Being a Book Critic Is Nothing Special

Since I first wrote about the call for less niceness in literary criticism, there have been a few more rounds in the argument, most noticeably after a particularly nasty review of Alix Ohlin’s most recent novel and short story collection, a review I went to town on not just for being badly written but for stemming from bad first premises. Shortly after my blog post, Commentary literary critic D.G. Myers offered some qualified praise for my response. On the plus side, Myers considered me “the only critic who grasped what was at stake in the whole controversy,” but then he ultimately decided that my critique of the reviewer’s style was wrong. Here’s the big climax:

“American fiction is in decline, because so much of it is ‘literary fiction,’ written not to defend a style—not to declare This and only this is how fiction should be done!—but to have a career, usually in a college or university somewhere, about which a creative writing professor can feel lucky. The indolence of Alix Ohlin’s prose represents a betrayal of the literary vocation, and William Giraldi attacked it in the name of defending the value and dignity of good writing. Those who would sneer at him for being ‘mean’ prefer the convention of social pleasantness, a heartfelt relativism which holds that every judgment is a personal preference anyway.”

For my own part, I think the problem has less to do with William Giraldi being “mean” than with him and other critics arrogantly assuming that they are gatekeepers capable of deciding whether a work of prose shows enough, to borrow his phrases, “linguistic originality wed to intellect and emotional verity” to pass muster as a “worthy assertion of imagination.” That they’re the ones sufficiently strong of heart and character to, circling back to the Katie Roiphe line that describes Giraldi’s self-selected mission so well, “protect beautiful language.” Even Dwight Garner touched on this tradition when he expressed a longing for more critics “perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.”

I’ve used a Northrop Frye line about literary criticism being evidence of “the history of taste” a few times over the years on this blog, and I’m invoking it again—the idea that what critics are telling us is beautiful language reflects “the vacillations of fashionable prejudice” more than it demonstrates any intrinsic literary merit. They’re just subjective evaluations which, because they line up with a bunch of other subjective evaluations, get bundled together as a “tradition,” or a “canon,” or some such. I’d argue that this runs a bit deeper than Myers’ formulation that “every judgment is a personal preference anyway,” because that’s only half the story. This relativism, if we want to call it that, leaves “social pleasantness” in the dust—because I’m not suggesting “it’s all good,” I’m suggesting it doesn’t much matter whether any of it’s good or bad, because the idea that any of it is “fiction that will really endure” is the real convention of social pleasantness. We can prop some of it up for decades, maybe even centuries, but eventually it’s all going to fade into oblivion, and us with it.

There’s a cheery thought, right?

Now, I’m not saying that we should just abandon our critical philosophies (whatever they may be, and if that’s not too grandiose a way to describe them) and embrace radical nihilism. After all, I still get up every morning and look for stories—fiction and nonfiction—that entertain me and enrich my understanding of the life I’m living and the world I’m living it in (including all those lives that are profoundly unlike my own). What I am saying is that instead of pretending, to ourselves and to others, that we are holding up the banner for some great tradition or another, we accept the historical contingency of our beliefs about literary accomplishment and greatness. Actually, no, we don’t just accept it: We dive into it, probe it as vigorously as we’d probe the books to which we’re applying our judgment. Instead of saying “This and only this is how fiction should be done!” we can say “This is a way of doing fiction that works for me,” and if we can work past that level to “And here’s what I’ve figured out about why it works for me,” even better.

This idea that being able to do that is something special, though, that it puts those of us who do it (or at least try to do it) in some sort of cultural vanguard—that’s got to go.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s contribution to the discussion, in the form of a New Yorker blog post, has a lot to recommend it, which of course I’m probably going to ignore in order to focus on the handful of things that bugged me, because that’s how blogs work. He starts out by talking about some of the critics he admired growing up, and the impression he had of the “expertise and authority” with which they wrote about their chosen fields, how “you felt that their immense knowledge derived above all from their great love for the subject.” So far, so good! I’m a firm believer in the notion that passionate authority, or authoritative passion, enables people to tell powerful stories about the things that they love, and this can dovetail nicely into Mendelsohn’s subsequent assertion that the best criticism isn’t just about what the critic thought about the work at hand, but also pulls back the curtain on the process of critical thinking.

I’m less convinced, though, when he gets to the idea that “KNOWLEDGE + TASTE = MEANINGFUL JUDGMENT,” with a particular emphasis on “meaningful,” perhaps because I see in it a risk of backsliding into the arrogance of the gatekeeper…. But here’s where I start to feel particularly uneasy:

“People who have strong reactions to a work&#8212and most of us do—but don’t possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics. (This is why a great deal of online reviewing by readers isn’t criticism proper.) Nor are those who have tremendous erudition but lack the taste or temperament that could give their judgment authority in the eyes of other people, people who are not experts. (This is why so many academic scholars are no good at reviewing for mainstream audiences.)”

