On Having Many Stomachs, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Arts // John Nyman

As part of our guest edited month, “Roles and Functions of Criticism: Comments on our Review Culture,” John Nyman reflects on the value of interdisciplinary reviewing.


Beyond Economy

“The critic is a reader who ruminates. Therefore [they] ought to have more than one stomach.”

Friedrich Schlegel, Critical Fragments

Anyone who has taken part in a book club, attended a poetry reading, listened to an audiobook, or written a book report for school knows there is more than one way to read a book. Reviewing the book is yet another way. While participating in criticism means using a different part of the mind—or, to take up the 19th-century Romantic philosopher Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel’s metaphor, a different chamber of the gut—than those employed by other forms of reading, it isn’t necessarily more or less fulfilling, important, or fundamental than any other means of digesting the pulp of literary culture. (If you ask me, even writing a book is just another way of reading it—although that might be a discussion for another time.)

In saying this, I don’t mean to imply that these forms of reading are radically equal, at least not in the sense of being economically exchangeable. To my mind, the very notion of “roles and functions” comes from thinking of literature as a kind of economic machine, and while such thinking is important to many members of the literary community—including publishers, booksellers, prize juries, and many others whose work I respect and admire—it doesn’t feature in my efforts as a reader or a reviewer. For me, reviewing isn’t about actualizing the value already stored in a book (for example by delivering it to an audience or ensuring its author receives the respect they’ve earned).

For me, reviewing is about creating new value in conjunction with a book’s virtually infinite potential. It means inventing a kind of literary nutrition that readers employing fewer stomachs could never be expected to extract. Schlegel also wrote that “[a] critical judgment of an artistic production has no civil rights in the realm of art if it isn’t itself a work of art,” and while I have no interest in the strictness of his categories, I feel his comment captures the sense in which strong criticism acts as the germ of an original experience—one based neither in parasitism nor in exchange.

I’ve never thought about a book the same way after reviewing it. That maybe a cliché, but I would add that I’ve also never thought about a book the same way after reading a review of it—even if I’d never read the book, and (on the opposite end of the spectrum) even if I’d written the book myself. All of these experiences are irreplaceable, and yet none is any more or less necessary—that is, none has anymore or less of a “role” or “function”—than writing a work of literature in the first place.

Who Else?

Book reviews serve authors: they help them understand their accomplishments, improve their craft, and attain recognition for their work both spiritually and materially. As a result, many in the literary community have suggested that authors should be the first inline to write reviews. Shane Neilson, arguing that writers should devote at least ten percent of their output to the work of other writers, has called this strategy “the way of the tithe.” It is a recommendation I support for a variety of reasons.

I also worry, however, that this suggestion reinforces the belief that the role or function of literary criticism lies solely within the literary economic machine, since writers are meant to fulfill their own needs by fulfilling the needs of other writers—paying it forward, so to speak. Like the way artists often refer to their professional activity as “making work,” this emphasis on literary production has always irked me. Hoping for something beyond a cyclic validation of productive consumption, I wonder: who else might have a stake in literary criticism?

As I’ve participated more and more in review culture, I’ve come to see criticism as a unique creative practice, one worth engaging in on its own terms. That may also be a cliché, but I think I’ve earned it—not only from my education in “Theory and Criticism” (through which, you might have guessed, I found my way to Schlegel), but also from professionally reviewing visual art, opera, dance, and music in addition to books of all sorts. These experiences have led me to understand the value of criticism as something inextricably linked to its distance from the artworks it engages with, or to the way it fights to look in on an art form from the outside.

If“the way of the tithe” demands a kind of faith in the efficacy of paying it forward, what I’m calling for here demands an even bolder faith. I propose that writers not only write more reviews of other writers, but of other artists of all stripes.

There are a few reasons why I think this might be a good idea. First, in my experience, reviewing across the arts is an incredibly nourishing endeavour—and incompletely different ways than reviewing within one’s own art. On amore practical level, it has always surprised me how much more written reviews are valued (both socially and financially) inartistic genres other than literature. (This is both a shameful reflection of the economic structure of CanLit and not really surprising, since the literary world contains a relative surplus of folks who are good at, well, writing.)

Most importantly, though, such a leap might actually inspire artists from other genres to take a shot at reviewing books, not merely as“readers”—a category so subordinated to and sycophantic toward that of literary producers that it may not have much critical use at all—but as creative co-producers who happen not to be experts in literature. I suspect that plenty of writers besides myself are already connected to other artists through familial, romantic, and social relationships. Wouldn’t it be great if a few more of them wrote reviews?

While criticism stands on its own within the constellation of creative practices we might refer to as “the arts,” it may also have a special role in bringing the picture of that constellation together.This is because a critic is less a creative genius than a lover—their work is beautiful because it participates in a world with other works. From there, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that literary criticism might shine brightest when it participates in a world with other arts.

John Nyman is a poet and critic from Toronto. His debut poetry collection, Players (Palimpsest Press), was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award in 2017, and his newest chapbook is The Devil (knife | fork | book). Find him online at johnnymanwriting.wordpress.comtwitter.com/Jhonnyman9, and instagram.com/selected.works.

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