Portland State University. Department of English
Ta-Nehisi Coates. Water dancer -- Book reviews, Toni Morrison. Beloved -- Book reviews, Book reviewing -- Longitudinal studies, Book reviewing -- Analysis
There is a trail of profoundly pessimistic opinions on the state of book reviews and critics from Lorentzen to Hardwick to Marshall and McCarthy to Poe to Pope.
In earlier drafts, I tapped into that same despair. I considered calling this essay "The Death of the Book Reviewer". I must admit I was committed to the allusion more than to the truth of such a statement. Because, as I read each essay which laid out the faults of the then most-recent form of book reviewing, I came to the conclusion that if the book reviewer is to die, it is a very slow death and much more like obsolescence. In the end, I scrapped the title.
The cultural character that we call the literary critic is influx and adapting to the changing world of print. Definitely not gone—not yet.
My research leading up to this paper looked very different. I want my work here to reflect this process, should I wish to someday return to it. My beginning intentions were never so finely focused on reviews, rather I wanted to define literary fiction—a hard to pin down concept.
In my quest for definitions, I had privileged awards as an indication of literary merit and therefore as an identity-building mechanism for this not-really-genre book genre. However an analysis of even one literary award, my eyes were on the Booker, would take up more pages than I am allowed to waste on this thesis—a project perhaps for the future. I had to change and adapt my work to serve both my ambitions and more realistic ends. I decided that what was most important for me was to capture a change in literary fiction reading over a period of time and the potential shift in opinions on literary fiction based upon it.
Literary fiction is in decline, some fear it is endangered, I wanted to perhaps identify a factor or two that could explain this beyond the patronizing reading reports that seem to crop up in the news every few years—the ones that like to blame digital disruption and low attention spans as a reason for the seemingly declining levels of literary fiction reading.
This work I felt could give me a sense of how literary fiction was read by critics in the past and how it is read today. But first, I needed to pin point the date of literary fiction readings most-recent shift and compare a book published then to now.
In the 1980s libraries were introducing genre fiction into their adult reading programs and phasing out the classic literature from their community-based adult literacy curriculum. This shift of popular reading can be described as reading as a means of cultural value to reading for pleasure. It changed views on literary fiction and particularly who reads this type of book.
Therefore, I set out to find and compare two books: one from back then and one now, then catalogue and read the literary criticism written about the two books published over three decades apart.
The two books that I chose and had help with choosing, were The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Beloved by Toni Morrison. Beloved was published in September 1987, just in my timeline and The Water Dancer was published just last year in 2019.
I began collecting book reviews on the two books.
As of today, I have the full-text of twenty-four reviews for Beloved and twenty-six reviews for The Water Dancer. However, I count twenty-six reviews for Beloved in my dataset because two reviews from the Library Journal were misplaced or lost during my research, although I still had data on their date of publication, therefore I wanted to include them when I charted out the publication schedule for reviews.
Watson, Tiffany, "Beloved and the Water Dancer: A Longitudinal Study of Book Reviews From 1987 and 2019" (2020). Book Publishing Final Research Paper. 53.