We are witnessing a strange development in the history of publishing; even as the number of books published increases to unprecedented levels, it seems that book reviewers are on the decline. At her acceptance speech for the Roger Shattuck Prize in literary criticism, Ruth Franklin defends the necessity of critics—to writers and to our culture.
It’s obvious why the reviewer needs the novelist—not just any novelist, but a good novelist, even a great one, to challenge us to rise to his or her level. But the novelist also needs the reviewer: not just as a vehicle for advertisement, but as an enforcer of standards. If we speak only to praise—and my children can vouch that I’ve never been guilty of that—then praise itself becomes cheapened, and ultimately meaningless. Not all books are worth reading; some are dull, some are poorly written, and others can actually have a pernicious effect on our culture. It’s the task of the critic to champion books that deserve to be championed, and to take a stand against those that have the power to harm. And anyone who doesn’t believe that books have the power to harm is not taking them seriously enough.