Last month the literary blogosphere became all atwitter over Anthony Gottlieb's review of Alexander Waugh's The House of Wittgenstein. Many bloggers have taken issue over Gottlieb's lengthy historical analysis of the subject (Wittgenstein Family) matter. His review seems to be written at the expense of providing a detailed critique of how Waugh deals with and presents the subject in the book under review. Wyatt Mason over at Harper's Magazine struck at the heart of the matter by suggesting that arguments of the kind we're seeing at the moment are normally fuelled by a "philosophical difference over what responsibility a reader has to a book".
I agree with Mason on this point alone. He represents one camp of readers who say that "criticism that doesn't read closely isn't literary criticism" at all. This view works on the assumption that the potential book buyer would prefer an intimate examination of a book's prose, which would, in turn, inform their buying decision. I think this dictates a disturbing limit on the role a literary critic can play in society. It takes us back to the nineteenth century. Back to a time before Oscar Wilde's The Critic as Artist unveiled a new and challenging take on the critic as an interpreter of art who uses an original work as a starting point for new and independent creations. Wilde says this type of subjective translation of literature is an essential and organic process that will always “show us the work of art in some new relation to our age". This challenge is always at the front of my own mind when I attempt to review any piece of literature.
I position myself firmly alongside Wilde when I suggest that any book under review should be treated by the critic as just one idea that can be used as a raw material to "invent fresh forms" of meaning for generations to come. In short, I believe a reviewer is not obligated in any way to focus solely on the book under review. I'm sure the majority of readers who scour the lengthy and richly contextualised reviews in the pages of The Australian or The New York Review of Books wholeheartedly agree with me on this issue.