Critics Criticised on Criticising Criticism: #1 Katie Roiphe

The Reading Experience (which, coming from the Home Counties, I always mispronounce as “The Reading Experience” [ed. I’m not sure this joke works well when written down]) points me to a series of articles in The New York Times Review of Books (a fabled journal I’ve never read), in which critics are to be found criticising the practice of criticism. Naturally, The Reading Experience being The Reading Experience, it’s not entirely happy with the things they have to say.

Anyway, I thought we’d have a look at some of the arguments, and I thought we’d start with Katie Roiphe (disclosure: I’ve never heard of her).

This appears to be her argument (for those who don’t have time or patience to read the article):

  • Some people say that literature, literary criticism and even civilisation is doomed because society is becoming increasingly philistine; but this is just something made up by critics.
  • Being a critic myself and therefore assuming the vast cultural wasteland that the world is today – what with the Internet and iPhones and Facebook and television and the fact that newspapers don’t pay much any more for book reviews – it seems to me that, in order to survive, the critic needs “to write well”.
  • The difference between the “paid critic” and the “enterprising amateur” is that the paid critic writes more beautifully – except in those cases where she doesn’t. The paid critic constructs “well-formed sentences” full of “graceful rhetoric”, while the enterprising amateur “shouts anonymously”.
  • Literary criticism should be raised to the level of an art-form.
  • The purpose of literary criticism is to persuade students to read Tolstoy. Tolstoy will certainly outlast the iPad.

You may feel, from the foregoing, that I find Roiphe’s arguments at times perplexing. This sentence, for instance:

We could view the sight of a well-dressed businessman in a houndstooth suit reading Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story” or David Mitchell’s “Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” on an iPad as he waits in the beige antechamber of the doctor’s office as a sign not of the death of the book, but of the irrepressibility of literature.

must contain cultural references I don’t appreciate; because I really don’t understand why I’d ever consider the sight of a man reading a book as “a sign … of the death of the book”. – Not to approach the article in too psycho-analytical a manner, but I do sense Roiphe has issues with technology.

The curious core of Roiphe’s argument is this: that the skill of the critic is purely rhetorical: – it is the ability of the critic to persuade people to her own opinion via well-honed sentences that marks her off from the myriad ragtag din of democratic jawing you find on the internet. This is, of course, an enormously common opinion among literary critics. at least to judge by their work – though one that’s oddly very infrequently voiced, seeing that it lays the critic open to the simple attack: – the fact that you can use your eloquence to persuade someone of something doesn’t establish in any way its validity or authority.

Her obviation of the question of objective truth in literary criticism makes me wonder if this isn’t what she actually believes: that any appreciation of a text is purely subjective; – and her consequent fear that the Amazon reviewer’s opinion is in fact equally as valid as her own, which leads her to seek some other criterion to judge literature, which is – apparently – to judge criticism in exactly the same terms that one judges literature, thus creating an endlessly circular argument in which one’s opinion is always right.

Or something … I’ve got bored now, distracted as I am by all the other fascinating things with which this Internet desert is filled…


Some Roiphe rhetoric, as an example of how to argue for the worth of a text:

The good critic: – “writes gracefully [and] stylishly”, is “irreplaceable” and can “transcend”; “concentrates on the excellent sentence”; “writes on a different level [and] pay[s] attention to elements of style”, becomes “the ideal reader and in doing so proves the ideal reader exists”.

The bad critic: – “clamor[s] for attention” in his “bitter misspelled rages”, “spew[s] his fawning ungrammatical love … into the ether”, “shout[s] anonymously” and “mangles sentences in an effort to berate or praise”.

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8 thoughts on “Critics Criticised on Criticising Criticism: #1 Katie Roiphe

  1. I suppose it depends on what type of criticism she’s on about (really should read the article, but cba). Early on I read Enid Starkie’s ‘Baudelaire’ with pleasure, and found out a lot about B and his poetry. Around the same time I read Bonnefoy’s ‘Rimbaud’ and finished it feeling like I knew less about R than when I started. There was hardly a date or proper bit of criticism in the whole thing. Enid’s detached prose and clear expression or Yves’ stylish impressionistic panegyric? I wonder which one Roiphe would prefer?

  2. One might expect – you wouldn’t, but one might – that, given how the forumistas go on and on about the wondrous qualities of the prose of the professional critic, the New York Times Book Review is full of good writing. But no. No.

