Friday, January 7, 2011


"Why Criticism Matters," was the headline on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Had to read that. Glad I did. The editors, right "Up Front," describe the times in which we live as "the age of opinion," and describe the ongoing critical "conversation" about books as being "lively," and even "fun," but also sadly "superficial," "contentious," and, by implication at least, taking place nowadays mostly in media other than print and under considerably less influence from what the editors call "the serious critic." They hired six of these to read Alfred Kazin's 1960 essay, "The Function of Criticism Today," and offer their own estimations of the present state of their craft. Very entertaining. I read all six essays by all six critics, in their entirety, available, ironically enough only online. I would encourage anyone with an interest in contemporary letters to go and do likewise. (That The New York Times Book Review, should have commissioned these essays, and then found space enough just to print only excerpts, was a decision no doubt made for perfectly sound economic reasons, when space was needed, for example, for a full-page, color-illustrated review by Matthew Sharpe of a new vampire novel, to say nothing of the review of a new novel, narrated by Marilyn Monroe's dog.) I even listened to the featured critics having a chat on the podcast. Lively fun, that was, too.

I won't bother to try to summarize here all that these six serious critics had to say on the subject. Better to read them for yourselves. (And I would encourage anyone really curious about the best of this sort of thing, to read, if you can find them, the full essays, referenced on the last page of the issue, in colorfully boxed pull-quotes, by such classic critics as Kazin, Lionel Trilling, and even venerable ol' Matthew Arnold, in what must be his first appearance in many a long day in the pages of The New York Times Book Review.) If much of what was written in these six new essays was familiar, as it will be to any regular reader of serious literary criticism, of today or yesteryear, that does not mean there was not something refreshing in seeing such in what is known, irreverently, in the retail-books-trade as "The New York Publishers' Review," and "The New York Times Review of Plots." I will say, I was touched by the predictably elegiac tenor nearly all these new essays had in common. If I close my eyes and listen, I can still hear the critical sighs. It would seem it is a trying time in which to earn one's living, in part or in whole, by books, at least, other people's books. I can attest to that in a humble way myself. Not to equate serious criticism of the kind described, if nowhere else in evidence in The New York Times Book Review, with what I do at work, or with what a newspaper section like The New York Times Book Review seems designed to do and can still do, which is sell books. True, nobody does that so well, or at least as easily as we like to think it was once done. Newspapers certainly can't seem to do it nowadays even as well as The Huffington Post, or Terry Gross, or -- and sigh again -- Oprah. The serious critic, the Man or Woman of Letters, though they would seem to me to be everywhere, can none of them now command the audience and attention they once may have done. Hard to think of a critic or a literary journalist ever having the influence of a a George Saintsbury, or an Edmund Wilson. It must certainly be discouraging. Were one to take up the cause of serious literary or cultural criticism full-time, where would one go, nowadays? What kind of living, outside of academia, could be made? And what institution would now, as happened to George Saintsbury in 1895, offer an independent scholar and literary journalist the equal of his professorship of rhetoric and English literature at the University of Edinburgh? What promotion, if only to the editor's desk at a major organ of opinion, let alone to the immortality of the old Saturday or Edinburgh Review, is likely, given that no such reviews now exist? Yet, it would seem that to a man and woman, all six serious critics featured in The New York Times Book Review last week, still have their hopes of the profession. One might almost say, they know their duty. It's true, you know, they do represent a great tradition, these serious critics, a tradition of fine writing, educated judgement, refinement and influence. It could be argued that it is only the possibility of that last that has been lost to these writers, but that is something, isn't it? It is election, not by right, but by effort, to that great Senatorial class of critic, the antique legislators of literature and taste, that's been denied the serious critic of today. These are not the grubbing, smoky, lazy reviewers most famously memorialized in Orwell's essay, "Confessions of a Book Reviewer." No indeed. These essayists argue for something all together nobler and higher than that. It is to something grander than a garret, or even a podium, they would rise to address us. It is the rostrum that's wanting, the last of those having long since been packed off to the museum. Alas.

