This post was inspired by Iris of Iris on Books‘s wonderfully thought-provoking post “On Celebrating Subjectivity”. Iris discusses the difference between “proper” reviews, for example in newspapers’ feuilletons, and what book bloggers produce. Apparently, a discussion is going on regarding whether what a book blogger produces can ever amount to a “review”. According to one participant in this discussion, Maggie Stiefvater,
“A review is an unbiased, careful look at a book — basically it is a little academic paper. It involves an itty-bitty thesis on your opinion of the book, surrounded by tiny supporting sentences describing the strengths and weaknesses of said book.”
Part of what she’s trying to get at, as she points out later in her post is that
“…these reviews are hard to write. I recently reviewed a novel that I’m not going to tell you about for a journal I’m not going to reveal (it’s not out yet) and I have to tell you, it was hard work (unlike my quick and flippant book recommendations I post here on the blog).”
The other part – and this is, I think, where she sees the “academic” aspect of the professional review, is that professional reviews are supposed to take more of a ‘scientific distance’ from the work. Rather than it being a question of whether they liked a book or not, professional reviewers seek to assess its ‘objective’ literary qualities. This is fair enough.
BUT (you knew this was coming) I actually have a problem with Stiefvater putting a review, even a “proper” one at a respected newspaper, on an equal footing with an academic paper. If they were the same thing, we may as well give up the literature departments of Universities and hand over the task to literary critics. Let me ‘splain.
Personally, I came to book blogging in part because I have a degree in Spanish. As I mention on my About page, I felt I had all these skills that I wasn’t putting to much use, and I was missing analysing literature. Over my first year as a book blogger, I came to learn, mostly through reading other blogs, that there is a very big difference between analysing literature on an academic level and on my blog. I’d assumed from the start there’d be a difference, but I realised it’s much larger than I initially thought.
Much the same way, I believe there is a difference between a review in a literary journal and an academic study of one or several, in some cases even an author’s complete works.
What we have here, in my opinion, is something that approaches a continuum, which, for the purposes of this post, I will call the “Review Continuum.” Here’s a graphic representation (I kid you not).
Of course, as Iris rightly pointed out in her post, even academic, ‘scientific’ study is always a subjective process. (That’s why it’s debated whether fields of study like literature can actually be considered science. Personally I would prefer to call them academic scholarship, but let’s not get into that. There’s a whole other continuum of scientific method and philosophy of science lurking behind it.)
Also, I think that both book blogs and professional reviews can reach higher levels of objectivity depending on what they’re aiming at. Similarly, academic studies might be more or less objective depending on the scholar. This is why I’m talking about a continuum.
Having established the Review Continuum – I should get this patented, shouldn’t I? – as a point of departure, what is the difference between a professional review and an academic study? How does that qualitative change on the continuum manifest itself? As Stiefvater puts it, a review forms a thesis on “your opinion of the book, surrounded by tiny supporting sentences describing the strengths and weaknesses of said book.” In the following paragraphs, she then goes on to qualify the importance of her opinion, but the fact remains that a literary book reviewer, even a professional one, judges the (literary) quality of a book.
In my view, this is not the case in an academic study. Firstly, and most obviously perhaps, literary quality tends to be a precondition for most academic studies, unless you’re a scholar dedicating yourself specifically to the study of trivial printed matter. Even then, however, it’s not your raison d’être to make a judgement on the quality of a work. It is your raison d’être to dutifully and systemically analyse the work(s) you’re studying, including a comprehensive survey of previous scholarship and theorising on which you build your own thesis – which, however, is not about your opinion on the work in question -, before going on to scrutinising your thesis through careful analysis.
I can’t even begin to describe how many times I’ve explained to my former students that academic analysis is about scrutinising rather than proving your hypothesis, and this is the other crucial difference between a professional review and an academic study. Often, they’d set out with an idea, an opinion, and would then cite all the evidence they could find in its favour, disregarding all that spoke against it. But if you’re studying a subject academically – and here, the field you come from doesn’t matter at all – you need to be prepared and actually make a conscious effort to take all evidence into account, both for and against your hypothesis. And you need to make the process transparent. This is tedious, and often outright boring if you’re not nerdy enough to get excited about these things. If professional reviewers wrote their reviews like academic papers, I doubt anyone other than other academics would want to read them.
In addition, and this is less relevant to the discussion on subjectivity/objectivity, but very relevant to the distinction between literary reviews and academic studies, the latter will often go into much more depth and detail on one specific aspect of one or several works by one or several authors. I dare you to read any Ph.D. thesis in literature and disagree.
Let me sum up: Book blogs like this one, professional literary reviews in feuilletons or literary journals, and academic studies of literature sit on a Review Continuum of ascending objectivity. The crucial difference between a (professional) literary review and an academic study is that a literary review still attempts to judge the literary quality and merits of a work, while an academic study – in the ideal case – takes a bird’s eye perspective on this, developing an approach as neutral as possible** to the subject of study.
Those are my thoughts on the discussion. Now, do I think that one has more merit than the other? Well… yes. I would never dare to put my own ramblings on books up there with professional reviews or even academic studies. Hell, I do this for fun, other people do it for a LIVING and they have all my respect. They’re professionals, I’m not. What I do think is that all three “genres” of literary analysis have their own value and justification. Book blogs are often stimulating, especially if you read several discussions of the same book. They can give you an excellent idea of whether you’d enjoy a book. Professional reviews can add a pinch of thought-out analysis of the literary quality of a book, as viewed through the eyes of someone who has honed their judgment probably for years, if not decades. Finally, academic studies keep, as I said, a bird’s eye perspective on it all. Where does a particular work stand in relation to the author’s other writings? In relation to the writings of other authors? The entire genre, the epoch? Even history? This is the job of somebody who has the skills and tools to dedicate months if not years to the in-depth study of one work, author, period, etc.
And that’s my two cents on the discussion.
* I’m kidding about patenting the idea, but I do actually reserve my rights for this graph. If you want to use it, please let me know (liburuakblog[at]gmail.com), and reference this blog accordingly. Just sayin’.
** Again, especially with issues such as literary analysis, it’s difficult to stay entirely neutral. Your experiences, judgments, opinions, will cloud your analysis – but they do so to different degrees.