Critics Criticised On Criticising Criticism #2, Sam Anderson

The second of our critical essays from the NYT, and at the start I think I’m just reading the first again. This is the argument:

  • What with the advent of Google, blogs, tweets, iPhones and Facebook, people can’t sustain their attention on anything anymore, but we shouldn’t necessary see this as the “Death of Literature”. The critic’s just got to write “with more energy, more art, more conviction, more excitement”, if they’re going to get anyone to pay the slightest attention.
  • The contemporary critic must be “an evangelist” for literature.
  • Reading makes you feel happy.
  • “The critic needs, above all else, to write well … The best way to establish critical authority is to demonstrate, in your own prose, a vitality at least equivalent to that of the book you’re writing about. There are other ways to do it, but that’s the most immediately convincing … Book criticism, done well, is an art of its own, with its own noble canon and creative challenges and satisfaction … it’s one of the essential literary arts, a singular genre in which a lot of great writers have done their best work.”

And there I am wondering if they weren’t all given the commission: write 1000 words on why good prose will attract readers back to the NYT.

But the rest of the article is at least a bit more interesting:

  • Book criticism isn’t just for failed writers.
  • Criticism involves writing about writing, which is “exponentially exciting”. [ed. I find it merely “geometrically exciting”.] Or, to put it more clearly, “Our work is a kind of ground zero of textuality, in which one text converges on another text to create a third, hybrid, ultratext.”
  • The best criticism “imaginatively intermingle[s] with its source text.”
  • Thomas Carlyle [a man, be it said, whose major fictional work is possibly the most intertextual text ever committed to paper] warned against this in 1831, but I think he was wrong. Isn’t Ulysses after all just a review of the Odyssey? [ed. Yes, I suppose it is, since that’s the way you’ve chosen to define “review”].
  • A critic’s job is to make books and authors speak to each other. [ed. Rather, I suspect, in the manner of a marriage guidance counsellor.]
  • Critics redefine and change writers.
  • We are players in the game too, not just the referees. [ed. I’d always seen you more as linesmen].
  • Critics are artists just as much as writers.

Well yes, like Roiphe, I think he protests too much.

I also like to think of literature of as a game; it’s just that, in my version, the critic is the kid whom no one likes and whom you don’t allow to play, so he goes off somewhere else and invents his own game – very much based on yours – which he plays all by himself.

The main thrust of his idea is expressed in this paragraph:

We [Critics] add our own idiosyncratic life experiences and opinions and modes of expression — and in doing so, fundamentally change the texts themselves. Balzac’s “Sarrasine” is a new book, or set of books, now that Barthes has written “S/Z.”  “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is radically redefined by Hugh Kenner’s “Dublin’s Joyce.” Updike’s career is a different thing in the wake of Nicholson Baker’s “U and I.” Catullus is a different poet after Anne Carson’s “Nox.”

To which there seem a variety of replies (which I offer randomly and, as always, with varying conviction):

  • Everyone “add[s their] own idiosyncratic life experiences and opinions” to texts, and – apparently therefore – “fundamentally change[s] the texts themselves” whenever they read them. This is in all probability why we end up disagreeing about literature. The special achievement of the critic seems to be that he’s written a book [review] about his experience.
  • In so far as I have never read any of the critical books here mentioned, in what way have these texts been changed for me? Can I no longer read them as before, because your views have changed?
  • “Catullus is a different poet after Anne Carson’s “Nox.” – Has Catullus actually changed then, because my perception of him has changed? – He has changed “for me”, perhaps. – Just as I’d be likely to read Catullus differently if I’d just ended a relationship with a particularly capricious girl. (Or perhaps I don’t see any relationship between Anne Carson’s Nox and Catullus).
  • Is the only achievement of the critic, to interpose his own views between you and the text you’re reading? – Perhaps you’d like to keep your own idiosyncratic views, unfiltered through his tedious interpretation.
  • To what extent does criticism really change our relationship with texts? – I suspect, very little; I suspect we read them pretty much just as we did before; it’s just, every now and then, we read something and think, Oh yes, that’s just the kind of thing that critic pointed out in that book. – Is it “fundamentally” you change texts, or “superficially”?
  • Does what you’re really saying amount to anything more than, “if you liked X, you’ll like Y” (no matter the elegance of the argument you couch it in)? – Because let’s face it, you’re a book reviewer; and as a book reviewer you know you’ve always got to start a book review by mentioning something outside the text that the text brought back to mind.
  • In what way does this form of literary criticism differ from, say, biblical exegesis? Is it merely that, instead of any longer trying to interpret the Word of God through texts so as to find the way you should best lead your life and understand the world, you have moved on to trying to discover through texts something that “might at least be of interest to someone and divert their attention for a moment or two”? – Do you find you look down on medieval scholaticism?

I’ll think of some more.

4 thoughts on “Critics Criticised On Criticising Criticism #2, Sam Anderson

  1. The criticism which “imaginatively intermingle[s] with its source text” is the Bonnefoy-type stuff which I’m not keen on. For me at least it makes the stuff even harder to understand. More straightforward criticism has increased my appreciation and understanding of literature. Old hat even when I first read it at school 40 years ago, but Bradley’s ‘Shakespearean Tragedy’ opened a lot of doors for me.

  2. Yes, what we need is good old-fashioned criticism, like we had in the Empire (and like they still have at public school); – criticism with words like “onomatopoea” and “asyndeton” in it, and stuff like “chiasmus” and “transferred epithet”.

  3. Quite. Beatings and compulsory games wouldn’t go amiss, either. Most literary critics would benefit from a sound thrashing, though a game of lacrosse would probably be a step too far.

  4. Good criticism often makes me want to read the book or see the exhibition or watch the film. Gore Vidal’s was the first criticism I read that made me not particularly bothered whether I knew the work he’d criticised.

    It’s undoubtedly entertaining stuff at times but often it (errm ) seems an excuse for Vidal to settle old scores.

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