I often wonder about the state of literary criticism and if anyone other than academics or literati read the critic’s discourse anymore. In these times of Amazon, Goodreads and blogs where we all shed our opinions and praise or denounce texts or their writers, of what value is the critic?
In an interview with literary critic Daniel Mendelsohn conducted by Bookforum, Mendelsohn says:
If you could only “like” things the world would just look like Facebook. It’s puerile, it’s ridiculous. But then so is the whole negative/positive divide in the first place. Probably 99% of reviews should be mixed reviews, because no book is perfect. This is the pernicious inheritance of Amazon; the rankings, the thumbs up, thumbs down. That’s not what criticism is. It’s not intellectually useful, it’s a consumerist approach: should I buy it or should I not buy it? Well, I don’t give a fuck if you buy it or not. If you don’t read Aeschylus I guarantee you it’s not gonna hurt Aeschylus; it’s certainly not why I’m talking to you about Aeschylus. So I think this whole debate about the critic’s role, about the virtues of negative and positive reviewing, is very interesting and has been very fruitful. I do not think that the fact that because everyone can suddenly say what they think about books and publish their thoughts online as Amazon reviews or whatever problematizes the activity of people like me. I don’t think it’s a problem because what I do is a very specialized activity that not a lot of people can do. Nor are they mutually exclusive. You can have people ranking stuff on Amazon—that doesn’t make me obsolete.
And on elaborating on what criticism is, Mendelsohn tells us why criticism is still useful:
You’re deciding what’s good and what’s not good; I can’t think of anything more crucial, more moral, than that. The good critic should instruct through his or her judgments. In a lot of this recent debate about the role of negative reviews, I kept thinking to myself: Where’s the critic as teacher? Where’s the critic as a person who, as I see it, intervenes in a meaningful way between a work and a public? And to abdicate the negative review is like abdicating half of your brain.
Being critical means having judgments about things, and having a judgment means using appropriate standards. But you approach everything with curiosity. People who don’t know anything about what working critics do have this idea—particularly if you go against a perceived idea about something—that you set out wanting to do a “take-down” of something. It’s never the case, in my experience. Everything I review I’m genuinely curious about.
What you’re writing about is partly the story of the reception. And the point is not to agree with the critic, but to be stimulated into a point of view on your own.
There we have it in a nutshell: criticism is useful because it stimulates us to establish our own point of view about the subject in question. If curiosity and objectivity are not good enough reason for anyone interested in an informed analysis of a text of literature (or a work of art or a performance…) then I don’t know what is.
What’s your take on literary criticism?
(For those interested in the full interview click here.)