Friday, January 7, 2011

Technology, History, Writing: Why Does Criticism Matter?

In yesterday’s post, Jessica briefly alluded to The New York Times’s recent series of short essays explaining “Why Criticism Matters.” Today I’d like to discuss them at somewhat greater length. Although the six writers chosen for the series come from different backgrounds—academia, journalism, publishing—and although, accordingly, their essays reflect a variety of hopes for and disappointments in the American public, and in the future of criticism, some central themes emerge. Here are a few:

Those Doggoned Amazon Reviewers!—and iPods, and iPads

“There is so much noise and screen clutter, there are so many Amazon reviewers and bloggers clamoring for attention, so many opinions and bitter misspelled rages, so much fawning ungrammatical love spewed into the ether, that the role of the true critic is actually quite simple: to write on a different level, to pay attention to the elements of style.” –Katie Roiphe

“With the advent of Amazon reviews and other rating sites the audience is abundantly vocal. A sensitive membrane has evolved from the historical transactions between author, critic and reader. Though online reviews inevitably vary in quality and insight, their very existence no longer makes it possible to imagine that there is not an engaged general-interest audience out there consuming and thinking about literary works. The audience now talks to itself.” –Stephen Burn

“I tend to shy away from big, sweeping, era-defining statements. It’s the fastest possible way to be wrong about the world, and usually just an excuse for various forms of sloppy thinking: cherry-picking, scapegoating, doomsaying, fear-mongering, sandbagging, arm-twisting, wool-gathering, leg-pulling. And yet it would be hard to dispute that over the last 5 or 10 years, the culture’s relationship to time has changed pretty drastically. The shift is so obvious that it’s boring, by now, even to name the culprits: Google, blogs, texting, tweets, iPhones, Facebook—a little army of tools that have given rise to (and grown out of) radically new habits of attention.” –Sam Anderson

“I think we can say with confidence that in 200 years Anna Karenina and her men will still exist. And the iPad—who knows?” –Katie Roiphe

The History of Histrionics

“Before the requiem begins, we have to admit that critics have always been a grandstanding, depressive and histrionic bunch. They—and by ‘they’ I mean ‘we’—have always decried the decline of standards, the end of reading, the seductions of mediocrity, the abysmal shallowness and distractibility of the general public, the virtually apocalyptic state of literature and culture. Yet somehow the bruised and embattled figures of both the writer and the critic have survived lo these many centuries.” –Katie Roiphe

“What looked to Kazin like a dwindling, fissiparous literary culture looks to us like a golden age. (As yet another great critic, Randall Jarrell, once said, in a golden age people go around complaining about how yellow everything looks.)” –Adam Kirsch

“It helps to remember . . . that every era in the history of humanity has lamented the rise of whatever technology it happened to see the rise of.” –Sam Anderson

Write Well, Accomplish Much

“Now, maybe more than ever, in a cultural desert characterized by the vast, glimmering territory of the Internet, it is important for the critic to write gracefully. If she is going to separate excellent books from those merely posing as excellent, the brilliant from the flashy, the real talent from the hyped—if she is going to ferret out what is lazy and merely fashionable, if she is going to hold writers to the standards they have set for themselves in their best work, if she is going to be the ideal reader and in so doing prove that the ideal reader exists—then the critic has one important function: to write well.” –Katie Roiphe

“Whether I am writing verse or prose, 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.” –Adam Kirsch

“We have to work harder to justify our presence on the page, our consumption of readers’ increasingly precious attentional units. This means writing with more energy, more art, more conviction, more excitement and a deeper sense of personal investment.” –Sam Anderson

What Does the Critic Accomplish?

