Sam Anderson proclaims that
To me, book reviewing has never been hack work, or grunt work, or community service for those of us who've committed the unpardonable crime of not being novelists, or some kind of sad little way-station on the road to big literary success-I see it as a self-sufficient art. In fact, it's one of my very favorite literary forms, and the form in which a lot of my favorite writers have done their best work.
As book critics, our writing is a writing on writing. We respond to an author's metaphors with counter-metaphors; we critique or praise a story by telling a story about it. My favorite work is always that which allows itself to imaginatively intermingle with its source-text: it can be imitative, competitive, or collaborative; it can mimic or counteract the tone of the source. It can be subtle or overt. But it will always have this unique, doubled-over,creative quality-and that's what keeps book criticism vital, and why it will survive.
Presumably by describing criticism as writing that "imaginatively intermingle[s] with its source-text," Anderson especially has in mind something like his own idiotic review of Richard Price's Lush Life, which presents itself as a "book review procedural" mimicking Price's latest crime novel:
Stanny looking around the squad room, the Quality of Literature task force: Mayo, Sanchez, Hsu—three clip-on ties at a faux-oak table; their mantra: Quote, summarize, condemn; their motto: Judge every book by its cover. Sanchez hunched in the back, between the dictionary stands and broken typewriters, tugging on his soul patch, working up nerve, a whole shelf overpiled with advance copies ready to tip over behind him. Hsu scribbling his V-Ball. Excerpts from Lush Life dangle-tacked all over the walnut-paneled walls, ceiling to floor, easy reference; in front of each Aeron an inch-thick dossier, lists of major characters, themes, frags of description, more themes, page refs, key passages, color-coded maps, little bio of Richard Price. . . .
After reading this "review," I was torn between thinking I'd never give Price's fiction another chance if this is the sort of commentary it inspires and that perhaps I should read one of these procedural novels in which Price now seems to specialize because no writer should be judged by the inanity of a reviewer who can't find something more useful to do than concoct such a pathetic piece of gibberish.
Then there's this equally hopeless attempt to describe Peter Carey's fiction through a metaphor that just won't let loose:
Peter Carey’s talent is a vine in constant search of a trellis. In order to reach its full leafy abundance, his art needs to wrap its tendrils around some stabilizing foreign construct—the rough life and diction of a nineteenth-century outlaw (True History of the Kelly Gang) or the untold backstory of a canonical Dickens novel (Jack Maggs). Once he finds a suitable trellis, Carey thoroughly overruns it, weaving his work inextricably into its slats, unleashing wave after bright wave of exotic blooms, and littering the ground beneath him with strange Australian fruits. Rarely has an artist been so liberated by constraint. When he’s in top form—as, for instance, in his masterpiece about Ned Kelly—Carey seems determined to obliterate any distinction between vine and trellis, organism and synthesis, growth and support, source and text. . .
But what seems at first to be the novel’s sustaining imaginative trellis—the sharply limited perspective of a confused boy suffering the painful fallout of violent radicalism—collapses about 30 pages in. This leaves the irrepressible vine of Carey’s talent to wander, without restraint, all over the fictional garden, where it smothers nearby growths, gets tangled on old rusty shovels, and finally meanders off under the deck to drop its underripe fruit in the dark. . .
That the National Book Critics Circle would give an award (one of the many meaningless awards it adds to the pile of equally meaningless ones given out by the "book world") to Anderson for such imaginative intermingling as this says everything that needs to be said both about the sad state of book reviewing in America and about the constant rear-guard actions in which the NBCC and other representatives of mainstream reviewing have been engaged against blogs and internet publishing more widely. They are afraid that "literary journalism" conceived in the grandiose mode Anderson describes ("We respond to an author's metaphors with counter-metaphors") will no longer have much cachet once literary commentary becomes dominated by those who like literature for other than its ability to provide them with material for their rhetorical posturing and their comedy routines.
Criticism as "grunt work"--laboring on behalf of works of literature because they deserve intelligent analysis--seems to me a perfectly respectable undertaking, especially when it's paired against the kind of clownish performances Anderson tries to defend. By identifying book reviews of this silly sort as "one of my very favorite literary forms, and the form in which a lot of my favorite writers have done their best work," Anderson all but declares he's more interested in maintaining a place for such performances than he is in fiction. Thus, he does more for the image of book reviewing as "hack work" than the lowliest blogger or the reviewer who does see criticism as a kind of "community service" (the community of serious readers) could ever do.
Anderson is particularly egregious in his deployment of the "imaginative intermingling" method of book reviewing, but it's an approach to reviewing fiction that's common enough among all the best "literary journalists." Few of them seem to have the skill or the patience that's required to do actual close analysis (and again James Wood provides a useful counter-example of a critic who is able to do such analysis, and also able to offer it in lively and accessible prose), so they devise this notion of the book review as a separate but equal "literary form" that can help them comfortably evade critics' responsibility to do justice to the work at hand and avoid doing a critical tap dance of their own invention. In this way they fool themselves into thinking they're doing something "vital," but only their fellow dancers could believe this is true.