- Reviewing Reviews
In the closing "Coda" of Prophets, Publicists, and Parasites, Adam Gordon draws lessons from his study of nineteenth-century print criticism for understanding criticism in our own information age. Recounting the critical reception and competing theories occasioned by the publication of New York Times film reviewer A. O. Scott's Better Living Through Criticism (New York: Penguin Random House, 2016), Gordon shows how debates over the place, function, and value of criticism today can be vexed when they do not attend first to the specifics of venue, media, and genre. In other words, we may have a forest, called "criticism," but to define or analyze it routinely misses the trees, which today may range from such different flora as a New York Times film review, an anonymous user review on Amazon, or, say, a book review in Poe Studies. To understand criticism and its significance involves, for Gordon, paying attention to the formal differences between genre and the material differences between media.
His book, which unearths and delineates the different forms of criticism during the earlier print era, is thus a demonstration as much as an argument. What criticism does, whom it is for, and why it is important is not a single story, but an interleaved and branching one. We may be most familiar with the felt wages of proliferating and sometimes bewildering forms of criticism afforded by the internet (I am surely not the only one of my generation to wholly underestimate the cultural and critical significance of Twitter when it launched in 2006, am I?). But what Gordon's study achieves is to note that such proliferation and such bewilderment, the competing forms and the variance of the cultural stakes of criticism, are functions of media proliferation in general, as germane to the explosion of print in the nineteenth century as they are to today's digital tangle. Studying the genre of criticism during that period thus can help us to reframe the forms of today's public judgment—from editorial reviews and consumer reviews, to the thumbs up icons, heart emojis, and retweets that form today's social media currency of preference. Gordon argues, optimistically, that the shift from print to digital culture does not entail the end of criticism or literary criticism, but rather opens new possibilities for criticism to adapt and inhere in new forms. [End Page E7]
Criticism underwent profound changes during the nineteenth century as a result of the print explosion enabled by new efficiencies in publishing, such as the steam-powered press. Gordon's book aims to sharpen our attention on the genre of criticism during this massive media transformation, those writings loosely or tightly bound with judgment, that wove the fabric of literary culture together, generating debate, discussion, and reflection such that literature came to include not simply the words on the page, but more importantly the significance it would hold for a multitude. Reading was not a solitary activity in the era of magazines and newspapers, and criticism, far from being simply an appendix to creative activity, became a literary genre in its own right. And not even a single genre, as Gordon argues, but a wide array of critical writing that adapted to the constantly shifting forms of print venues.
Gordon arrives at this claim through a well-researched study of the rise and consolidation of critical genres during the era of print expansion in the nineteenth century. The route through the five case studies that Gordon investigates is roughly chronological, and each chapter is oriented around both a different material and generic form and an author who practiced or innovated it. He begins with Emerson and the quarterly reviews, noting how the long summaries of philosophy and literature in the quarterlies facilitated the transatlantic exchange of ideas, and how Emerson's own critical theory responds to the abundance of print and the overwhelming sense of reading fatigue associated with it. The second chapter shifts to the genre of the literary anthology, recovering...