The Club Wants to Know: What Is The Job of a Book Critic?

While I’ve been a book nerd for years, I’m a newbie when it comes to the book blogging and writing sphere. I’ve subscribed to the NY Times weekly book updates for several years, but working in academic publishing didn’t expose me to the latest trade publishing trends or the hottest works of literary fiction (I can tell you where all the polisci professors are blogging, in case you’re interested). Therefore, my daily updates from LitHub have been a godsend over the past few months, providing a crash course in everything from criticism to nerdy book trivia. This week, I came across an article in one such update on the role of the book critic from Heather Scott Partington that resonated:

We are a consumer society. People want to Google a rating: is it three stars or zero? Two thumbs up or none? I hate that kind of thing. Books are not lawnmowers. My stars might mean something entirely different than your stars, by the way. But a review is—or should be—its own piece of art. A review, written well, should guide you to a book if you’re the right person for it, even if there are negatives mentioned. The author’s plot, the author’s style, the critic’s thoughts and personal taste: all of these things should be speaking to the reader of a good piece of criticism so she can sift through them and decide for herself if the book is right at that moment in her life. I frequently read wonderful reviews of books that I know I will hate. I also read negative reviews that make me want to buy books. I wish sometimes we weren’t so myopic about how we discuss these things.

Her thoughts on what a good critic should do struck me as so simple, and obvious. Yet we tend to view the word of the critic as holier than God. A review can, and does, send a book onto a lifetime on the bestseller list, or one in the bargain bin at Barnes & Noble. We neglect that we all have varying tastes, ones that change over time as we interact and consume more of the culture around us. I loved her thoughts on finding a book for the right moment in her life. I recently read Shonda Rhimes’s Year of Yes on a plane to a work conference in January, and it was life-changing. I’m sure the book wasn’t reviewed poorly, as Rhimes is a professional writer, but it wasn’t on the shortlist for the Pulitzer. In my mind, at that moment, it should have been. Her words were so powerful to me, at a time when I felt myself struggling, like her, to be the best version of myself.

Read what you love. Expand your horizons. Listen to the critics. Hear what they have to say, the good and the bad. And then trust your own instincts to decide what to read next.

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