“The wider erudition that can give an opinion heft” bothers me. Obviously, knowing something about your chosen subject is better than not knowing something, but I’m not comfortable with the notion that there’s some (presumably quantifiable?) level of erudition at which point we can begin to take someone seriously as a critic, just as I’m uncomfortable with the notion that you can judge a critic’s “taste or temperament” by whether or not other people give him props for it. (Although, to be fair, I think it’s possible Mendelsohn is conflating two different things here: “taste” being the range of one’s critical preferences, and “temperament” being one’s skill at communicating them to other people. In which case, sure, we can stipulate that people who can write well are way more convincing than people who can’t.)

“Criticism is a genre that one has to have a knack for,” Mendelsohn continues, “and the people who have a knack for it are those whose knowledge intersects interestingly and persuasively with their taste.” Well, every genre is a genre that one has to have a knack for, if one wants to be any good at it, so that’s not especially helpful—and as for how you get that knack, how you bring your knowledge and your taste together in harmony, I submit that you do it the same way you get a knack for any other genre: You aren’t born with it; you work at it.

Here’s my radical truth: The only thing separating most “professional literary critics” from other readers is the amount of time the former have spent reading books, thinking about books, and figuring out what they want to say about those books. The corollary to that truth is: At the professional level, that time is subsidized with somebody else’s money—maybe not a lot of it, maybe not even enough to be self-sustaining, but in essence, somebody has bought the critic the hours he needed to be able to devote himself to coming up with something “meaningful” to say about a book. (I use “he” here deliberately, as a reminder of the distinct gender imbalances in the field.)

Many people who aren’t “professional literary critics,” if they had a deal like that, could do pretty well at it, too, depending on how early they’d cultivated that love of reading, how many times they’d opted to pursue the life of somebody who loves to read, and to share their reactions to what they’ve read. If I’m any good at the literary/cultural criticism thing, it’s because I’ve spent slightly over a quarter-century deliberately choosing to pursue whatever capabilities I may have in this area, deliberately choosing to test those capabilities against books (and films) over and over again, deliberately choosing to study other critics who came before me so I can learn their methods and adapt those methods to my own thinking. I made that choice every time I picked up a book—whether I was writing about it for a class assignment or for my own website, whether I was accepting a professional assignment from an editor at another publication, or even whether I was doing it for “leisure.” And I keep making that choice, because I’m pretty sure that I’m not as good at this as I can be, but if I want the knack, I’ve got to work for it.

Mendelsohn circles back to describe criticism as “a legitimate and (yes) creative enterprise for which, in fact, very few people are suited—because very few people have the rare combination of qualities that make a good critic, just as very few people have the combination of qualities that make a good novelist or poet.” And, especially given how much in Mendelsohn’s essay I do agree with, perhaps it’s the word “suited” that nags at the back of my thoughts, because I don’t think it’s a question of being “suited” for the field. I find myself coming closer to the belief that we all have the potential to be critics, just as we all have the potential to be novelists or poets, or to take up some other creative form. We don’t have the qualities that make us good in those fields; we cultivate them, because we choose to cultivate them, in many cases because we are fortunate enough to live in circumstances that afford us the opportunity to make that choice and keep making it.

I think that’s what I’m trying to get at when I say that “being a book critic is nothing special.” I’m certainly not trying to put down the path I’ve spent most of my adult life pursuing, and a good chunk of my entire life preparing for. I’m just not subscribing to the notion that there’s some sort of higher calling in my chosen path. I try to “set interesting works before intelligent audiences,” as Mendelsohn puts it, but I don’t flatter myself that I’m any sort of gatekeeper for anything grander than my own tastes. David Ulin’s response to Mendelsohn zeroed in on the idea that “criticism matters—not because of how many people read it, or whether they agree or disagree with it, but because it is a way of engaging with literature.” If, as Harold Bloom suggested in The Western Canon, “the reception of aesthetic power enables us to learn how to talk to ourselves and how to endure ourselves,” criticism is a way of making an effort to share that knowledge with others.

And the fact that it’s been my choice to make that effort means it could also be your choice. Maybe it’s a choice you started making a while back; maybe it’s a choice you’re going to make after reading this blog post. It might even be a choice you don’t make—but don’t ever let anyone tell you that it’s a choice that’s not available to you.

5 September 2012 | theory |