Why Criticism Matters

Is it just me or do the six “accomplished critics” writing on this topic for the New York Times go on and on without saying much of interest or substance? Most of the offerings exemplify the dangers of generalizing–whether about criticism, about literature, or about good writing. Indeed, some of their generalizations make me worry none of them read much, which surely can’t be true (for instance, “the serious contemporary novel withdraws from linearity”? so much for A. S. Byatt or Hilary Mantel, to name two obvious counter-examples;  but then “its focus [is] distributed across several characters”–which sounds not so much contemporary as Victorian to me). Then there’s the oddly facile pot-shot by Stephen Burn against English professors who abandon literature to become administrators (take note, Craig!): I guess he’d rather universities all be run by business professors? Well, that seems to be what most people want these days. By and large they all conflate criticism with book reviewing, they seem quite preoccupied with evaluation as the critic’s job, and there’s a lot of talk about good writing, but not much about good reading, by which I mean reading that comes from close, patient attention and expertise. The value of academic criticism is hardly acknowledged (the only one who admits it, indirectly at least, is Batuman, and then only through references to books she read in graduate school), and though there’s a nod or two to the possibility that some of the critical writing done by ‘amateurs’ on the internet might not be stupid or strident (they all assume that bloggers are amateurs, which is sort of funny, because there are a lot of bloggers whose professional credentials and accomplishments as critics are surely equal to those of this Big Six, if often in different venues), the general tone seems to be a defensive one, the mission to prove not so much why criticism matters as an activity but why their critical practices and habits matter. Still, there are some pretty good moments. I think Sam Anderson is close to the mark, for instance, when he notes that the “membrane between criticism and art has always been permeable”:

That’s one of the exciting things that books do: they talk to other books. The critic’s job is to help amplify that conversation. We make the whispered parts of it audible; we translate the coded parts into everyday language. But critics also participate actively in that conversation. We put authors who might never have spoken in touch with each other, thereby redefining both. We add our own idiosyncratic life experiences and opinions and modes of expression — and in doing so, fundamentally change the texts themselves.

Nobody asked me why criticism matters, but if they did, I think I would just say that criticism matters because literature matters. If I were then asked to expand on that response, I would say that serious criticism (a label which excludes plenty of what passes for book reviewing on the internet and in print) matters because it takes literature seriously enough to investigate, explain, contextualize, and challenge it. It may do so in myriad ways, from formalist or aesthetic or historical or political or even, per Batuman, Freudian perspectives. Good criticism, I would add, requires expertise as well as beautiful writing–indeed, I would say that the quest for beautiful sentences (though they are certainly requisite for truly great criticism) can also be a dangerous temptation, luring critics away from rigorous analysis. And though I think it’s fair to emphasize the importance of the critic’s voice, I don’t read criticism to learn about the critic but to enrich my understanding of, my thinking about, the work of literature under examination. If criticism accomplishes that, it matters.

Now, let me ask you, accomplished readers, critics, and bloggers: why do you think criticism matters–assuming you do, and it does?

3 Comments to Why Criticism Matters

  1. January 4, 2011 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    I will need time to think about why criticism matters, but as a quick response I cheered at the comment:
    That’s one of the exciting things that books do: they talk to other books.

    I would expand this and suggest that it is what the arts in general do. Making connections between what I’m reading, seeing at the theatre, exploring in lectures by historians, artists, philosophers and the like is what has driven my thinking forward for years.

  2. January 4, 2011 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    Ooh that’s a nice huge question to begin the year with! I suppose I would say that reading and living are not separate activities; in fact they are bound tightly together, as we read and interpret people, places, situations, our own fears and fantasies, all the time, in significant and powerfully affecting ways. So to learn to read better, more accurately, more intelligently, more sensitively, which is the basic goal of criticism, I think – to enrich the reading experience – means that we can live better, too.

    All of human learning is about downloading models and so reading great criticism alerts us to ways of seeing and understanding that we haven’t thought about before. You could take the neuroscience route here, and point out that the more sophisticated our reading processes, the more neural pathways we forge in our brains – literally building and extending our minds through thinking about what we have read. And so reading criticism, if we practice it for long enough, with attentiveness, gives us unexpected skills and resources, biologically, philosophically, emotionally, spiritually. Essentially, it’s the gifts inherent in literature, but we’re more aware of what they are with criticism to help us.

  3. January 17, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    “I don’t read criticism to learn about the critic but to enrich my understanding of, my thinking about, the work of literature under examination.”

    I, too, often read criticism to expand my appreciation. But sometimes I read good criticism to learn how great readers *use* books, that is, how they employ them as an optical instrument (Proust) to see something more clearly, or as a ladder (Schopie / Witters) to be discarded, or as a chrysalis to help you become who you are (Nietz / Bloom), etc.

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