Impact of Literary Criticism and Reviews

Book reviewer John Freeman writes in “Our Work, In Perspective“:

“…disappeared [are] the names of so many of the critics who described and depicted Kerouac’s literary journey into the world (and into bookstores). It’s a sobering lesson for a book critic. In the end, no matter how much we write about a book today, it — and usually it alone — will be creating the imaginary landscape we live in tomorrow.” 

On the contrary, I wouldn’t underestimate the power of literary criticism and reviews. The reactionary and status quo forces in the US and elsewhere surely don’t think that way. And for good reason. Criticism and reviews can make and break imaginative writing. Look at the history of the critical reception and its importance to the fate of the writing of, say, Kate Chopin, and Zora Neale Hurston, and even William Faulkner, and many others. 


Both fiction and criticism can seriously affect culture and society. Pakistan has banned all fiction from India, apparently because it fears its private and public transformative power. Pakistan allows some forms of nonfiction but literary criticism and reviews are not among those. 


As Michael Hanne notes in his careful study, The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change: 


“Storytelling, it must be recognized from the start, is always associated with the exercise, in one sense or another, of power, of control. This is true of even the commonest and apparently most innocent form of storytelling in which we engage: that almost continuous internal narrative monologue which everyone maintains, sliding from memory, to imaginative reworking of past events, to fantasizing about the future, to daydreaming…. It is a curious thing that, in the liberal democracies, the word ‘power’ is used more frequently than any other by publishers and reviewers to indicate, and invite, approval of a work of narrative fiction…. This flooding of popular critical discourse with the term ‘power’ does not, of course, indicate a widespread belief in the capacity of narrative fiction to ‘change the world.’ The use of ‘power’…indicates little more than approval of the novel’s capacity to involve and move the individual reader emotionally. Indeed the term is so devalued as to imply a denial that narrative fiction can exercise power in a wider social and political sense…. Power, as is usual in a liberal democracy, is treated as individual and unproblematic, rather than collective, structural, and problematic. 


“Two important corollaries follow from this: a) there is no public acknowledgement that literature plays a role in the maintenance of existing power structures and b) literature is seen as incapable of playing a seriously disruptive role within such a society…. If, in a liberal democracy, a piece of imaginative writing seeks or achieves social or political influence that goes beyond such a limited conception of its proper power, it must either be nonliterature masquerading as literature or a literary work being manipulated and misused for nonliterary, propagandistic purposes…. In overtly authoritarian states whose form of government does not rely on liberal bourgeois conceptions of constitutionality, such as Russia under the Tsars or the Soviet Union under Stalin, these assumptions are entirely reversed. Literature is required, by a combination of censorship and patronage, to contribute to the maintenance of power as constituted at the time. The government’s insistence on retaining tight control over what is written and published reflects the belief, which is most often shared by the regime’s opponents, that fictional writing possesses an extreme potential for disruption.” 


“…narrative fiction, in certain circumstances, plays a central role in the lives and political thinking of ordinary people…”


The same surely holds both directly and indirectly for criticism and reviews. 


It’s also evident that to great though varying degrees in both types of society, “Literature is required, by a combination of censorship and patronage, to contribute to the maintenance of power as constituted at the time.” 

It’s often done unconsciously in the more democratic societies, though far from always, as a number of progressive-minded literary critics and imaginative writers – and reviewers, no doubt – over these many years can attest.

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