Why criticism matters

This Sunday’s New York Times Book Review is dedicated to six essays about the worth of criticism in contemporary society. In fact, the paper version only contains excerpts – to read the full essays, you need to go the website.

The fact that this compendium has been published on what is widely considered the slowest news week of the year underscores criticism’s primary dilemma; critics still have lots to say, but nobody’s quite sure if anyone wants to read it.

In fact, even I, someone embedded in the journalistic tradition, and with a degree in “comparative literature” for goodness sake, found myself skimming paragraphs, looking for greater meaning. What follows here is what I managed to glean.

In Stephen Burn’s essay “Beyond the critic as cultural arbiter” he declares “the audience now talks to itself” and that traditional criticism “merely adds to the noise of culture.”

Burn says, instead of trying to command a general audience, the modern critic should find his or her niche, and dig deeper than ever before. He writes:

The culture is what it is — messy and multi-valent, open to a certain range of entertainments and cultural expressions — and the critic’s yearning to dominate a larger audience is an index of the extent to which he or she finds the critical task insufficient in itself. 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.

For her part, essayist Katie Roiphe argues that if there are that many more voices out there, it simply forces the critic to be even better at his or her craft:

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, to have, as Alfred Kazin wrote in 1960, a “sense of the age in his bones.” The critic could take all of this healthy competition, the challenge of dwindling review pages, the slash in pay, as a sign to be better, to be irreplaceable, to transcend…

By this I mean that critics must strive to write stylishly, to concentrate on the excellent sentence. 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.

Wait – so it doesn’t matter so much what you say, but how you say it? Evidently that is what sets the professionals apart, according to Roiphe, because she says “the secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.”

Adam Kirsch at the New Republic counters the role of the critic is “essentially the same today as it was 50 years ago: a serious critic is one who says something true about life and the world.”

Kirsch goes on to state that such a definition is of course the ideal; in actuality critics play a role that combines journalism with consumer advocacy and social commentary.

Sam Anderson blames technology – what he jokingly calls the “iPocalypse” – for the drastic changes in how people consume writing of all kinds, including criticism:

What we can say, for sure, is that sustained exposure to the Internet is changing the way many readers process the written word. Texts are shorter and more flagrantly interconnected, with all kinds of secret passageways running into and out of one another. This has already changed the way we produce, read, share and digest our writing. Inevitably, it will also redefine what it means to practice book criticism, at least for those of us who aspire to write for something like a general audience.

Anderson says this change may be for the best, because it forces critics to vie for their readership; in other words, no more self-indulgent, wordy pieces that fail to make a compelling point. A a result, Anderson says, critics are now forced to ask some scary, yet essential, questions:

Why do we read it at all? What happens if we don’t? The contemporary critic has to be an evangelist — implicitly or explicitly — not just for a particular book or author, but for literary experience itself.

But then Anderson goes on to make a demand that sounds, to my ears, a bit like Rodney Dangerfield.

If we want criticism to matter today, we have to treat it with more respect. This means abandoning the notion that it’s just hack work or service journalism or literary bookkeeping, or a sad little purgatory for people who haven’t managed to succeed as novelists. Book criticism, done well, is an art of its own, with its own noble canon and creative challenges and satisfactions. In fact, it’s one of the essential literary arts, a singular genre in which a lot of great writers have done their best work.

‘Respect us, and then we’ll matter?’ How about ‘matter first, and then you’ll earn our respect?’

As I read through the rest of the essays, I felt a growing concern. Each of these self-labeled critics referenced lofty texts and previous critical debates… citing Marxism and such books as “Anna Karenina” and “A Room of One’s Own.” The debate itself was so rarified, that by its very nature it repelled a general audience – the very audience critics complain they’re losing.

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