|Photo credit: Matt Mendelsohn|
Lately, I’ve been reading Daniel Mendelsohn, a cultural and literary critic. His books have ample essayistic criticism, but also personal history and metaphor. He brings sharp, intelligent, and often witty writing that is always insightful and interesting to read.
Two particularly interesting pieces I found recently, one written by Mendelsohn himself, and the other, an interview with him posted December 25th, 2012 at Lambda Literary: Celebrating Excellence in LGBT Literature Since 1989, demand careful examination.
“A Critic’s Manifesto” posted August 28th, 2012 on The New Yorker website, gives us both some personal history and Mendelsohn’s view of the role of the critic. He learned his craft, he tells us, through reading. Mendelsohn dreamed of being not a novelist or poet, but a critic, and he began his journey on the pages of publications like The New Yorker reading not just literary critiques, but those written about dance and opera and Mozart. He loved Pauline Kael the most and saved her for last as he pored over the magazine before his father came home. It was his subscription that young Mendelsohn borrowed. “I thought of these writers above all as teachers,” he writes, “and like all good teachers they taught by example.” He was impressed with the way these critics not only addressed the current work, but how the artist’s entire oeuvre fit into the humanistic body of art and the scope of history. Good criticism resulted not from academic degrees, but from “a great love of the subject…taste, or sensibility.” It was at the feet of these distinguished writers that he learned, for instance, that poetry was written to show us how to live. His reading of these teacher-critics taught him how to think critically, “how to judge things” for himself. “To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period,” he writes.
Mendelsohn is not impressed with the broadening out of criticism these days to include blogs and websites, which feature people with strong opinions but lack “the wider erudition…taste or temperament that could give their judgment authority.” He includes academic scholars in this group, pointing out that they are “no good at reviewing for a mainstream audience.” Is Mendelsohn’s stance sour grapes? The market possibilities for professional critics have dwindled in recent years, and criticism is more democratic with the rise of online opinionating found at the bottom of every Amazon page. However, there are excellent critics who don’t write for The New York Times and The New Yorker. There is an immense value to reading writers like Mendelsohn and James Wood, another critic from The New Yorker, but it is also important to recognize that reading and books are still of interest to common folk.
Mendelsohn is not all negative on the citizen critic and the transformation of reviewing and criticism. He makes it clear that two phenomena bear the responsibility for this sea-change. One, the internet has made criticism of all stripes, short blurb to long-form, available to a mass audience. Second, the “vacuous promotional exchanges of likes, links, and ‘favorites’ on social media like Facebook has led people to follow these digital bread crumbs to popular fare like Fifty Shades of Grey, God help us.
He goes on to talk extensively about giving a bad review, and why a critic should not just be a cheerleader for his subject. Serious criticism demands serious intent. The audience who reads criticism wants truth and clarity; it is the critic’s job to guide readers to what is important, not just popular. He bemoans the rise of the false memoir, the exaggerated stories written by authors who pass themselves off as creative nonfiction composers but whose books belong shelved in fiction. He attributes this “unprecedented explosion of personal writing (and inaccuracy and falsehood)” to online outlets like websites and blogs; and then there are the comment forums “where there are no editors and fact-checkers.” It all balances out in the end. How many of these fictional memoirs have been exposed for what they are over the last few years? Many times, the unmasking of the fabulists comes at the hand of a blogger. These online journalists working anonymously from their suburban bedrooms in the middle of the night for no pay have also broken some fairly large news stories.
In his interview in Lambda, Mendelsohn reveals what might be the root of his prejudice against online forums. “I never feel like I’m publishing something if I’m publishing it online,” he writes. “It doesn’t feel published to me…print feels more real to me.” Mendelsohn needs to prepare himself for a future—actually it is a today—where online publishing will be the method of getting an essay into print and out to a wider audience, and magazines will be the niche market for a few thousand subscribers who like to collect paper.
Two other interesting notes from the Mendelsohn interview: criticism, he believes, is being taken away from academia, and that academics are “people talking to themselves”; second, he believes the novel is over—“It’s so clear to me that the novel is a genre that has reached its final stages,” he writes.
On the first note, writing is created to be read. Academic publishing of papers and journal articles has become a kind of Freudian envy of the other. Why would a writer compose a piece in such esoteric and obtuse language to be read by the four other people in the world who have an interest, and the patience, to hack through the thicket of verbiage? Academic editors and publishers wonder why audiences have dwindled? The answer might be the writing itself. I am not talking about “dumbing” a topic down—although that has certainly happened in this new paradigm—but what kind of effort goes into reaching an audience. Most of the writing I read in the academic sphere seems more intent on trumpeting the author’s credentials and promoting the most extreme research topic, not on reaching real readers.
As for the novel, it is difficult to get behind fictional characters and events when real life has become so much more intense and interesting. I do not think the novel will die, just as poetry has not disappeared and words for the stage have not been vanquished by television or movies. It seems our culture is always announcing the death of something, but these art forms and literary genres continue. Photography did not kill painting; movies did not kill stage craft; and the novel will go on.
So will Fifty Shades of Grey, but that, as they say, is another story altogether.
Books by Daniel Mendelsohn include:
Waiting For The Barbarians (New York Review of Books, 2012)
How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken (Harper Perennial, 2009)
The Lost: A Search For Six Million (Harper Perennial, 2007)