My question is whether a newspaper book review sells books. My books never saw any results from newspaper reviews that was noticeable or from guest radio and TV appearances...over a thirty year period. (In total my books sold over half a million copies).
There's something to Wolff's explanation. As anyone who has published in an academic journal knows, the peer review process can suck the life out of any essay. It should be noted that the primary audience for most academic essays isn't students or general readers. Instead, academics--especially young ones trying to write themselves out of dead-end jobs--write for hiring and tenure committees.
Wolff is hardly the first person to complain about the tediousness of contemporary academic literary criticism. A larger question that Wolff doesn't consider is why anyone should care if literary criticism is so boring. No one seems to object to the dreadful prose produced in the physical and social sciences. Literary critics, to a greater extent than philosophers, have felt a responsibility toward a general readership. Literary criticism has had a special role in the public sphere since the 18th century, when the role of the literary critic first appeared. At that time cultural products became objects that had to be interpreted and evaluated, rather than just simply consumed or enjoyed. At a time when emergent capitalism was forcing people to become narrower and more specialized, critics were central to the project of becoming a well-rounded, educated person.
Another key moment in the history of critical prose was the arrival of structuralism in the American academy during the 1950's and '60's. Structuralism offered a "scientific" means of interpreting texts, so that literary studies could lay claim to the same objectivity and rigorous methodology as the sciences. Literary criticism gained a powerful array of analytical tools, but at the cost of a language accessible to the general reader, who was abandoned to newspaper book reviewers, themselves now .
There isn't an English professor in the world who doesn't long to approach someone reading in an airport gate and slap them upside the head. However, re-engaging with a broad public audience is tricky. Critics could regress back to belle lettrism, which basically means sending mash notes to great authors. No one has the stomach for that. But the alternative is becoming Professor Eat-Your-Peas, insisting that a subway reader pour over every line in .
There's a third way, but it's still in development. Some English professors like have ventured into the messy world of blogs, while is developing into another forum for discussions about literature. Developing a criticism that's a pleasure to read, or at least tolerable, means going back to criticism's roots in the early public sphere of open, and un-refereed, debate.
Christy Dorrity: Newspaper Book Reviewer
WSJ: You worry that Internet book reviewers don't have the same discipline as newspaper book reviewers, yet there has been very little public outcry over the closing of most standalone book reviews in newspapers. What does that tell us?