“Stepping aside from the culture of opinion, delving deeper into open-minded analysis, critics might fulfill their most important function: locating major works that are not always visible in mainstream networks.” –Stephen Burn

“The previous decade of severe political and economic shocks may end up opening literary criticism and literature to the questions Kazin and his peers asked of them . . . The line of inquiry that connects a writer to her world runs through quirks of individual personality and literary manner to broaden into larger moral and political issues. The critic who follows this method, staying close to the texture of social history as well as to aesthetic experience, is likely to avoid the intellectual isolation and self-pity of the kind Kazin describes.” –Pankaj Mishra

“A more productive and more faithful (albeit less literal) application of Freud’s theory to literature may be found in Marxist criticism, which searches the work of art for signs not of the writer’s personal sexual history, but of history itself. Literature viewed in this way becomes a gigantic multifarious dream produced by a historical moment. The role of the critic is then less to exhaustively explain any single work than to identify, in a group of works, a reflection of some conditioned aspect of reality . . . Much as there are things about our own life stories that we can learn only from the systematic study of our dreams, there are things about the human condition that we can learn only from a systematic study of literature.” –Elif Batuman

“It’s better—certainly it’s better for the critic—not to see criticism as a means of making things happen, of rewarding and punishing, or of becoming what Kazin calls a ‘force.’ The critic participates in the world of literature not as a lawgiver or a team captain for this or that school of writing, but as a writer, a colleague of the poet and the novelist. Novelists interpret experience through the medium of plot and character, poets through the medium of rhythm and metaphor, and critics through the medium of other texts.” –Adam Kirsch

“If critics can fulfill this single function [to write well], if they can carry the mundane everyday business of literary criticism to the level of art, then they can be ambitious and brash; they can connect books to larger currents in the culture; they can identify movements and waves in fiction; they can provoke discussion; they can carry books back into the middle of conversations at dinner parties.” –Katie Roiphe

“Why, then, do we read? There’s something Buddhist about literary reading, as I understand it—you drop yourself into a little pocket of silence and peace and allow magical things to happen to your consciousness. I read, on the most basic level, because it makes me happy. It calms my brain down. My wife and I sometimes refer to this as ‘textual healing’: if I’m in a wretched mood, feeling oppressed by the world, I can go off with a book for an hour and suddenly be myself again. This practice, if you’re receptive to it, can come to define your life—can come in fact to seem like the very definition of a rich life. (Pound: ‘Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.’) If our era needs to learn that lesson, or to relearn it, the book critic is in the best possible position to teach it.” –Sam Anderson

I consider the two first themes listed above—attacking technology and dismissing fears based on history—some of the greater traps of discussing criticism. The first, it seems to me, is just too easy. Those Amazon reviewers, ignorant of the “elements of style,” are sitting ducks. It’s like those popular bestsellers that Jessica mentioned yesterday: mocking them, however gently, isn’t so difficult as attempting to understand—and maybe applaud—them. And of course the iPad won’t be around in two hundred years, but technology will be. To direct your loathing at one device, and to oppose it to books in general, is to present an essentially misleading non-sequitur.

Similarly, to mention hysteria’s historical precedent is, at this point, both annoying and irrelevant. Over the last few years, premonitions of doom and the death of print have been widespread. And the first couple of times (hell, I’ve probably done it here) someone announced the truth that every age decries its own downfall, it was refreshing. But half of the six articles here make the same observation. It has ceased to seem wise or reassuring. At this point, it sounds as much like fear as anything else.

If, for some reason, you can only read one of the six, I’d suggest you go for Anderson’s. Yes, he falls into both traps. But his essay also reminds us that criticism is an art. You have to write well about writing, because to do anything is to invalidate your work. In so doing, what you’ve produced becomes, if not the equal of its subject, its peer. No, Anderson—and the other few who focus specifically on the importance of good writing—doesn’t answer the bigger question: why does art matter? But he does argue, persuasively, that the critic is an artist himself, that he mimics the great achievements of his subject (writing) as well as what it means to be a good reader and a valuer of books: “If our era needs to learn that lesson, or to relearn it, the book critic is in the best possible position to teach it.”

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