Posted on | January 9, 2011 | 2 Comments
There are only so many reasons to be optimistic in American letters, but seeing the New York Times Book Review devote an issue—and a heady one at that—to the question of “Why Criticism Matters” is as heartening a start to the new year as I could hope for. The mattering, or not mattering, of criticism is a subject as old as the discipline itself, but the visibility of this particular forum arrives at a moment when the question seems especially urgent. When there are no barriers to entry—see, for example, this blog—what makes the critic a critic?
The six critics collected here—Stephen Burn, Katie Roiphe, Pankaj Mishra, Adam Kirsch, Sam Anderson, and Elif Batuman—vary in their personal preoccupations, but the undertaking as a whole operates according to a couple basic premises: 1) that criticism does in fact matter and 2) that to address the question of why and how it matters one must first confront the twittering background noise of what Sam Anderson mockingly calls the iPocalpyse. As Burn observes, the critic “now finds her function revised by technological changes that have reconfigured an audience that was once atomized by America’s urban sprawl.”
Is this true? In the most immediate sense, sure. There’s no doubt that the proliferation of opinion on the internet puts a new pressure on critics to justify themselves—why are they more authoritative than anyone else who wants to share their take on a book online? As Mark Athitakis points out on his blog, several of the essayists claim that the answer lies in good writing, Katie Roiphe the loudest. “If the critic has to compete with the seductions of Facebook, with shrewdly written television, with culturally relevant movies—with, in short, every bright thing that flies to the surface of the iPhone—that’s all the more reason for him to write dramatically, vividly, beautifully,” she argues. Roiphe makes her point by repeating it, in sentences of increasing bombast: “The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.” If they succeed, “they can carry books back into the middle of conversations at dinner parties.” That’s it? The running obsession with good writing does little to make a case for good criticism. That the critic must write well is a given; she must also have something to say.
Criticism has always been an anxious medium, contingent as it is on the productions of others. What is the source of a critic’s authority, if the critic is by definition a subsidiary phenomenon? Sam Anderson, though he too joins the “good writing” school of criticism, addresses, at least implicitly, the problem of authority: “A badly written book review is worse than a badly written political speech or greeting card or poem; a badly written review is self-cancelling, like a barber with a terrible haircut.” Writing well is a necessary ingredient of credibility, but it’s not the goal.
Anderson’s right, but he does not persuade. An assertion of authority does not inherently make its own case. The most persuasive entries into NYT compendium are those that draw authority from an articulated sense of literary value, rather than simply transferring the burden of the critic’s perennial anxiety onto the merit of the writing itself. They give a performance, rather than an explanation, of critical authority. The essay that, I think, best matches the tradition of the critical greats—Kazin, Trilling, Wilson, who dwell like specters in the background of the whole enterprise—is Pankaj Mishra’s. For Mishra, criticism has a greater social function than creating lively chatter over hors d’oeuvres: “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.” This, here, is the meat of why a conversation about criticism is so necessary right now.
Mishra, in taking this exercise as a chance to diagnose not the function but the ills of contemporary criticism, looks beyond its evaluative function. The obsession with what we might generously call “aesthetics” eschews any question of responsibility for ideas, however elegantly expressed. The affluent, post-ideological political terrain of American culture demands neither of its literature nor its critics that they talk to anybody but one another. Or, as Mishra puts it, “Deprived of a whole vocabulary of moral concern, which traditionally enlisted it into a humanistic culture, literary criticism was always destined to turn into a kind of competitive connoisseurship—a parlor game for the increasingly professional producers as well as the passive consumers of literature.” To take a 1500-word essay on the cover of the Times Book Review to explain the moral poverty of the culture to which it speaks? That’s criticism.