And yet, as evidenced by these six essays, the serious critics keep at it. Despite, even in defiance of these supposedly less literate days, even in this noisy "age of opinion," there are still critics, serious critics, trying to be heard, and read, above and amidst the din. The question of who might still be trying to listen was not much addressed in The New York Times Book Review. Instead, the editors far more than the actual essayists, seem most concerned with the racket being made by this barefoot mob on the Internet, now heard to be trampling through the sacred halls of the Republic of Letters. Rather than celebrating, or even much noting the unprecedented expansion of "the conversation" to include both the common reader and the more casual, if less lettered amateur into the discussion, without so much as suggesting that there might be anything of interest or value in what is being written outside the fraternity, or even the new ways now available for the very first time for readers to find books, and one another, on the Internet, the whole enterprise of this issue of excerpted essays in The New York Times Book Review would seem to be about what may well be lost forever to the serious critic, namely the shaping of mass opinion and the cultural relevance, nay, the primacy of literary criticism as literature. (You will remember that last argument from college, at least anyone in the past decade or two lucky enough to have studied what is still called English in such places, for reasons that mystify me when I've tried to read the literary theory produced there since at least the nineteen eighties.)

All of the fecund new atmosphere of new forms, new audiences, new voices, new constituencies, new possibilities for publication and readership, all, all made possible only now by this new technology, the real possibility of a genuine democratization of our literature, via access to both exciting new writing and the greatest works of the past, for free, if only at a terminal in a public library, would, on the evidence of these six essays commissioned by and then only excerpted in the venerable pages of the Book Review, seem to smack the editors and serious critics in their hire as little more than impudence. Lucky then are we, are we not? that there are still a few of nature's true aristocrats to demonstrate to the rest us --the great unwashed population of readers -- why we might yet be persuaded that the refinement of critical faculties required to appreciate, at last, Thomas Pynchon, or even Gaddis -- remember Gaddis? -- is still available to us, if we would but pay attention! We might yet be saved! If only we could appreciate that criticism, when serious, Ciceronian, as finely written as this stuff printed -- in part -- in the newspaper, or still occasionally on the finer stuff of a little college affiliated magazine, still has so very much to teach us. As I say, if only we were listening!

But then, some of us still are. I don't mean to be disrespectful to the good writers assigned this topic by the good editors of The New York Times Book Review. I've actually read two of them before, myself, though only the literary criticism of the one and a very good novel by the other. Admittedly, I work a low sort of job in the same trade, as it were, but that's still a kind of influence, ain't it? It seems I've only a few dozen regular readers -- and that only if one counts the ones who only look at the pictures -- of my little squibs here. I can't then be said, by any measure, to exert the kind of influence that's missed, but in my humble way I'll make what contribution I can to the cause and suggest serious readers should read more of the serious critics.

Matthew Arnold, for instance, or Edmund Wilson, or even dear old George Saintsbury. Some of that's still available in the books we sell, and a goodly bit of it is available, for free, as I mentioned, online, and some of it, we can even reprint for you on the Espresso Book Machine at the bookstore where I work. That last in fact is a marvelous option that I've exercised frequently in the past year to get books of criticism written not only by Saintsbury, but also by critics like Andrew Lang, Austin Dobson, Richard Dowling... oh, all sorts of once quite famous, and influential fellows, all long dead now, it's true. Some barely remembered, quite a few completely unknown to me, until I came across their names in the introductions to writers like Balzac and so on, in lovely old editions I bought used, of the great English and French novelists, and old books of poetry and essays I could never find until I had them reprinted for me. Now, if you've never heard of any of these gentlemen I mention either, you needn't be embarrassed. As I've said, I didn't know most of them until pretty recently myself.

Trust me though, they were all of 'em, serious critics. Wish more people would read 'em.


  1. Thanks for drawing my attention to this. Now please provide the time to read them all! OK back to figuring out my Okefenokee Swamp biotope fauna.

  2. Didn't see a possum, but what about the alligator?