Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Critical I

Last Sunday’s The New York Times Book Review deftly deconstructed the state of modern literary criticism. Just who is it that book reviewers write for these days? The collection of essays on the subject from a diverse group of intellectual writers takes inspiration from Alfred Kazin’s “The Function of Criticism Today,” published in the journal, Commentary, in 1960.

In this space, I have reviewed a fair number of books. I love to read, and consider myself more reader than writer. It began as an escape, a way of avoiding the rage and oppression I felt at home as a child. In books, I was not me, probably the biggest attraction. I could live other lives and experience other ways of existing, and that got me to the library every two weeks for my parcel of books which I then poured through neglecting my homework and other obligations, much to the chagrin of my parents. They were powerless to stop me.

When I started this blog years ago, I wanted to write about two things: my reading life and my teaching life. Those topics have broadened out quite a bit to include personal experience, cultural critique, and politics. I am probably most at home telling a story, but I love to read and I love to discuss what I am reading. That is why I became a teacher, or at least one of the reasons. I remember opening a book of Joan Didion essays years ago and falling on the sharp sword of her line: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I was impaled permanently. I loved the stories of how we lived; I loved writing them and analyzing them.

However, who reads my reviews and what purpose do they serve? By far, the most popular posts have been ones about teaching, the methodology of grading papers and student writing. So why don’t I give up on the reviews? I find reading much more exciting than teaching methods or classroom ideas. Those things come from learning how to communicate a text or concept. But reading is my life. It underpins everything I am, everything I believe, and every action I take. I am, at heart, more student than teacher, which I have come to believe is the way it should be.

But back to the matter at hand: who is reading criticism these days? More importantly, what purpose does literary criticism serve?

The basic situation nearly every critic addresses in The New York Times essays is the democratizing of book reviews today, with sites like Amazon allowing readers to upload their take on a particular book, competing against the declining number of publications that still publish professional reviews. Literally, anyone, with any agenda or prejudice, can publish a book review somewhere. In Kazin’s day, professional book reviewers were an elite group, duly deputized as cultural arbiters of good literature and bad. And these writers could influence the sales of a particular book.

Stephen Burn, a professor at Northern Michigan University writes, “…while the kind of critic that preoccupied Kazin—one who writes for the public, ‘lives in literature’ and tries to create standards—now finds her function revised by technological changes that have reconfigured an audience that was once atomized by America’s urban sprawl.” Burn cites one of the best cultural critics on reading in an electronic age, Sven Birkerts, when he lists the “losses that a reader in the electronic millennium would suffer: divorce from historical consciousness, a fragmented sense of time, [and] a loss of deep concentration.” Birkerts’ book, The Gutenberg Elegies, was the first to really sound the alarm about the death of reading many years before our current crisis.

Katie Roiphe finds fault with the critics, themselves, in her essay. She is a professor at New York University. According to her, “critics have always been a grandstanding, depressive and histrionic bunch.” Her prescription for what ails the dearth of true, important criticism: critics must write better and more beautifully. “Now, maybe more than ever,” she writes, “in a cultural desert characterized by the vast, glimmering territory of the Internet, it is important for the critic to write gracefully…the critic has one important function: to write well.” I like this idea, however, the critic also must have something to say that brings readers to the table. Pretty words alone do not make a writer relevant.

The New Yorker writer, Adam Kirsch, eloquently argues that criticism is its own literary genre, like short fiction or poetry. “Novelists interpret experience through the medium of plot and character,” he tells us, “poets through the medium of rhythm and metaphor, and critics through the medium of other texts.” Our job as critics, therefore, is to write about writers writing. He goes on to say that “a serious critic is one who says something true about life and the world.” I would broaden that definition out to include all forms of art: the critic must say something truthful and important about not only art, but the state of humanity and culture. If that is not happening, maybe we have found the reason criticism has become less popular and relevant. So how do we make criticism important and necessary reading? We must address the critical analysis of literature to the larger critique of culture and society, because, as Kirsch tells us, “thinking about literature eventually means thinking about society and politics,” and “the study of literature gives you the best vantage point from which to understand an entire society.”

