As we leave behind the “aughts” decade, the NBCC seeks the best guest posts about the future of book culture, including essays, interviews and free-range opining. How do you see book culture evolving over the next decade? This just in from Diego Báez, a poet and critic, currently a graduate student at the Rutgers-Newark MFA writing program.
Book critics, ostensibly less concerned with the industrial objectives of publishing than editors, agents and booksellers, are expected to function independently as sophisticated filters between artists and end-consumers. As a relatively well-read young person and aspiring critic myself, I try to determine the value of a voice less by whether an opinion conforms to my already deeply engrained biases than how convincingly they state their case, e.g., I bought Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke only upon reading a rather scathing review in the Atlantic Monthly. B.R. Myers, the particular critic in question, was one of very few reviewers to really criticize the novel, and this critical dissonance engaged the more skeptical biases of my mind and made the book worth reading. In this weirdly contrarian way, I came about and actually enjoyed Tree of Smoke, which I suppose is something like my point: my purchase was based more on how Myers said what he said, than what he said itself. Because it’s not the function of the critic to tell us what to read and how. We do, of course, but more important than any one’s opinion is the discourse created by so many in conversation, and the role of the critic in the context of culture-at-large.
Critics, as the cultivators and proponents and regardless of whatever they understand the best of “book culture” to be, can (and must continue to) demonstrate appreciation: that odd combination of comprehension and opinionated appraisal missing from so much contemporary discourse. The audacity to assign value and really evaluate something and risk the kind of loquacity required to contribute yourself and your thoughts to more than just a conversation about any given object, but to subject those thoughts and your reputation as a reader to the scrutiny of an audience, has very little to do with self-interest, and everything to do with cultivating an appreciation of the art (literally and fiscally).