance.

I find when I meet people who consider “liking books” as an important part of their identity, they’re not always acutely verbal as to the hows and whys of how a book can touch your life, heart, and brain. They’re good, fluent writers, but not good critics. They can enthuse on something for 1000 words, but they can’t get to the actual point: why the book matters, how it could change your life.

Naturally, these people are often professional book reviewers, and their requirements when they’re freelancing at the occasional publication is to take what the editor assigns, and then to produce a piece that has some sort of thesis and is smart enough to impress people. (Unlike the few and proud paid professional critics at major publications, your Dwight Garners, etc., who have the luxury of taking you along their critical process, book by book.) The result is boring, because nobody’s being pushed out of their boxes. When you meet people reading popular fiction, by contrast, you find that they’re excited about their books. They’ve read them.

It’s not an either/or, literary snobs versus being a populist philosopher, but I want a culture that’s rooted in a literary canon to figure out how to be more generous when considering the scope of literature, the value that words have in people’s lives. Some of this requires acknowledging that often-maligned, female-learning genre fiction exists, has way more readers that you can ever dream of, and should be considered regarding its storytelling merits and what it does. Even if it has words that exist strictly for the purpose of masturbation, it may end up having more value to the world than some obscure experimentalist’s experiments in literary wanking.

There is something of value in books that give the reader pleasure, from romance and young adult fiction to other genres — I mean, we all love crime, right? — and there is something to be discovered in reading these books and talking about these books. People who need to self-identify as literary could stand to learn from the bulk of these works, regarding how to entertain and beguile the reader while changing their life.

Immersion in “literary” culture, the cycle of writing criticism and having your work be the subject of other writers’ criticsm, is often boring half the time, and far too often irrelevant. A vital literary culture needs to move beyond just getting off on its own erudition and figuring out the pleasures of a sharply written plot or searing dialogue. Some of that can be found beyond the borders of what’s considered critically important. Let’s become more omnivorous, voracious, generous readers, ready to move beyond our biases and prejudices, in order to read books that are more than just some dead white guy.

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