Daniel Mendelsohn on Criticism

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:

Daniel Mendelsohn
Courtesy of danielmandelsohn.com

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.)


28 thoughts on “Daniel Mendelsohn on Criticism

  1. Laurel, your point about an author’s perspective being very different from that of a critic is important. I do think that an author has his/her own agenda and critics have their own. What’s interesting is seeing where these two meet. It creates an interesting dance/conversation between the two.

    And Samir, that’s my answer to what a critic has to offer. Similar to the discussion of an interesting book group, a good critic can lead you to think more deeply about a work of art. And sometimes, it can open an entire world for the reader that had remained unseen. I have an undergrad in engineering, and I didn’t go back for my MFA until I was 40. I can’t tell you how I enjoyed my lit classes. Really looking at literature in depth with the addition of historical perspective really opened my eyes to how much I had been missing in my reading until then. My classes in Joyce, Faulkner, and Benjamin, for example, helped me fall in love with these writers. Benjamin’s Arcades Project inspired me to create a mini “archades project” for my class seminar paper. At 100+ pages, it ended up taking over my life, but I loved every minute of it,

    Maybe everyone doesn’t feel this way. Maybe they just want to be entertained, and that’s OK. But I do believe that people, by nature, enjoy thinking. Thinking is pleasurable. And a critic’s best work should help that thinking along its merry way.

    1. Thanks Jilanne for the informative contributions. Authors and critics definitely have their own separate agendas. I suppose a key element to truly enjoy what a critic has to offer is an equal interest in the subject matter by the reader. If the reader is just as interested in what the critic has taken the time and energy to analyze and discuss, then the criticism is both informative and stimulating for that reader.

      And about your question of editors below – the answer is ‘yes’. Most editors do approach works with doubt and hesitation creating a further overwhelming barrier to cross before even wowing them with a piece of potential writing that *may* be published.

  2. Like Jilane, the lit criticism essays I penned for Pop Matters for three years were essentially exercises in creative non-fiction that explored my own life as much as the work(s) I was exploring in the context of the pieces (most of them were 3,000 words or more). I hate capsule reviews such as Publishers Weekly offers or any form of either/or “thumbs up, thumbs down” recommendations, they’re useless and are based on the reviewer’s personal tastes and opinions. The only good literary critique, in my opinion, is of a uniquely personal persuasion because books challenge (or should challenge) our notions about many things.

    1. Rodger, I’m yet to read your array of essays (I do have the link bookmarked) as I thoroughly enjoy the style of your writing and your critical eye. I can’t recall the title of the two I’ve read but you had posted snippets of them in the past on your former blog with links to Pop Matters for the full versions. They were certainly informative.

      In light of this, yes I do see the sense of what your’re saying. If I do want an informed review about a book then a good critic’s assessment is certainly as asset (although some years ago Amazon reviews sufficed for me). Captioned reviews or thumbs up/down offer no insight whatsoever and are useless.

      But my curiosity is partially from how the importance of what good critics do can be accessed by mass consumers and made approachable for them. If literati only think that these people have to want this information thus seeking it out, then I’m afraid the drivel being published and read in the mass market is going to continue to get worse at an exponential rate, doing literature a serious disservice.

      1. Honestly, Samir, I rarely read mass market fiction, although some of Roberto Bolano’s novels have cracked the New York Times Bestseller List, but that would be a rare exception.

  3. I am especially a fan of thorough academic criticism and explication, as the academics are the ones driving the important effort to identify and categorize what will become the classical work of the future. Some smart guy or gal had to figure out that Shakespeare had remarkable talent and begin the conversation about his work that we continue today. I was lucky to talk to the writer Dagoberto Gilb about his work, and after I made the case that his novel The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuna has this awesome mathematical structure, very balanced between front and back, like a Mona Lisa of words, he said quite thoughtfully, “That’s really interesting, and I also don’t know if I can look at it that way.” And after thinking about it, I agreed that he couldn’t and shouldn’t look at it that way, because so doing would alter his inspiration. To me, however close a careful critic can get to being objective about a piece of work, the writer by default has to be degrees more subjective. So hooray for the critics, and I think as part of this creative community, we also all take our turn being writer, reader, critic, editor, whatever the case may be. Thanks for starting this interesting dialogue.

