Critical Mass

Carsten Jensen on the Critic and the Internet

By Carsten Jensen

Former book reviewer Carsten Jensen offered a Danish perspective on the state of book reviewing today in the National Book Critics Circle's PEN World Voices 2011 conversation (video here). He also offered an apt metaphor for the democratization of the Internet, suggesting that perhaps we have reached the state of graphomania that Milan Kundera describes in his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: “The irresistible proliferation of graphomania among politicians, taxi drivers, childbearers, lovers, murderers, thieves, prostitutes, officials, doctors, and patients shows me that everyone without exception bears a potential writer within him, so that the entire human species has good reason to go down the streets and shout: 'We are all writers!' “


Many years ago I was asked to teach a two-semester course entitled “How to become a critic”. I replied that I would gladly do it for free. But it wouldn´t take me two semesters. All I needed was two minutes. The recipe for becoming a critic is simple.

Here it is.

From the day you become literate, read every day for three to four hours, all through your childhood. When you graduate from high school and move on to college or university to study literature, increase your reading to eight hours a day, including weekends. By the time you hit your thirties, you will be getting there. Persevere a few more years and you might just make it.

I stopped being a critic 23 years ago, well before I reached that stage. But I learned enough about the business to realize it wasn´t for me. The reason my career as a critic ended before it properly began was threefold.

Firstly, I did not want the publishing industry to dictate my intellectual life. In the course of reviewing three or four books a week, this was inevitably beginning to happen. Secondly, Denmark is a small country, and people in glass houses can´t afford to throw stones. When I wrote my first book review I didn´t know anybody. But within a couple of years the glass walls around me were shrinking visibly, and the inability to throw stones was severely limiting my freedom as a critic. And thirdly, I caught what Susan Sontag once called “the illness of relativism”, in which you start comparing one work to another until your standards are dictated not by the rare masterpiece but by the multitude of mediocre works you are obliged to read. The result being that if a real masterpiece appears, you have run out of superlatives with which to describe it. 

I once tried to imagine what the ideal critic would look like. Here´s what I came up with: an ass with ears. By this I mean that the critic needs a good digestive system to get rid of all the garbage, and big ears to hear the grass of literature grow.

As a writer you very rarely get to meet your reader, but he or she nevertheless plays an important role when it comes to choosing an authorial voice. I never think of the reader as someone sociologically specific. My reader is neither middle class nor working class, neither young nor old, and neither male nor female. I think of my reader more as a kind of paradox: the unknown friend. And that’s how I speak to him or her: in the voice I use to address a friend.

I might tease, but there is always trust, honesty and sincerity between us. And I always count on him or her to understand even the most complex issues.

I mention my unknown friend here because I recognize his passion in literary blogs. Blogs are a unique way for a writer to get to know his readers. Bloggers are very often true lovers of literature. But it´s important to keep the Latin root in mind here. “Lover” also means “amateur”. Blogs are very seldom written by professional critics. To my mind, the increasing number of literary blogs is as marvelous a thing as the decreasing number of professional critics is a deplorable one. The internet is full of contradictions. It opens up the world but it also does the opposite, by offering you the option of intensifying your own isolated intellectual space. As such, it tends to become a paradise of subcultures.

I miss the public intellectual who addresses issues of public concern and speaks out in the belief that although we are individuals, universal truths can unite us. That figure seems headed for extinction. Sadly, the same goes for what you might call “the public critic”: the figure whose uncompromisingly high standards and immense memory ensure that a work is judged against the backdrop of literary history, rather than on the basis of idiosyncratic individual taste. In newspapers and magazines the space devoted to such criticism is shrinking and if the professional critic still exists, he does so as a niche figure. Which leads to literature being reduced to a subculture for the erudite, its universal appeal forgotten. 

In my own country literary criticism has long been accorded a similar status to consumer guidance, with star ratings replacing analysis and argument. My attitude to this is both resigned and cynical. All I judge a review on nowadays is whether it will benefit my book commercially or not.

I was once asked about the most devastating review I ever received. My answer was that it had never been written because the only person who could write it was me. I know myself, my writing and my weaknesses better than anyone.

But if somebody else did happen to come up with that devastating review, how would I react? I hate to say it, but I would respect that critic immensely and consider him or her my best reader ever. Because in the end a writer never succeeds in writing the great book he dreams of writing. And that´s what drives him on.


Cynthia Ozick on the state of book reviewing here. Morris Dickstein's take here. And, in related posts, Jess Row on the death of the novel in the Boston Review. Peter Osnos on the myth of “the death of the book” in The Atlantic.

Carsten Jensen has worked as a literary critic and a journalist, reporting from China, Cambodia, Latin America, the Pacific Islands, and Afghanistan. His publications include "I Have Seen the World Before," "Earth in the Mouth," and "We, the Drowned," published in the US in February, which received a starred Publishers Weekly Review: "An international hit, this bold seafaring epic spans 100 years in the lives of the men and women from a small town on an island off the Danish coast.... By the time readers turn the final page, they will have come to intimately know this town and its sailors who tear out across an unforgiving sea." In 2009 he was awarded the Olof Palme Prize.