    However, I have to admit that Roiphe has me pretty well pegged. Mangling, shouting, spewing rage. I don’t care about attention so much. She must mean someone else there.

    I’m just ignorant about iPads and so on, but I wonder where, exactly, I have to be standing or sitting to identify the novel that the guy in the waiting room is reading. Or does the cover of the book appear on the back of the iPad? That would be neat.

  3. I don’t expect any journalism to be well-written. In fact, if you ask me, journalism is far more to blame for any conditioning in style than creative writing courses. No one has conspired more to end the usage of the semi-colon than journalists; no one has put in more effort to promote the one-sentence paragraph.

    I too can barely control my emotions when writing about literature on the web.

    I like the idea of the book cover appearing on the iPad. Perhaps it could have ePages as well which you turned just like normal pages.

    MM – I believe she’s on about the kind of criticism that promotes books – and the reading of Tolstoy; that separates the wheat from the chaff. In other words, opinion-forming, art-defining criticism.

  4. ‘Reading Experience’ – works in Pennsylvania here in the States as well. Not that I’m from there.

    One of my philosophy professors quoth: “Opinions are like assholes; everybody’s got one.”

  5. Hi Jim H

    Yes, I should have thought that every English town has its US counterpart. – “Reading, Pennsylvania” certainly has the ring of truth about it.

  6. Reading it through again, I think I give Roiphe too much credit. She does appear to mean that quite literally that the only thing a critic needs to do is write well – all other matters of interpretation will somehow naturally follow from this:

    Now, maybe more than ever, in a cultural desert characterized by the vast, glimmering territory of the Internet, it is important for the critic to write gracefully. If she is going to separate excellent books from those merely posing as excellent, the brilliant from the flashy, the real talent from the hyped — if she is going to ferret out what is lazy and merely fashionable, if she is going to hold writers to the standards they have set for themselves in their best work, if she is going to be the ideal reader and in so doing prove that the ideal reader exists — then the critic has one important function: to write well … More than ever, critical authority comes from the power of the critic’s prose, the force and clarity of her language; it is in the art of writing itself that information and knowledge are carried, in the sentences themselves that literature is preserved. The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.

    OK, though, let’s try and say something in her favour (though I don’t think she really argues the following – or perhaps it’s just that, in the inarticulacy of her concentration on the beautitful sentence, she can’t get it out).

    I was reminded of one of my tutors at university (n.b. I didn’t study Eng Lit) who said one day – a propos of something or other – that he never trusted a reviewer who couldn’t write well.

    At the time I remember thinking, well, fair enough – I don’t suppose I do either. Someone who has style is more likely also to be able to appreciate style. It’s not maybe something which necessarily follows; but in general there’s probably some correlation. (They’ve probably been to the same schools, read the same books etc).

    But increasingly I’ve become sceptical – perhaps mainly because a lot of people these days seem capable of writing well (well enough, at least) and still having remarkably little judgment. Let’s just say then that writing badly is something that would put me on my guard; but writing well is hardly going to make me relax my guard much.

    Still, it’s remarkable how convinced people are by an appealing aesthetic argument, rather than a valid one. Consider, for instance, the whole of Continental philosophy.

  7. To persist in being fair to Roiphe, her strong claim for the importance to a critic – to a critic’s readers, eh, to those participants in the critic’s dialogue – of writing “well” is the apodosis of a conditional string of hypotheses: if the critic is to be unswayed by fashion, to hold writers to their own standards of artistic integrity, to be a reader useful to other readers, then she or he also has to write “well”.

    As you say, the danger is when the cart is before the horse – or is entirely unhorsed – : a critic with a pretty style – an engaging, attractive style – who says foolish, inaccurate, dishonest, or pointlessly malicious things.

    I do think that the quality of ‘eye‘ in a reader – and as different from qualities of ‘hand’, of writerly style – , would be enabled by the same capacity in a fine ‘hand’. Not that your skepticism is untoward, but rather, rather than a greater allowance for a strong, attractive style, that there would be more of that skepticism directed quickly towards an infelicitous stream of words.

  8. Reading, PA was the birthplace of Wallace Stevens and John Updike – no insignificant reading experiences, for me, anyway.

    Jim, you (or your professor) elide the conclusion of that analogy: ‘Opinions are like assholes: everybody’s got one, and they all stink – except mine [fiendish cackle].’

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