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”.