Why Criticism Matters (Or Will, When It’s Done Right)

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In the summer of 2010, as the mainstream literary media began its celebration of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult commented as to how that hoopla was part of a trend among publications like the New York Times Book Review, which appear to consistently favor male authors over their female counterparts. After months of refusing to seriously address this issue, even when independent observers proved the Times book desks do have a distinct gender bias, the editors of the Review, in the midst of defending their mission, decided to take a swipe at them by declaring that a “serious critic” is “not interested, say, in tabulating the number of ‘Brooklyn novelists’ who receive attention each year in publications like this one.” Whether the serious critic possesses a penchant for petty oneupmanship was, however, uncommented upon.

Let’s set aside the snark from West 43rd Street, though, and see what the guest experts they recruited to defend literary criticism bring to the table.

Stephen Burn starts with the historical big picture, observing how the Internet has facilitated forums for public discourse which demonstrate not only the existence of a broad audience for literature but its vitality. “The age of evaluation, of the Olympian critic as cultural arbiter, is over,” Burn warns, and critics “who like to issue dogmatic rulings… and to chastise writers… merely add to the noise of culture.” What’s more, he adds, “it’s time to hear less of critics talking about themselves, spinning reviews out of their charming memories or using the book under review as little more than a platform to promote themselves and their agendas.” All of which is true—and echoed by Pankaj Mishra’s assertion that “literary criticism, in its recent American incarnation at least, has faithfully reflected the general writerly retreat from the public sphere, turning into a private language devised to yield a particular knowledge about a self-contained realm of elegant consumption.”

It’s unclear whether mainstream reviewing is fully capable of Burn’s ambitious goals to move beyond the evaluation of texts; as Adam Kirsch points out in his contribution, the critic as commonly understood today usually has to be a journalist and a consumer advocate first, discussing why newly published books are significant and worthy or unworthy of your purchase, and then, if there’s any time or space left, he or she can tackle “[saying] somethng true about life and the world,” using somebody else’s writing as a springboard for “self-understanding, self-expression, [and] truth.” (Which, he adds, he’s not sure anybody is still doing anymore.) But I’d also suggest that the lively readership Burn cautiously celebrates, the band of “common readers” Kirsch isn’t sure still exist, is already fulfilling, here and there, Burn’s “most important” aspiration: “locating major works that are not always visible in mainstream networks.” The problem for us readers, and it’s a big problem, is knowing where to look.

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Not everyone believes the clock has run out on literary arbitration, though: Katie Roiphe doubles down on the idea that her job as a critic is “to separate excellent books from those merely posing as excellent, the brilliant from the flashy, the real talent from the hyped,” and if that’s the case, she says, then “critics must strive to write stylishly, to concentrate on the excellent sentence,” in order to get themselves noticed so people will pay attention to what they have to say about books. “More than ever, critical authority comes from the power of the critic’s prose, the force and clarity of her language,” Roiphe elaborates. “It is in the art of writing itself that information and knowledge are carried, in the sentences themselves that literature is preserved. The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.”

(Kirsch, too, reflects: “I try to believe that what matters is not exercising influence or force, but writing well—that is, truthfully and beautifully; and that maybe, if you seek truth and beauty, all the rest will be added unto you.”)

I’d argue, however, that Roiphe’s approach is a potential dead-end for serious criticism, in that “beautiful writing” is not a category to which we can apply a universal standard; even in cases where you can get a bloc of readers to agree on what constitutes “beautiful writing,” you’re dealing not with a Platonic ideal but with a culturally contingent opinion—another signpost in what Northrop Frye calls “the history of taste.” If Burn is calling upon criticism to embrace the world outside the text, Roiphe seems to be suggesting that it should bury itself deeper. She’s right to impress upon us the importance of good communication skills, but the rest of her agenda—which fits so neatly into the Times’s self-appointed mission of identifying books which are worthy of “enduring”—is awfully close to Mishra’s “self-contained realm of elegant consumption.”

Elif Batuman also writes about the importance of beauty in literature, not as Roiphe’s ultimate reward but as a symptom of a novel’s greater meaning. Invoking both Freud and Marx, Batuman suggests literary trends may be properly understood as “a gigantic multifarious dream produced by a historical moment,” with the critic’s job being, in essence, to analyze the culture’s dreams, because “there are things about the human condition that we can learn only from a systematic study of literature.” But her idea of “valuable” criticism—“a pile of literary-historical instances… followed by a historical explanation”—seems even less likely to emerge out of the mainstream press than Burn’s; again, there just isn’t enough time in that deadline-driven culture for this kind of sustained reflection.

Critics working in that realm may, however, be able to achieve the goal Sam Anderson sets, “to be an evangelist—implicitly or explicitly—not just for a particular book or author, but for literary experience itself.” This is an area in which I’ve long maintained that blogs have been beating mainstream critics for years; instead of dutifully weighing in on the same small collection of books most other critics were weighing in on, bloggers were talking about the books they loved reading, sharing their enthusiasm for reading with other readers. Anderson appears to recognize this when he says critics shouldn’t act as “referees” in the cultural conversation, but as “equal players.”

My ideal form of criticism, at least at the moment I’m typing all this, would probably draw upon Burn, Batuman, & Anderson: It would convey serious enthusiasm for reading, but apply itself less to my idiosyncratic ideas about what constitutes “good” writing and more to my (no doubt equally idiosyncratic) hunches about what a book or books has to say, and why that matters—which may or may not be the same as whether a given book is “right.” If a book’s style engages me, I should be able to explain why I find that style compelling without making it out to be a standard of literary excellence. It’s also worth remembering that cultural significance isn’t limited to “beautiful” books, so serious criticism should engage itself as seriously with “popular” fiction as it does with “literary” fiction—a distinction that frequently has as much to do with marketing agendas as it does with artistic merit.

(I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that I’ve consistently lived up to that ideal, though. Just as newspaper and magazine critics operate within the constraints of their deadline-driven culture, bloggers can be prone to value frequency over depth, and I’m not immune to that temptation. Merlin Mann nailed this problem a few years back, and if you’re looking for New Year resolve, I highly recommend what he has to say.)

Ultimately, it’s worth noting how much Burn, Batuman, and Anderson implicitly criticize the way the New York Times Book Review describes itself as functioning now—that whole “looking for books that will endure” thing—as they point towards a criticism that would do what the Times still can’t bring itself to do: take writers like Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner seriously.

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2 January 2011 | theory |