Could all this talk of the death of print journalism, the end of meaningful criticism and discussion of literature, be just more histrionics on the part of typewriter-dinosaurs? Sam Anderson thinks so. “[E]very era in the history of humanity has lamented the rise of whatever technology it happened to see the rise of,” he says with an awkward flourish. He does have a sense of humor about things, though. He thinks the increased competition for a reader’s attention “should prevent critics…from producing the kind of killingly dull reviews that seem intended for someone trapped in a bus shelter during a giant rainstorm, circa 1953.” He goes on to say that “We have to work harder to justify our presence on the page…This means writing with more energy, more art, more conviction, more excitement and a deeper sense of personal investment.” Yeah, we need to care about what we are writing about, and make connections to current events and culture. It is a fundamental rule of writing that if it is an exercise for the writer, it will be a chore for the reader. I certainly have seen enough of that kind of irrelevant writing in the classroom. Anderson gets in another great line when he talks about the calming effects of reading. He calls it “textual healing,” without offending Marvin Gaye fans. “If I’m in a wretched mood,” he writes, “feeling oppressed by the world, I can go off with a book for an hour and suddenly be myself again.” He invokes Ezra Pound: “Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.” Leave it to Pound; he could be mentally unstable, but he appreciated a good ball of light.

The last writer featured is Elif Batuman, a relatively young critic living in Istanbul, Turkey. She poetically sums up why we read literature, and by connection, why we should read criticism. “Much as there are things about our own life stories that we can learn only from the systematic study of our dreams,” she writes, “there are things about the human condition that we can learn only from a systematic study of literature.”

The section closes with a series of snippets from the important literary critics of history, including Kazin, T.S. Eliot, Matthew Arnold, and Randall Jarrell, among others. Of all the people writing about literature, and by cross pollination, society and culture, Alfred Kazin has few equals. I have read and loved his words for decades, and I treasure his volume of essays, Writing Was Everything (1995). “Any critic who is any good is going to write out of a profound inner struggle between what has been said and what must be, the values he is used to and those which presently exist, between the past and the present out of which the future must be born.” He wrote those words in 1960, and they are as important today as ever.

Should literary criticism disappear, or worse, be ignored as irrelevant, we, the people would be poorer, suffering the pangs of abject poverty not of the wallet, but of the soul. Keep reading, I say, and keep talking and writing about it in beautiful, important, and challenging words. It is our only defense against a darker world.


  1. I appreciate everything you write on this blog and wouldn't want you to limit any of the categories you cover. Good writing is good writing and this reader is always happy to find some good writing. Like your blog. This latest post another prime example.

  2. Thank you, Michael. I feel the same about your blog, and I am happy you are sharing your experiences with all of us. Your blog is always riveting and interesting.

  3. Who reads your reviews and what purpose do they serve? (you ask). Well, I don't know about anybody else, but you often introduce a book I'd not heard of before and convince me it's worth a look-see, or--in the case of the Sherlock Holmes collection recently reviewed, remind me how much I enjoyed reading them and no longer have any copies left, prompting me to order the book from Borders. It will accompany me on a trip in a few weeks, as a welcome companion.

    Literary reviews sometimes say more about the reviewer than the book reviewed. (So you were not the only kid to escape into literature and go mentally where you couldn't physically, to be someplace other than where you were. Happened to a lot of us, I suspect. And look at all the places we went, and things we saw, and who we met!). Thanks, Paul. I agree with Lally. Good writing is good writing, and you're a good writer.

  4. Thanks, Annie, as always for being a good friend and reader. Your comment, for me, is humbling, and I endeavor to never disappoint you. As for the escape through reading, I mourn the loss of childhood today. What will future generations escape into: violent video games? texting? May we all be lucky enough to live at least part of our formative years in our imaginations!

  5. Agree with both,Lally and Annie,I wish I had a teacher like you are! Thank you Paul!

  6. Thank you for the comment and kind words, Aleksandra. I wish I could thank some of the teachers I had for helping me create a vibrant mind life for myself. Unfortunately, we often realize much too late the value of good teaching. As former students of good teachers we can only live our lives as tribute to those who taught us so unselfishly. Take care.

  7. So that means it is never too late for recognizing true good word,as from now on I will pay it forward,thank you :)

  8. I have found myself thinking of the whole "pay it forward" idea myself lately, Aleksandra. Karma should never be underestimated.


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