On Having and Earning Critical Authority

IMG_3141I don’t want to leave the impression that frustration with the rigidity of academic practices is all I took away from my Louisville conference experience. There was definitely value for me in the work I put into my own paper, as well as in hearing and discussing the papers my co-panelists presented. So I thought I’d follow up my previous post with a sketch of the questions I went to Louisville to talk about.

My paper was called “Book Blogging and the Crisis of Critical Authority.” During the discussion after our papers, all of the panelists agreed that things have died down since the days when you could hardly turn around without seeing yet another “bloggers ruin everything” article. A few diehards still take every opportunity to decry the temerity of feckless amateurs who think they can just go online, say whatever they want, and call themselves “critics” (I’m looking at you, William Giraldi), but by and large (as Dan’s paper convincingly argued) the success of many serious web magazines has proven that online criticism can be as good as if not better than its old media competition, and book blogs in all their idiosyncratic variety are now a familiar, if not always respected, feature of the critical landscape.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s conspicuously temperate “Critic’s Manifesto” was one sign of the changing times; in it he acknowledged (as so many of his professional colleagues would not) the existence of “serious longform review-essays by deeply committed lit bloggers.” Mendelsohn did still conclude that “everyone is not a critic”; he cites “expertise and authority” as crucial qualifications (“knowledge … was clearly the crucial foundation of the judgment to come”) along with a more ineffable quality that he sums up as “taste” (“whatever it was in the critic’s temperament or intellect or personality that the work in question worked on“). Though he concedes that the requisite knowledge does not depend on formal credentials such as Ph.D.s, he does ultimately describe the critic’s job as being “to educate and edify” — so, it’s still a top-down or hierarchical model.

ao scottMendelsohn’s article was one of the sources I cited in my paper, in which I explored some questions about what we mean by “critical authority.” As he notes, once you move outside the academy degrees are neither a necessary nor a sufficient measure of the relevant expertise. But it’s not easy to pin down what does count, how authority is established, especially in a field of inquiry where there are no sure or absolute standards of judgment. Literary critics know that their authority is unstable because the history of criticism teaches us how judgments change over time, while simple experience shows us how much they differ among individuals. We can call variant assessments “gaffes” or “errors in individual taste,” as Mendelsohn does in his recent New York Times review of A. O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism, but he can’t actually prove that “early and wince-inducing takedowns of John Keats’s poetry, [or] of “Moby-Dick” are flat-out wrong any more than I could convince my Modernist colleagues that George Eliot is objectively a better novelist than James Joyce. Still, the rhetoric of criticism as well as its traditional methods of delivery typically seek at least the appearance of offering definitive judgments. As Sebastian Domsch argues in his interesting essay about ways the internet transforms critical genres, criticism has typically attempted to be and sound “monologic,” as if “everything that needed to be said has been said and there are no more follow-up questions possible.”

One reason blogging aroused such hostility, I proposed, was that it exposed the artifice of this model, and indeed of any idea of literary criticism as a series of edicts issued from on high, leaving critics themselves exposed, not as frauds, but as less authoritative than they pretended to be. As Mendelsohn says in his review of Scott, “the advent of the Internet” has “rais[ed] still further questions about authority, expertise and professionalism”; I argued that it has done so by breaking down monologic forms and exposing the inherently dialogic nature of both critical judgments and critical authority. Domsch defines “critical authority” as “the level of acceptance that is conceded by a reader to an aesthetic value judgment”: I think he is right to emphasize that this kind of authority is not inherent in the speaker but conferred by context and audience. In my paper I drew on Wayne Booth’s notion of “coduction” to make the case for the importance of dialogue in developing critical judgments, and I pointed to blogging as a form that establishes “follow-up questions” as both a natural and an inevitable part of criticism.

