Wide Angle

What Is the Purpose of Literary Criticism?

For writer and critic Charles Finch, it’s about describing the feelings that books evoke.

Courtesy of Charles Finch.
Charles Finch.

On this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam spoke with Charles Finch. Finch is the author of the bestselling Charles Lenox mystery novels and the literary novel The Last Enchantments; he is also a prolific book critic. They discussed the purpose of literary criticism, the structural issues it presents, and the sheer joy of the job. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rumaan Alam: To be a critic is not just to discharge your own enthusiasm for reading. It’s to do some other thing. What is that other thing?

Charles Finch: For me, books evoke a feeling first, and then you have to try to feel lucidly in words. When I read Ali Smith’s most recent book, it stirred up all these interesting and strange feelings in me. Then, as a critic, I had to go back and look at where I put an exclamation point in the margin, and I have to try to cobble together something lucid and intelligent and rational about that. That’s the art of criticism to me: trying to explain emotions, which, in a way, all art forms are trying to do through different means.

What you’re describing sounds to me like a matter of personal reckoning. You, Charlie Finch, had a single experience reading Ali Smith’s novel Summer. You were tasked with responding to that feeling, or distilling it, in 2,000 words. What is the value to the reader or to the culture more broadly of that 2,000-word essay?

There are a lot of reviews that don’t have a lot of value, if it’s just a recapitulation of plot or if it’s just a statement of preference. The best reviews often have an essayistic quality. They’re trying to say, what is this telling us about our moment of life? What is this saying in the context of the author’s other work? I don’t agree completely that it’s about personal reckoning or personal preference. With every book I review of every genre, I try to go to the writer’s 5-yard line. I try to completely understand what they’re trying to do. And once I’ve done that, I feel entitled to be merciless if I want to, to be unkind. Or I sometimes see things that I didn’t see before. I think there’s more objectivity to the art of writing criticism than is generally perceived. It’s not just a reaction to stimulus.

Do you think that there’s still a lingering perception that the book as a form considers itself more rarefied or apart from trashy television or Hollywood movies—two things that I also love. How do you crack a book against a rating scale, the way you can with a new reality show?

What’s so interesting about fiction as a technology or what have you, is that it was the first middle-class art, because it was portable, it was cheap, you could go to the lending library. Whatever’s easiest is going to be perceived as democratic. And whatever’s difficult is going to be perceived as pretentious.

I just don’t believe any of that, I think people like what they like, they consume what they consume. And I don’t have the mental energy to worry about people who don’t like books and what they would think of my criticism. I’m writing for someone who I assume cares, and enough of those people exist that even if I only make $500, it matters to me.

I want to ask you about the money, because as you yourself just said, let’s say you’re going to get $500 for reviewing Ali Smith’s Summer. Presumably, you’re going to feel a particular responsibility to read the preceding three books that are part of the series of which it is the culmination. Is your work as a writer of fiction subsidizing your work as a critic, or are they two unrelated matters?

Well, they’re definitely not unrelated. I think the best year I ever had as a critic, I made $12,000 or $13,000 from criticism, and several multiples of that from my mystery novels, which are best sellers. I make my living on the mystery novels. That’s why I write them in a way. What would you say your hourly rate of pay for your average review is?

I’m certain I would make more working in retail if you break it down to the hour. Of course, the particular luxury of being able to sit at home and read a book and opine on it doesn’t compare with the sheer labor of delivering packages for UPS, say. They’re two different jobs, and it’s not that I value one more than the other, or that the society should value one more than the other. But because we live in a system that is so wholly defined by capital, it’s impossible to really think about this endeavor as distinct from capital. Of course, in some ways it’s a measure of privilege, right? I make a living as a novelist, as do you. So I don’t have to worry about what I’m billing as a freelance writer. That accrues, and I do totally fine.

You mentioned making $12,000 a year. There are a lot of freelance writers who would be like, that is so much money, because it is a lot of money for this particular endeavor. But it’s not enough to live on in this country and this society. That is one of the forces against which the National Book Critics Circle’s Emerging Writers Fellowship is pushing against. If that work is only accessible to somebody who doesn’t need $12,000 a year, then that keeps a whole spectrum of minds and voices and intellects out of the business. And that’s not a good thing.

One hundred percent. I think a lot of those people go into academia because they perceive it as a place with a more stable incentive structure. And that has turned out to be completely false. If you went and got an English Ph.D. this year, there were 75 jobs for 800 new candidates. There are systemic problems to all of this. I’m not sure criticism is more or less implicated than any of them.

To listen to the full interview with Charles Finch, subscribe to Working on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or listen below.