Healthiness of the nurse

Estonian literary reviewing in 2021


Keywords: literary reviewing in Estonia, sociology of literature

An old cliché in Estonian literary criticism describes the critic as ‘kirjanduse sanitar’ – the nurse of literature, implicitly comparing her role to that of wolf in the natural ecosystem. But the healthcare of a literary ecosystem does not have to take predatory forms. Research in the sociology of literature has identified the role of journalistic book-reviewing in establishing the canon and enabling a system to emerge from the multitude of books and authors. On the other hand, sociologists have downplayed the critics’ ability to base their assessment on ‘internal’ qualities of texts and emphasized instead various institutional factors in shaping the reviewers’ judgment. Sociologists seem to have taken for granted the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma: books are good only because they are liked by the ‘gate-keepers’ of the literary world. This overview of the practice of literary reviewing in Estonia in 2021 expresses doubts about the importance of extra-literary factors in shaping critics’ opinions, as the publishers’ mark does not have any impact in Estonia, and there are not many productive and influential professional reviewers. Nevertheless, a rough count of published reviews reveals that at least 170 reviews by 100 reviewers are published annually, covering approximately 100 new titles. Among the annual output of ca 300 original titles, writers of younger generations seem to be slightly more favoured by critics’ attention. As the survey originates from the author’s participation in the panel of the annual Ants Oras prize for the best book-review, it describes the classical expectations and textbook principles concerning literary reviewing as a journalistic genre, the necessary gifts of a good reviewer and the basic elements of an exemplary review. Some recurrent, fortunately not too frequent flaws in current reviewing are discerned: academic jargon, name-dropping, clichés, critics’ inability to make up their minds or take definite positions, and an exaggeratedly personal touch. After naming the most productive critics and frequently reviewed titles, the essay proceeds to characterize ten reviews endorsed by the members of the jury. One general, though obvious truth confirmed by the jury experience was the importance of a good book for making a good book-review. Current Estonian literary criticism and Estonian literature seem to deserve each other.


Märt Väljataga (b. 1965), editor of cultural magazine Vikerkaar (Voorimehe 9, 10146 ­Tallinn), mart@vikerkaar.ee