MendelsohnBarbariansIf critical authority is not something you simply have but something you have to earn and maintain by your own participation in a dialogue — if it is best understood not so much as a top-down assertion of superiority (“the critic’s job,” Mendelsohn proposes in his recent review, “is to be more educated, articulate, stylish, and tasteful … than her readers have the time or inclination to be”) but as a process of establishing yourself as someone whose input into an ongoing conversation is sought and valued — that helps explain why “expertise” is such a tricky thing to define for a critic. Mendelsohn’s original formal training is as a classicist — despite his wide-ranging erudition and critical prestige, he would almost certainly not qualify for an academic position in any other field — but obviously he has written with considerable insight on a wide range of subjects, from Stendhal to Mad Men. That so many of us read Mendelsohn’s criticism with interest and attention no matter what he writes about is a sign that we have come to trust him, not as the last word on these subjects, but as someone who will have something interesting (“meaningful,” to use one of his key terms) to say about them. If we disagree with him, we are not challenging his authority but continuing the conversation — and in fact one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is how little disagreement really matters to this kind of critical authority. If what we go to criticism for is a good conversation, then engaged disagreement can be seen as a sign of authority — a sign that you care enough about the critic’s perspective to tussle with it, if you like. I can think of a number of critics in venues from personal blogs to the New Yorker whose views I would not defer to, but which I want to know because they provoke me to keep thinking about my own readings — which (however definitive the rhetoric I too adopt in my more formal reviewing) I always understand to be provisional, statements of how something looked to me in that moment, knowing what I knew then, caring about what I cared about then.

boothcompanyI’m not saying we can’t or shouldn’t defend our critical assessments, but awash as we are and always have been in such a variety of them, it would be naively arrogant at best and solipsistic at worst to imagine ourselves as “getting it right,” no matter who we are or where we publish. Blogging very often reflects that open-endedness in its tone, and its form is based on just the process Booth describes as “coduction”:

‘Of the works of this general kind that I have experienced, comparing my experience with other more or less qualified observers, this one seems to me among the better (or weaker) ones, or the best (or worst). Here are my reasons.’ Every such statement implicitly calls for continuing conversation: ‘How does my coduction compare with yours?’

The comment box makes that implicit call explicit. This doesn’t mean “erudition, taste and authority” (the qualities Mendelsohn repeatedly invokes) don’t matter — though the extent to which they matter will depend on what you want from criticism. Domsch argues, for instance, that Amazon reviewing ultimately returns us to the most monologic form of criticism: people seek out, or are steered to (by algorithms, ‘like’ buttons and so on) the reviewer whose views and tastes are closest to their own, and once they find their “virtual” critical self, their critical proxy, as it were, they have found their perfect authority, a guarantor of their own well-established tastes. But Amazon is fundamentally about shopping. If you read criticism for some reason other than deciding which book to buy next, you are likely to look for and concede authority to different qualities. In my paper I noted that I don’t want to be told about books — I want to talk about books. So sympathetic as I am with most of what Mendelsohn says, I resist his insistence on the critic’s superiority as a necessary or structural part of the relationship.

The result of accepting, rather than resisting, the challenge blogging poses to old-fashioned critical forms is, I argued, not a catastrophically relativistic criticism of the kind Peter Stothard dreaded but a pluralistic criticism, such as that described by Carl Wilson in Let’s Talk About Love:

a more pluralistic criticism might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment, with all its messiness and private soul tremors — to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare. This kind of exchange takes place sometimes on the internet, and it would be fascinating to have more dialogic criticism: here is my story, what is yours?

I’d be very interested to know what you think about this argument, particularly about my proposal to redefine “critical authority” in a more reciprocal and context-dependent way than the anti-bloggers always do. What makes a critic “authoritative” to you? Or is “authority” not something you think or care about? If it isn’t, how would you explain what makes a critic someone you want to listen to or engage with? Are there critics you pay attention to because their taste (I might prefer the term “sensibility” myself) reflects yours, or because they push you to less familiar points of view? Does disagreeing with a critic make you doubt them, or does it depend on the critic, or the context? More generally, what do you want from criticism, and how do you think that affects where you read it and who you listen to?

The first picture here is one I took of the Big Four Bridge across the Ohio River from Louisville to the Indiana side. It was a really nice walk across and back!


13 Comments to On Having and Earning Critical Authority

  1. February 25, 2016 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    What I want from a critic is a thoughtful reading of a work, written in a way that I can understand and benefit from. Maybe the benefit is just entertainment or a chance to converse. Maybe the benefit is a book to read. Maybe the benefit is a new way of thinking about a book I’ve already read or a feeling of solidarity in finding someone whose reading matches my own.

