#AWP17 Panel Report: F253. The National Book Critics Circle on the Art of Criticism
Description: Four leading literary critics—Pulitzer Prize–winning critic Margo Jefferson, whose new book Negroland won an NBCC award in 2016; NPR critic Maureen Corrigan, winner of an Edgar Award for Criticism; Ron Charles and Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post, both winners of the NBCC’s Balakian Award for criticism—discuss the fresh ways critics are writing about books today, including the new hybridity. All represent criticism as a provocative activity, all are always in search of something new to say.
Presenter Change: Ron Charles was apparently unable to make the panel, and he was replaced by Dr. Walton Muyumba, book reviewer and author of In the Shadow of the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism.
Panelists: Margo Jefferson, Dr. Walton Muyumba (substitute for Ron Charles), Maureen Corrigan, Carlos Lozada, Tom Beer
At any conference, there are panels that get off to a rocky start for reasons completely out of the presenters’ control. Unfortunately for the panelists representing the National Book Critics Circle, their discussion on criticism was one of these victims of chance. In addition to the last-minute substitution of author and Indiana University professor Walton Muyumba for Ron Charles, there were some apparent hiccups in the sound system that cut into the session’s allotted time and caused a ten-minute delay. In those awkward early minutes, more than a few in the audience got up and left.
If any of those early departures are reading this, I’d like to say: You really should have stuck around.
Despite all the trouble getting off the ground, this panel proved to be a worthwhile discussion for any aspiring reviewer. In a nice complement to a panel from last year’s AWP, the largely craft-focused “Art of the Review,” this year’s review discussion steered in a more motivational and encouraging direction, with plenty of advice and wisdom for review writers in general rather than specific points of style or technique. Moderator Tom Beer framed much of the discussion around a popular conception of the critic addressed in A.O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism (2016): that criticism is only a secondary reaction to real art, and is “useful, perhaps, but basically superfluous.” All four panelists rose admirably to the challenge of defending their work as both necessary and an art form all its own.
Carlos Lozada, the self-described “newbie” among the panelists, steered the conversation in what became its most productive line of thought: that, in many respects, the critic is not a lofty judge of literary merit, but just another member of the book’s audience. The only difference between the critic and the general audience, Lozada said and the other panelists echoed, is that the critic has a platform to make their opinion public. Lozada spoke with an enthusiasm for his work that spread throughout the panel, and discussed the role of reviews of nonfiction works as “entrypoints into any conversation;” in other words, a good review—while no substitute for reading the genuine article—can give its readers enough to comment on any given hot-button issue tackled in the bestsellers of the day.
Walton Muyumba was noticeably quieter than his fellow panelists, but he spoke with good humor and got many a laugh when, in response to the question of who his influences and inspirations were, he openly fanboyed about sharing the stage with Margo Jefferson and Maureen Corrigan. “Critics are the first audience,” Muyumba said, placing emphasis on the role that reviewers take as gatekeepers for the written word. He also advised, quite strongly, that reviewers be wary of spoilers and plot summary, recommending instead that the review be “an essay on the themes that emerge in the work.”
All four panelists addressed the review’s unique status as a piece of writing read by “an audience of both initiated and uninitiated readers,” to borrow Muyumba’s phrasing, but Maureen Corrigan gave the best take on the issue. Corrigan is just as delightful to hear on a stage as she is over the radio, and she spoke about finding the right voice for a given piece with a fire she doesn’t often bring to Fresh Air. Although she agreed that a good review will speak to as many readers as possible, she also cautioned that even the best criticism will “offend” at least a few readers for coming across as too informed, elevated, or otherwise pretentious. Corrigan argued that reviewers should ignore that small contingent of the population and resist the temptation to dumb down the review. “If you’ve worked hard to know something, own it,” she said: “Never give in to anti-intellectualism.”
Finally, Margot Jefferson offered the suggestion that the modern book reviewer, as a well-read individual poised to offer opinions on a lot of different works and topics, works in the tradition of the public intellectual; we are, Jefferson says, “the minds that are at work on the culture,” and review writing makes us kindred spirits with the likes of H.L. Mencken and Ralph Ellison. Jefferson also took hard issue with the idea that the critic is unimportant. At one point, unprompted, she looked to the audience and said bluntly, “Don’t be ashamed because you’re a critic.” A handful of us in the audience—myself included—gave a little applause then and there.
Although the panel got off to a bumpy beginning—and, as the end of the timeslot drew near, it became apparent there wouldn’t be much chance for a Q&A—this proved to be one of the most encouraging of the conference. The lesson for any reviewer out there is clear: What you write isn’t of secondary importance, but fine work all its own.
B. Douglas Caldwell is a graduate English student at Austin Peay State University. His first published book review is forthcoming in Zone 3 Journal.