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the dysfunction of criticism today

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This weekend, the NYT Books Section ran a six-essay feature on “Criticism,” complete with an introductory note about the canonical works in the genre that they had in mind when they came up with the idea:

The inspiration for the six essays anchoring the Book Review this week was Alfred Kazin’s polemic “The Function of Criticism Today,” written in 1960 (and published in Commentary). But Kazin belongs to a long tradition of critics who have cast a keen eye over their vocation. In fact, Kazin’s essay echoes T. S. Eliot’s “Function of Criticism,” published in 1923, which itself echoed Matthew Arnold’s celebrated “Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” written in 1864.

The sadly hilarious thing about the feature, however, is how far short the commentators – as well as the weekly reviews that show up in the NYTBR – fall from the ideals established in the cited examples. There’s something interestingly symptomatic about just how this happens as well. While Kazin’s essay aims in the direction of futurity, activeness rather than passivity, and the engaged spread of writing about art into writing about “the age,” the showcased critics in the Times are caught in one posture or other of chastened retreat. Here are a few snips from Kazin (whose essay is partially viewable for free here):

[T]he most obvious thing about criticism in America today is that it is not consciously related to any literary movement. It does not consciously work toward a future. Look at much of the criticism that concentrates on Joyce, Eliot, Faulkner, Stevens. Are these essays written so as to suggest new possibilities for art, to welcome new writers, or are they written to explain a point in Ulysses that no one else has mentioned?


The trouble with all of us who teach and explain so much of modern literature is that we are too far from the kind of historical confidence, the élan, the historical swagger, that made it possible.


We must practice criticism on the older writers lest they harden into the only acceptable writers. We must learn to practice criticism on the newer writers in order to bind them more truly to our own experience. We must practice criticism on our age while it is still here to show us its possibilities.

So what do we get now, today, in the Times? We get, for instance, Stephen Burn urging a sort of strategic retreat in the face of Amazon reader reviews:

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.

Or we get Katie Roiphe, queen of the attention-garnering and offensive polemic, raising the extremely controversial point that literary criticism should be written well.

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.

OK. Well. The assembled critics oscillate, as they would, between seeing the iPad and iPod, Facebook and Twitter, as threats to the business or spurs to its salvation, as they would in true NYT featurese argot. Perish the thought that one could write a culturally focused piece in this paper at this time that didn’t thread everything through an advertisement or anti-advertisement for ereaders. If they were to look back at the Kazin essay, and the others mentioned in the introductory piece, they’d find that while many of the canonical critics register in passing the same anxieties about the future of literature as an enterprise, the real issue at hand – and what they to a one duck – is the issue of engagement, the appropriate ends of criticism.

Whatever its cultural centrality – and there’s more for me to say about how I think we should simultaneously keep the issue of cultural centrality, well, central and ignore it altogether at the same time – literary criticism and the forms of criticism that can branch out from and be informed by it are ripe for renewal. We are in a period of flux – political culture, and in particular the left, is in a state of potentially highly productive disarray. Because literature and art more generally is notoriously (or, at least it should be notorious) resistant to dogmatic analysis, it can provide both a school for thinking through problem and solution sets that flicker dimly on the horizon, somewhere on the other side of the river of conventional wisdom, however refined. If only the better papers would see that this could be the case; if only those who could or even would would find the courage – and not all that much is needed – to take up Kazin’s “historical confidence, the élan, the historical swagger.”

I’ll try to say more about how I think this might be possible in the near term….


Written by adswithoutproducts

January 4, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Posted in criticism, nyt

One Response

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  1. will add a longer comment later. yea, what a joke coming on this from the ny times b.r. with oh tannenbaum for an editor. very parochial, too, the frame of reference of all but the fellow who approaches books via freud’s dream interpretation. that i can follow. more anon.

    michael roloff

    January 4, 2011 at 6:31 pm

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