    As a non-academic, I appreciate criticism that’s written with a “lay” audience in mind and not too full of academic jargon. (I see the value of jargon for insiders, but its use does separate insiders from outsiders.) And I want something more than advice on whether to read something or not. I think that’s where blogging has filled a gap for a lot of readers. Before blogging, I rarely encountered writing about books that wasn’t either too academic for me or too geared toward a consumer advisory role. Blogs offer a lot more variety, and the blogs I read regularly don’t all approach their criticism the same way. The variety and the fact that anyone can give it a try are the things that make blogging so invaluable to me.

    As far as authority, it’s something I’ve thought about a lot in terms of literary prizes. Anyone who follows literary prizes is likely to agree that they don’t always (or maybe even often) land on the year’s best book. At best, they end up with a book or books that do interesting things that a lot of readers can appreciate. Participating on a shadow jury for the Booker last year showed just how different people’s tastes, all of them well-argued and defended, can lead to a list that even those on the jury wouldn’t necessarily be satisfied with. One of the things I enjoy about the Tournament of Books is how it puts the question of authority on open display there by having judges (with varying degrees of expertise) explain their decisions, often owning up to the fact that it’s just personal preference. The combination of those explanations, the color commentary, and the open comments shows that judgments are a conversation, and no one judgment will satisfy everyone. But somehow the messy process usually lands on a reasonably good book.

  2. Chloe's Gravatar Chloe
    February 25, 2016 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    I definitely tend not to care for these ideas of “authority” and if a critic, even one I respect and find interesting, seems particularly attached to the idea of themselves as occupying a role of authority I do ultimately find it hard not to interpret it as a trait of personal egoism I’d prefer to politely ignore. What has always attracted me to writing about books is that it both allows me to linger on the pleasure of reading and to engage with one of the aspects of people I find most interesting, the way in which they process the world. I’ve never been interested in the ranking aspect of criticism, not least because that is the aspect that really does age worst. But a lot of people are very psychologically attached to hierarchical structures. It’s tempting in these conversations to separate out emotional responses from intellectual responses and argue for one or the other but one of the many reasons why dichotomies like that are flawed is because the people who seek out authoritative judgement are motivated by their need to gratify their emotional instincts as much as any amazon reviewer who couldn’t relate to the characters.

    As I said, I find the way people interpret things interesting. This doesn’t necessarily mean writers explicitly talking about themselves. It means that I am interested in people whose views are different to mine, but this can be an astonished, anthropological kind of experience rather than the charmed and stimulated experience of reading people whose priorities overlap more with mine. Reading, for instance, about what fantasy and SF readers think are interesting and important has helped me to understand why I never got on with those genres as much as I thought I ought to have done, having loved fantasy as a child and being quite willing to read the adult “equivalent” of those books. I often look up interviews with authors when I’ve read a book by them and, when I didn’t really care for their book, I usually understand why when I read those interviews, which are often about them as a reader as well as a writer. They have different ideas about what is interesting and I seek out those interviews because that in itself is interesting to me, when it is explained well.

    The ideal criticism for me does act as a resource for finding books I might like but it also gives me more pleasure in the books I have already read by helping to drawing out their particularities. I suppose the feeling which I prefer to have when reading criticism is a warm, lively affirmation of my own enthusiasm for literature. The criticism which doesn’t reflect my own sensibility and values has a role but the criticism which does means more to me. I’m not sure it’s a question of agreeing or disagreeing.

  3. February 25, 2016 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    I am interested in literature for literature’s sake, which means that in blogging criticism (as in other criticism) I am interested in what a book is doing and why. If a blogger can help me see deeper into characterization, motive, structure, connection to social movements or biographical detail, moral freight, or anything else that’s beautiful and important about a book, I’ll thank her. Expertise isn’t something that crosses my mind.

    I am curious about the last thing you say, the quotation from Carl Wilson about pluralistic criticism being more about depicting its enjoyment, and saying what it’s like for you to like it. I know some bloggers who are very scornful of this kind of response to books (they deplore it when bloggers say they “love” a book) and really prefer analysis or close reading to any other form of blogging. Do you think there’s a kind of hierarchy, even now? What are your preferences when you read blogs?

