Self-preservation these days requires not only skipping wholesale the front sections of all the political magazines to which I subscribe but also physically tearing them off their staples and discarding them, so that not even a stray glance falls on their appalling content. I’ve been doing this for a couple of weeks now and face an unbroken future of continuing to do it, but naturally, such a precaution left me unprepared to encounter quite such an iceberg of irritation as I did when reading the back half of the most recent Nation.
In particular, a round-up review called “Criticism in the Twilight” by somebody named Nicholas Dames, writing about three books, The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood, Better Living Through Criticism by A. O. Scott, and Against Everything by Mark Greif. The first two of those are collections of book reviews and the third, Against Everything, is a collection of n + 1 pointless windbagging on various random topics. But even so, the gambit Dames chose in order to kick off his review deals with the life – and death – of public literary criticism
If you think that sounds gruesome, you’re not wrong. His opening paragraph is every bit as bad as you might expect from somebody who’s going to waste your time laying out a case that once upon a time, great critics like Lionel Trilling, Susan Sontag, and Pauline Kael rose above the limitations of the sub-genre (“They observe the canonical, but they publish in pages that wilt. They write from a position of developed taste, but they also have to turn around pieces on deadline,” etc.) and achieved a kind of lit-crit immortality the very root conditions of which have disappeared today:
What venues can play host to a critical sensibility that is both distinctive and imitable? What institution can afford to supply the cultural critic with a steady income and a stable intellectual home? These are embarrassing questions to ask. It is unlikely that such a figure would emerge today from print journalism, as the walls close in on the handful of venues that still bother with criticism at all. It is even less likely that the Internet, each corner of which is constantly undergoing mitosis, can nurture a voice with the necessary kind of consistency and economic stability. Least likely of all is the university, which is presently too engaged in a struggle for legitimacy to speak for a public … Any setting that might give the critic a connection to genuine, generalizable experience is virtually out of reach.
To which, naturally, Dames appends “Or so it seems.” “Or so it seems” and its weasling ilk are the schoolhouse hall passes of the literary world, endorsed by the principal, proof against any infractions, and either envied by the fellow students who want one for themselves or hated by the fellow students who think the whole concept is a bullying scam. “Or so it seems” lets a writer spew any kind of stem-winding nonsense for the first 200 words of a thousand-word piece, without even much thinking about those words, let alone taking responsibility for them.
And sure enough, Dames then goes on to talk about things that seem like flat refutations of his opening spiel, most notably the profusion of cultural criticism that’s existed every since the Internet came of age. But it quickly becomes obvious that the thing he’s complaining about isn’t the lack of critics – it’s the lack of critics in Armonk, and the lack of readers taking the Metro North into the city from White Plains every morning on their way to the investment firm with the day’s Arts section folded under their arm. “Once,” he writes, “critics like Trilling, Sontag, and Kael commanded the attention of a large audience and were expected to shape and challenge a still roughly homogeneous public opinion.”
Despite the obvious fact that he wasn’t quite engaged enough in struggling for legitimacy to refrain from sharing his insights, (maybe he had an idle weekend), Nicholas Dames is himself an academic, a professor at Columbia no less, and after reading his little opening outcry, this is entirely believable. But even so, it takes an academic with a particular gift for Ivory-tower innocence to believe there was ever a time when cultural Titans like Trilling, Sontag, and Kael sat at their high desks dispensing wisdom to a listening, engaged (and we can guess a couple of the other things that might be meant by that “homogeneous”) readership. There wasn’t ever such a time. Nor was there ever a time – in American history, anyway – when book-critics were serenely pondering the canon instead of chasing after things like Avengers: Age of Ultron on tight deadline for peanuts in the ephemeral pages of the Penny Press. Dames is very precisely and very cannily confusing his terms in order to push his nonsensical, contradictory old-fogie points about “debased” criticism conducted in the twilight. It’s a bit silly to talk about the death-from-irrelevance of deadline criticism in 2016, while surrounded every day by examples of it and while reviewing two collections of it for the Books section of a national magazine with a circulation of 100,000.
Silly, but hey – The Nation pays. It wilts, but it pays.
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