To start: let’s not get it twisted, I love fantasy author and Time book critic Lev Grossman. Love. (When “we” (I) write on the Internet, cool detachment and a superior attitude are practically policy, but let’s not do that today. Okay?) Grossman is a smart man who consistently says smart things. Overwhelmed by the glut of flatly declarative “this sucks I hated it” reviews that populate Amazon and Goodreads, he argued yesterday for a clearer, better articulated standard of determining literary merit. This is definitely not a terrible idea. And Grossman is also diplomatic about how your love of terrible books is real and valid and you’re entitled to it. So what is the problem? Well, this is part of it:
I only bring it up now because I actually think that before the Internet it used to be easier to operate as if all this weren’t the case. It was easier to pretend that literary judgments were stable and universal. Before the Internet opinions about books were a relatively scarce commodity in our culture, and they came from a relatively small group of sources. We didn’t have access to hot and cold running book reviews twenty-four seven, and therefore we weren’t exposed to millions and millions of passionately held, diametrically opposed opinions about books. The wild diversity of readerly responses was not all up in your grill all the time. You went to school, and somebody told you that The Great Gatsby was a masterpiece, and if you didn’t like it, well, something was wrong with you, not it.
First, I would argue that if you are a high school student who is reading The Great Gatsby (who else is reading The Great Gatsby?) there is, in an academic environment, plenty of side-eye given if you say “this is boring.” There is no lack of negative reinforcement — in academia, in literary circles and on the Internet — when you hate on a classic piece of literature, especially if it’s just because you lack the intellectual fortitude to spend the limited time you have on this earth reading something that bores you. How pedestrian.
But even though Grossman concedes that the pre-Amazon days were oppressive, there is still, even in his measured critique of our book-reviewing problems, the quiet implication that we don’t (or shouldn’t) merely say “I didn’t like this book and here’s why…” or “this book is an artistic triumph and here’s why…” but that those reviews should function as a (sometimes preemptive) response to other contradictory reviews. It’s unclear as to whether Grossman is saying “What is a good book even?” or whether he’s just calling for specificity in Telling You About Your Wrongness. Would you value and a appreciate a one-star Amazon review of your favorite novel that went into depth about poor plotting, characterization and overreliance on cheap narrative gimmicks, like how all the characters we’re following are connected in multiple ways totally unknown to them? (I don’t need this last plot device to die in a fire, but maybe one of you could approach it as it slumbers and gently smother it? Unless that narrative trick strikes a chord with you. Then don’t.) Maybe? But probably not? Art touches both hearts and minds, sometimes in ways that are ultimately unknowable. I am sometimes emotionally undone by an insightful sentence in a mediocre novel. That very personal, idiosyncratic experience might generate enough goodwill to make me want to defend that book as worthy. It happens.
It is impossible for criticism of a particular work to exist in a vacuum, to exist apart from your opinions and my opinions. A book is released and we — you, me, Lev Grossman, whoever reads it — enter into a dialogue. In my humble estimation, the most productive criticism, whether it comes from James Wood or SkarsgardLuvr53, is illuminating without being didactic. It’s a talking-with, not a talking-to. Does the existence of this dialogue lead us back to a deep existential fear that MY idea of blue is different from YOUR idea of blue and oh god nothing is really real, is it? etc.? AND HOW! Grossman sort of touches on that here:
It’s liberating in some ways, but it’s also a difficult thing to admit. The idea of some kind of objectively constant, universal literary value is seductive. It feels real. It feels like a stone cold fact that In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust, is better than A Shore Thing, by Snooki. And it may be; Snooki definitely has more one-star reviews on Amazon. But if literary value is real, no one seems to be able to locate it or define it very well. We’re increasingly adrift in a grey void of aesthetic relativism.
I think Grossman’s fear (not to overstate it) of “aesthetic relativism” is more accurately an articulation of an overwhelming need for confirmation that our thoughts are reflective of a world that actually exists. The intersection of literature and philosophy: so tricky! A philosophy professor I respected and admired once told me that “most literature contains bad philosophy.” (I did not retort “most philosophy contains bad philosophy,” mostly because it took me years to come up with that zinger. Worth it!) I still don’t know that I agree with him, but I’m not entirely sure that we can solve the problem of solipsism through literary criticism. I say that totally unsassily. I don’t disapprove of Grossman’s suggestion that we should talk more about WHY we like or dislike a certain book, but any specific standards we (literary critics? Amazon reviewers? all people who read?) develop definitely could easily be manipulated to justify Why I Love This Book and You Should, Too. So maybe rather than fear the grey void of aesthetic relativism, we should just jump into it? Steer into the skid! Embrace the chaos of democratic expression! The worst that can happen is that you feel a little unsteady, your ideas are challenged (“Is A Shore Thing really the ‘bangin’est book fir real’? Is this tenth most-helpful Amazon review right? Could I have gotten it wrong?”) and either you change your mind or you don’t. But you get to keep talking and so does everyone else — and if there is any way to transcend the crippling fear that you are but a tiny, isolated transient bit of consciousness, the first step might be the weird decision to accept that…you are a tiny, isolated transient bit of consciousness, who needs to hear the plaintive one-star cries of all those people who might be/definitely are/definitely aren’t wrong.