  4. February 26, 2016 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Unlike Teresa, pre-blogging I constantly read criticism that was pitched perfectly at me, that was neither academic nor consumer-oriented. I read this criticism in magazines, in political magazines like The New Republic, book review journals like NYRB, and literary magazines like The Hudson Review. There was always far more good writing about books than there was time to read it. Still is.

    I started blogging not because I was not finding the kind of criticism I wanted, but because I wanted to write it myself. So I did.

    Early on, I figured out that the dialogic nature of the blog led to better writing. This is why I break my posts into pieces. The first post invites a contribution to the next.

    One reason those comments are so valuable is because they are often written by readers with more expertise than me. In the humanities, the most important kind of expertise is nothing more than direct encounter with the work, one reason the field is so attractive to amateurs. I read a novel and I have more expertise on the subject of “what is in this novel” than someone who has not read it.

    The strange thing about that Carl Wilson quote – I remember thinking this when I read his book – is that pop music writing has tons of criticism of the “what is it like to like it” form, massively more than in any other art. It is a basic problem of writing about a form which is fundamentally social or party or dance music, even if the dancing is often just in my head. No shortage of “messiness and private soul tremors.” Just look at William Giraldi’s long article on his obsession with the White Stripes – yeesh! I still don’t know who or what Wilson was arguing with. Pop criticism was and is diverse, even if it was hard to find a professional writing nice things about Celine Dion.

    I think I have mentioned this before, Rohan, but I subscribe to your comments separately from your blog. The quality of the dialogue here is of such quality that I want to read all of the comments, even on posts where I am not participating myself.

  5. Bill from PA's Gravatar Bill from PA
    February 26, 2016 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    I started to write a response to your post, but it became rather long and pretty incoherent. A point that I wanted to make is that many of the critics and commentators I tend to enjoy and read regularly are those who occasionally go against some positive critical consensus on works or authors whose appeal remains elusive to me, despite the verbiage expended praising them. I think of Daniel Mendelssohn’s review of A Little Life and your own comments about Eleana Ferrante as examples.

    I very much enjoy reading critic Michael Dirda, who has managed to carve out for himself a quiet critical niche undisturbed by the winds of literary fashion and bestsellerdom, where older books and unusual or obscure new books and reprints are his typical subjects. In On Conan Doyle Dirda cites Doyle’s three requirements for good writing as “The first requisite is to be intelligible. The second is to be interesting. The third is to be clever.” These are the qualities I look for in critics as well. For me at least, academic criticism often fails the first requirement.

  6. February 26, 2016 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I love everything about this post. Thank you for your marvellous articulations and I love love love when your ideas about a book are different from mine—it blows the whole thing wide open, don’t you think? Thank you too for clarifying the difference between an amazon review and criticism proper, and that wonderful line about not wanting to be told about books, but wanting to talk about them. Yes yes yes.

  7. Elizabeth Ahlstrom's Gravatar Elizabeth Ahlstrom
    February 27, 2016 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been mulling this over since yesterday. Is it possible that different types of critics/reviewers/bloggers fill different needs?

    Maybe you’ve found a blogger whose taste (sensibility) is similar to your own. When you’re looking for something to download to your e-reader before a long flight, you value their “expertise.” Based on their recommendations, you are likely to find something you will enjoy reading. In this setting, perhaps you really don’t care about their credentials. You’re basically a consumer, looking for information from someone you trust about your next purchase.

    However, if you’re reading one of the classics (especially for the first time), you may prefer the critical edition with annotations. In this setting, if the editor is someone widely regarded as an “expert” who has spent considerable time researching the time period and historical context of the novel, then their insights can improve your understanding of the text.

    For a bookworm, one of the saddest discoveries of adulthood is the fact that reading is so often a solitary experience. In all my years of formal education, I loved nothing more than a lively class discussion about a book. I abhor William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” and I’ve never cultivated a taste for anything by Hemingway. Yet I have fond memories of discussing those novels with classmates and professors who enjoyed them. Did they convert me? No. I still can’t stand the stories. But they did help me to see the value of the books themselves –what the author was trying to do, what techniques were used, what statements were being made about human nature, etc.

    For adults who are not part of an academic community, it can be difficult to find a forum for intelligent discussion. There are book clubs of course. The Internet can also help to fill the void. Whether I loved a book or hated it, it’s fascinating to hear what other people had to say. Book blogs can be a great place to do just that.

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