Eric Rosenfield underestimates the capacity of book reviewers and arts journalists for self-aggrandizement:
Now, granted that the Pulitzer is a prize given by journalists, and so they may have a stake in aggrandizing the newspaper reviewer, one of their own. But regardless, the fact that the Pulitzer committee could give a dyed-in-the-wool book reviewer like [Michiko] Kakutani an award for "criticism" indicates to me that a distinction between reviewing and criticism isn't quite a forgone conclusion, and that the NBCC might not be so much blurring the lines between book reviews and criticism as unaware of them.
That someone as critically cluesless as Michiko Kakutani once received a Pulizter for "criticism" is entirely a consequence of newspaper reviewers rewarding "one of their own." She works for the New York Times, she hadn't previously won the prize, and it was her time around. Anyone familiar with the history of literary criticism going back to Coleridge or Johnson surely would read Kakutani's hapless "criticism" as the palest kind of imitation (assuming Johnson's stentorian way of asserting his opinion but none of his intelligence), unworthy of serious consideration.
It may be that some in the NBCC are "unaware" of the distinction between book reviews and criticism. If so, this doesn't speak well for their own familiarity with literary criticism as the attempt to describe a deeper engagement with works of literature that goes beyond recounting a novel's plot and pronouncing a judgment on its attractions. They may think they're doing criticism, but this only makes them even less trustworthy as sources of illumination on the books they read. They think they're serving literature with their superficial observations, but they're really trivializing it.
If "[James] Wood is a critic and Kakutani is a reviewer, then why has only the latter won an award for 'criticism'?," Eric asks. "It would be tempting to call this yet another example of awards being meaningless and unimportant, but I'm not sure the problem can be written off so easily. Yes, Wood generally goes into greater depth than Kakutani, and Wood certainly has a keener sensibility than she does; he is capable of startling me with new interpretations of fiction in a way that Kakutani never has. In fact, he is simply a better, smarter writer. But these seem like statements of quality rather than of genre. On a basic level they seem to be performing the same task, that is evaluating fiction."
The essential task of criticism is not to evaluate fiction. It is an essential task of reviewing, but criticism can take place entirely outside the context of judgment and evaluation, or at least it can take place in a context that assumes evaluation and judgment have already taken place. Some of the best criticism attempts not to argue for the merits of a particular work but to describe and analyze a work the critic already values and wants to "read" more closely. Sometimes this results in convincing readers of the quality of the work, but doing that has not been the critic's primary task. James Wood is actually a good example of this. His more harshly evaluative essays, in which he's trying to disparage those texts that don't square with his own "sensibility," are his least convincing efforts. He's being a reviewer, and often not a very good one. On the other hand, he also writes about authors and books he already intensely admires, and his essays analyzing these works are often helpful and insightful. Here he's being a critic, focusing not on whether these books deserve high marks or low ones but on how they work and what readers should notice.
Eric writers further:
And the truth is "critic" and "criticism" are routinely used to mean reviewers and reviewing; heck, there once was a television show called The Critic about a movie reviewer whose catch phrase was "It Stinks!" "This is literary criticism and this is not" rubs me the wrong way for the same reason that "this is literary fiction and this is not" rubs me the wrong way. It's a form of snobbery.
Literary criticism is only a form of snobbery if you assume that it is ultimately a discourse about taste, a forum for affirming the elegance of one's own. But it isn't. It's a way of paying attention and of perhaps assisting others in the effort to pay closer attention. As far as I'm concerned, everyone can learn to pay attention more efficaciously. "It Stinks!" is a way of encouraging readers to pay less attention, since even bad books can be bad in instructive ways. If readers want to settle for this kind of petulant and reductive "evaluation," I suppose it's their right, but it isn't snobbery to suggest they could do better.