Novel Critiques

Zoë Heller encourages novelists to take on their own kind in criticism:

If nonfiction writers are, by and large, less squeamish [than fiction writers] about criticizing one another’s work, this is not, one suspects, because they are a bolder or less compassionate bunch, but rather because the criticism of nonfiction tends to be a more impersonal business than that of assessing novels. The critic of nonfiction contests matters of fact, of interpretation, of ideological stance. The critic of fiction, by contrast, has only aesthetic criteria to work with. You may respectfully take issue with another writer’s analysis of the Weimar Republic without impugning his skill and dignity as a historian. But when you argue that a novelist’s characters are implausible or that his sentences are inelegant, there’s no disguising the rebuke to his artistry.

Given these powerful deterrents to candor, why urge novelists to write criticism at all?

Certainly not because the world needs more “hatchet jobs” or literary “feuds.” (The fact that literary argument is so often spoken of in these debased terms can only act as a further disincentive for the review-shy novelist.) No, the real reason for encouraging novelists to overcome their critical inhibitions is that their contributions help maintain the rigor and vitality of the public conversation about books. Practical experience in an art form is not an essential qualification for writing about that art form. (As Samuel Johnson pointed out, “you may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table.”) Yet an artist’s perspective is clearly useful to the critical debate. (The thoughts of a master carpenter on what went wrong with your wonky table will always be of some interest.)