After arguing that we now live in a world where even incredibly successful novelists like Jonathan Franzen are relatively obscure (since so few people care about serious fiction), Miller attempts to build a case for reviews as something that help educated readers decide what to read. Then she writes:
But a negative or middling review of a literary novel that the reader would otherwise have never heard of and is unlikely to ever hear of again? No one needs to read such a thing, and furthermore, no one really wants to. (At Salon, we’ve got the numbers to prove that.) The idea that more negative reviews of such books — what Silverman calls “skeptical, cranky criticisms that may be painful for writers to experience” — will somehow benefit readers in general and “make for a vibrant, useful literary culture” strikes me as misguided. If the point is to educate the author’s fellow writers, then for God’s sake, take it to the classroom, workshop or specialty publication.
Two points here: first, Miller can’t have it both ways. If we do live in a world where only writers and highly educated readers know who James Wood is (as Miller claims), then, yes, these kinds of negative reviews are most definitely a benefit to readers and are a fit mode of communication with the writers who are surely reading them.
And secondly, she entirely ignores the fact that would-be critics like herself have become wholly owned subsidiaries of commercial New York publishing. Some honest, intelligent critiques of the fashionable authors of the moment would go a long way toward diminishing that opinion and restoring lost credibility. Unfortunately, I doubt Miller realizes how much people like herself and venues like Salon have lost status among people who actually care about books.
And well, three points: the argument isn’t for educating one’s fellow writers or for dissing the boutique writers. The argument is for having some standards when it comes to praising books. Silverman’s article was, at heart, a request that people who didn’t know what the hell they were talking about—or who were too quick to follow the crowd toward the next great thing—spend a little more time thinking whether a book really deserved the praise they were about to lavish on it.
Then there’s this, which is simply completely wrong:
Unless such a review is a spiteful slapdown engineered to gratify the unexamined resentments of the worst sort of reader, how welcome (let alone “useful”) can it really be? The kind of criticism that Garner respects, that “means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter” is not especially illuminating to someone whose only knowledge of the work comes from the review itself. A close critical reading of a text can be revelatory indeed — but only when you’ve had a chance to read it, or other works by the same author, for yourself. “
So much of our literary tradition’s great criticism contradicts this statement that I must conclude that Miller is ignorant of the great critical works. Either that, or she read them and absorbed very little.