Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Dear New York Times, Criticism does matter

By Barry Johnson

The New York Times Book Review on Sunday went meta for a few of its pages, asking six book critics to write about the state of literary criticism in these perilous times -- when humans who aren't getting paid by the word can leave their reflections on a book in a public place. But that's argumentative: I found the set of little essays (longer versions could be found, gulp, online) instructive and engaging. And if you're interested in the production of cultural commentary (and the fact that you're here is an indication that you just might be!), these brief bouts with the topic might be worth your while, too.

The "Editors," who remain unnamed, asked the following question: "We asked the six to explain what it is they do, why they do it and why it matters. We asked them, additionally, to undertake the assignment in the spirit Alfred Kazin did half a century ago in his ambitious statement of purpose 'The Function of Criticism Today.'" I love Kazin's essay or manifesto or whatever it is. Kazin has passion for what he's doing, and though he's profoundly disappointed in the direction of his culture, with the loss of democratic processes in 1960 America, he remains on the battlefield of public opinion.

Here Kazin is, midway through the essay: "To use Jacques Barzun's significant phrase, the "energies of art" are revealed to us, and so can be described and judged, only when they are seen against the background of man's striving, man's belief that he can help create the future he wants."

Then a little later in the same paragraph: "This sense of the eventual vindication of life by the imagination is what gives meaning to every great artist's life, and it is the the critic's job to support this belief, to delineate it, to fight for it."

And finally: "There is in every true work of art a tendency pressing for recognition, pressing a work of art together, and without recognizing what the work of art is itself striving to be, in the light of what man himself is always striving to become, our evaluation becomes a question of frigid correctness."

That passion makes Kazin a great critic. He reads closely and well, and he brings deep wisdom to bear on the words he reads -- and writes. But his ability to make us feel that what we are considering at the moment we read him is at the white-hot center of the universe (or is that a galaxy-swallowing black hole?). The eternal youthfulness of Thoreau, the contradictions of Emerson, the "crazy disposition to error" of the characters in Flannery O'Connor short stories -- how can these seem important to us now? And yet, I read him and want to spend the rest of my life considering Hawthorne and Melville, Lincoln and Jefferson, Dickinson and Cather. Kazin is fighting for something, striving for something -- to understand and by understanding to create something better.

The six Times' essayists have that passion, too, I think, though it's expressed more as a plea (to other critics, maybe even to themselves?) to write better. Here's Sam Anderson:
"We have to work harder to justify our presence on the page, our consumption of readers’ increasingly precious attentional units. This means writing with more energy, more art, more conviction, more excitement and a deeper sense of personal investment. It means returning to fundamental questions: What is literature? 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."
We could just as easily quoted Katie Roiphe: "If critics can fulfill this single function, if they can carry the mundane everyday business of literary criticism to the level of art, then they can be ambitious and brash; they can connect books to larger currents in the culture; they can identify movements and waves in fiction; they can provoke discussion; they can carry books back into the middle of conversations at dinner parties."

Writing beautifully as Roiphe would have critics write, is fine, of course. But I'm not sure about the level of ambition she expresses. Cocktail chatter? We want want books to be the subject of cocktail chatter?  This is just the most obvious sign of retreat in the essays at hand, which often cited the marginality of critics, expressed as a "loss of centrality" (Adam Kirsch) or "The critic ought to be an obscure, marginal figure" (Stephen Burn).

The great exception is Pankaj Mishra, who specifically addresses the problem: 
"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. It is hard to imagine recent American literature provoking a critical response in the way of Kazin’s magnificent study “On Native Grounds” (1942), which sensitively recorded the evolution of many literary sensibilities against a prewar backdrop of continuous crisis and struggle."
And Mishra continues: "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." Literature has fled the field, and criticism followed after it. And what's the field, exactly? The culture as whole and our ability, our responsibility, to shape it. No matter how difficult that may be. Making small, beautiful things on the periphery is not enough, either for the artist or the critic.

Again, that's what I love about Kazin (and another of the essayists, Elif Batuman), the sense of urgency he conveys, the sense of importance: By understanding Thoreau, we understand something about ourselves, and then great things are possible.

I would extend it, of course. Understanding Martha Graham lands us in the same spot. Or understanding Tennessee Williams or Robert Rauchenberg or Georgia O'Keeffe or Gertrude Stein or Duke Ellington. Because they all lead us someplace amazing.

At some point, the "meta" consideration leaves us aching to encounter art, and art, life. Batuman's essay, for example, which starts out by explaining how Freud's "Interpretation of Dreams" made the usefulness of interpretation, of criticism, apparent to her, sharpens the appetite for texts to read in the way she suggests. We want to work on the "vindication of life by the imagination" that Kazin talks about, and it's not a matter of passing interest.

My problem with the New York Times book review is that doesn't seem to encourage the wide-ranging criticism that Kazin describes. It pulls back from commitments -- even to the critical spirit itself and the conditions that make it possible. It publishes small, well-made reviews that don't color outside the lines. Everything is neat and tidy. And peripheral, because connections to the rest of the culture (using culture broadly) rarely are made.

Dear Editors, You have the power to make the case for the importance of criticism in your pages every week. You don't need special issues -- you need the courage to re-imagine your own reviewing practices.

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