Literary Criticism
Of cuddle cartels and relentless attacks

Whether positive or negative, a book review often promotes sales.
Whether positive or negative, a book review often promotes sales. | Photo (detail): © Frankfurter Buchmesse

Reviews of literary works are themselves now often the focus of critical reflection in Germany. This is a good sign for the state of literary criticism.

In Germany recently, in the established arts pages and on the Internet, laments about the state of literary criticism are piling up. They come from writers, publishers and even critics themselves. In 2010 in the arts pages of the newspaper Die Welt, the writer Sibylle Lewitscharoff asked regretfully: “Why are reviews so limp?” A polemic launched against literary criticism by the publisher Jörg Sundermeier, in an interview for the magazine Buchmarkt published in early 2015, found considerable resonance: “ … some salaried literary critics can say much, much more about up-market shoes or good food than about the quality of literary texts”. Even “a novel by Murakami”, he continued, seems “to bring some highly-paid and in the branch highly-esteemed critics to the limits of their intellectual capacity”. Above all, the literary world lacks the courage to criticism because it “is a wretched buddy-system complete with dependencies … It’s about power and about fear. Behind closed doors they run down plenty of people, but in public it’s all embraces and kisses”.

Of a “cuddle cartel” of “yes-men and feel-good critics” the critic Christopher Schmidt had already written in the Süddeutsche Zeitung at the time of the Book Fair in October 2013. And even several years before, in the magazine Volltext, the literary critic and literary editor of the German World Service Hubert Winkels criticized that “there are hardly bad reviews any more” and hardly a “debate about individual books”. Behind such complaints is often the old suspicion that literary criticism serves primarily the economic interests of publishers and is an extended arm of their advertising. Winkels formulated it in these words: “Tell me what is good for me and I’ll buy it; I’ll buy it from you, I’ll buy you. The market replaces the space of public debate about meaning”.

Critical polemics contra advertising?

This confrontation is only to some extent tenable. For publishers, booksellers and writers, more important for the most part than critics’ assessment of individual books is that the book is reviewed at all. Every review, independent of its content, is an evaluative sign that says: this book deserves attention! The tacit recognition indicated by even a damning review is only one component of a language of attention distribution which everyone understands, but does not necessarily see through. How extensive a review is and where or how it is placed, the reputation of the reviewer and the journals in which a book is reviewed, and not least the number of reviews published about a book – these are all parts of this language. And variety also usually means a multiplicity of voices, which qualifies the weight of a positive or a negative review. The polemical slamming is only one voice among others, arouses the curiosity to hear others, provokes opposition and gains attention for new literary publications. A damning review that can trigger a controversy often adheres to the writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s maxim, to which Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a literary critic notorious for his slams, repeatedly appealed: “One does not damn a miserable poet; one treats a mediocre poet mildly; but with a great poet one is relentless”.

Successfully panned

“Are bad reviews disappearing from literary criticism?” This question was the title of an essay on the subject by the literary scholar and managing editor of the journal Jan Süselbeck, which appeared in the volume Literaturkritik heute (edited by Heinrich Kaulen and Christina Gansel) and in a shorter version on the Internet. As a counter-example, he adduces the polemical review by Georg Diez, critic of the magazine Der Spiegel, of Christian Kracht’s novel Imperium (2012), which called forth many indignant responses. The bad review did not hinder the success of the novel. Of more recent examples of a similar sort there is no shortage – ranging from the fierce attacks against Günter Grass’s poem Was gesagt werden muss (i.e. What Must Be Said) to Edo Reent’s polemic against Judith Hermann’s novel Aller Liebe Anfang in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung.

No, damning reviews in literary criticism have disappeared as little as have eulogies. Both are justified, if only they are creditable. And this they are as long as their evaluations are cogently argued. To examine whether that is the case, criticism of criticism is therefore one of the tasks of the critic. The ongoing dispute about literary criticism, which is as old as literary criticism itself, may be taken as a sign that the state of the art is not quite so parlous as it seems to some.