Why Do We Even Do Criticism, Anyway?

In September of 2013, The New York Times Book Review launched a new column called Bookends. They’ve got a pool of eight columnists, and every week, they set up a different pair to answer “pressing and provocative questions about the world of books” like “Are We Too Concerned That Characters Be Likable?” or “What’s Behind the Notion that Nonfiction Is More ‘Relevant’ Than Fiction?” The answers in the first two months have struck me, with few exceptions, as fairly shallow—much like the questions themselves, concocted so as not to disrupt the digestion of the reader’s Sunday brunch.

The installment asking “How Do We Judge Books Written Under Pseudonyms?” particularly bugged me, in part because it’s a question with a fairly obvious answer: “The same way you judge any other book—on its merits.” Francine Prose basically ignores the question, offering a glib list of writers who published some work under pseudonyms, and some speculation as to why they might want to—eminently ignorable filler, from start to finish. It’s when Daniel Mendelsohn weighs in that things start to get a bit more interesting… but, I think, a lot more wrongheaded.

At first glance, Mendelsohn might seem to be tackling a more compelling variation of the question: “How ought we to consider novels written under pseudonyms?” Unfortunately, he also seems to regard the pseudonym—at least in the case of J.K. Rowling, who used the pen name “Robert Galbraith” to publish the novel The Cuckoo’s Calling—as a cheat. (He actually says “trick.”) Rowling took up the Galbraith name because she wanted the novel to be appraised without respect to her reputation; “but although the desire to be judged on one’s merits alone can strike us as noble,” Mendelsohn counters, he’s not sure “criticism untainted by knowledge of who the author is and what she has already done is desirable in the first place—or, indeed, valid.”

That’s right: Mendelsohn just raised the possibility that if you aren’t familiar with an author and her work, you won’t have anything valid to say about an individual book.

Of course, one might more usefully frame the issue by asking, “To whom should criticism be desirable and valid?” By talking abstractedly about the role of the critic, the essay doesn’t seem to waste much time escalating its response from “to Daniel Mendelsohn” to “to any right-thinking reader,” and that’s where I have to get off the bus. Now, I agree with Mendelsohn that connecting an individual work to the author’s oeuvre gives critics an opportunity to tell a very interesting story about that work—but that isn’t the only interesting story a critic can tell about the work, and to suggest, even in passing, that it’s the only valid way to tell a story about that work feels rather ridiculous. (In fairness, even Mendelsohn backpedaled from that implication when we had a polite exchange on Twitter the day after his essay ran.)

Specifically, I would consider the notion The Cuckoo’s Calling cannot be sufficiently appreciated without knowing about the role of J.K. Rowling as its true author, or that no criticism of The Cuckoo’s Calling that fails to reference Rowling’s authorship can be considered “desirable,” absurd.

I have a more fundamental disagreement with Mendelsohn, though, about the very nature of criticism. It’s something I’ve grappled with before, but here’s how it plays out this year.

“The most important role of the critic, after all,” he writes, “whether the scholar of literatures past or the reviewer of contemporary literature, is to mediate usefully between a work and its public, to present the novel or play or movie in the fullest possible way so the reader of the review can make sense of it: understand its ambitions, analyze the technical means by which it achieves them.”

I would suggest, as a counter-proposal, that the public does not need the critic’s mediation in order to make sense of the work, and therefore this mediation has relatively little “importance” in and of itself. Oh, I fully concede that the public often bestows such importance as a matter of convenience—making sense of art is time-consuming, and it can be useful to have critics do some preliminary work to help you decide whether you want to make the effort with a given work. But what critics, no matter how well-intentioned, do when they position themselves between the public and a work of art isn’t presenting the art, it’s telling a story about the work of art, a story shaped by their knowledge of the subject, yes, but also by their tastes not just in art, but in storytelling methods.

Looked at that way, the most “important” job of the critic might be to entertain his or her audience. Are you telling a sufficiently entertaining story about a work of art or a body of literature or a moment in history, while maintaining a healthy respect for what is verifiably known about them? Then you will be considered a “good” critic. Of course, different audiences have different standards of entertainment—what entertains academic classicists may or may not entertain the readers of a Sunday book section. We should also keep in mind that no one storytelling approach is intrinsically more or less “desirable” or “valid” than any other approach; they’re only more or less desirable or valid within particular contexts, and for particular tastes.

(You might well ask: What are we to make of criticism that goes against the conventional grain? Is it “bad” because it’s not “entertaining,” because its ostensible audience thinks it’s “wrong”? Good questions, but also big questions, which we’ll set aside for later consideration.)

I actually came across a wonderful interview with Walter Kirn that pinned down some of the things I’d been wanting to say around this idea. As he described the notion of “writerly criticism,” I found myself nodding my head with each sentence:

“Writerly criticism uses a personal vocabulary, not a received or assumed one. It sounds, when read, like an actual human being thinking and feeling. It resists theoretical paraphrase. It provokes conversation rather than shutting it down through intimidating, scholastic moves. It gives pleasure. It releases more energy than it traps. And it takes responsibility for its points and statements rather than shifting responsibility to some larger body of expert thought.”

I especially like the acceptance of full personal responsibility for the reading—and where Kirn says “responsibility,” I might also say “authority.” Rather than arguing “my interpretation is the most valid because this academic tradition backs it up,” writerly criticism seems to suggest “this academic tradition might be a useful tool for drawing out what I’m trying to get at about what I see going on here.” Because it’s a personal reading, it doesn’t need to bother with questions of whether it’s a valid reading—and it seems to recognize that there are plenty of other “valid” readings to be had. Kirn even describes trying to encourage some of those other readings: “My reviews were chronicles of taste,” he explains, “and my hope was that they invited readers to test and scrutinize their own tastes.”

That, I’m coming around to believing, is “the most important role of the critic.” Not to “mediate” works of art by wedging yourself between them and their prospective audiences, but to share with readers the way that art makes you feel, and to encourage them to seek out that experience, or one like it, for themselves. (Or, I suppose, if you really hated the art in question, to steer them clear of that experience.) I’d say that is a desirable, a valid outcome. Not the only one, of course, but one that works for me.

14 November 2013 | uncategorized |