    1. Laurel, I was waiting for a fan f criticism to show up 😉
      Critics certainly have their place in the structure of the Arts. They also have the time and the fortune to look into things that others don’t see. After all, a writer writes and analyzes his work to improve it, mastering the craft as he/she moves along in the river of time. A writer is not necessarily going to explore his own subconscience or that of his characters (or their actions) in order to dissect and explain the overall makeup of their craft. And the writer shouldn’t do this or even bother about it. A writer should just write the absolutely best piece of writing they can at that moment.

      The critics, on the other hand, can do the dirty work if they so choose. They can offer all kinds of explanations and theories as to this or that, thus creating a system of analysis to help understand the inner workings of art. This is a wonderful contribution to human knowledge and art itself. I can see why it’s essential in Academia.

      I wonder though, of what value you think criticism has for the mass consumer? (I ask this out of curiosity and because you’re a fan of criticism.)

      1. Hi Samir. To me, criticism for the mass consumer is absolutely essential, as it offers an opportunity to become informed and develop more sophisticated tastes. I’m hungry at the moment, so a food example comes to mind. I might grow up knowing only fast food restaurants and thinking that a Big Mac is the highest and most awesome version of food there is. And a Big Mac is pretty dang good. But if someone takes the time to show me how to eat sushi, after a little time spent acquiring a more refined taste, I might have to admit that while Big Macs will always have their appeal (for example, one sounds great right about now), more often I’m going to prefer the lighter, more eloquent and ultimately healthier Japanese cuisine. My parents were not educated, so most of the reading I did as a child was optional and not guided. Hence I read: all of the jokes in Reader’s Digest magazines, comic books, mysteries for young adults and then semi-steamy sci-fi romancy stuff with lots of dragons in it. Finally, thankfully, my high school English teacher gave me a copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I had no prior sense that language could be so beautiful or inspire so much emotion. From that point forward I understood not only that truly great literature existed but that I could seek it out, and I turned to the academics and the critics to help guide my search. So finishing up this long answer so I can go grab some sushi, because a Big Mac just won’t do after recollections of Gawain, I think the role of critics is to help keep us from floundering on our own until we get our literary legs. Not everyone will agree to try sushi or Gawain, but they should most definitely have the option. Are all critics fantastic at it? Well, no, unfortunately, they’re human like the rest of us and some are less experienced, etc. But I will continue to applaud the importance of their role and be grateful for the truly excellent ones. Thanks for the question, Samir! This last blog of yours has prompted some excellent exchanges.

        1. Laurel, great explanation here – thank you. I had a similar childhood background regarding parents and reading habits until I decided to explore literary books after high school but certainly not because of university where I studied mathematics. The only difference is that I didn’t look to critics but to reviews of ordinary readers. I learned what to look for in those and what to ignore. Of course, I did some research as to what constitutes a literary book, what I ‘should’ read if I were interested in say Russian literature etc and this information is naturally due to the generations of academics and critics that went before…
          I do read criticism more often but I only when the critic is objective and persuading enough of his argument.

          It has been indeed a stimulating post especially since I came into it with curiosity on the subject. Enjoy the sushi 😉

  4. I like his line about criticism arising from genuine curiosity. When we’re choosing subjects to write about for our blogs it’s always from a place of curiosity – even when it’s a rant about moronic politicians or insipid music. Certainly there’s a massive difference between that and misspelled vitriol in all caps about the latest One Direction album.

    1. Graham, it resonated with me too. After all, what could be a more beautiful start to a process than curiosity? I think Mendelsohn has a genuine approach to his subject matters since this is the basis of his inquires.

  5. Lesson learned: In 2013 I will add the section ” What I didn’t like” to my reviews. Of the many points you raised, I will remember most is: “not every book is perfect.” Learn to be critical and in my case..” dare” to be critical!

    1. Nancy, I find the ‘What I didn’t like’ in my reviews to be most important because they make me focus “critically” on aspects of a work of art and the reasons they don’t resonate with me. Of course, this is far from what a critic does but since I’m not a critic… I suppose I can do what I love to do too, right? 😉

      I use to shy away from being ‘negative’ about someone else’s work because who am I to judge? But I’m the one who has a right to my opinion and considering I took the time to engage with a piece, I certainly have the right to express my opinion provided I validate my reasons. It’s certainly this validation that should provide the artist with feedback as well, and any artist that can’t handle feedback should seriously consider a different occupation.

  6. Oh, and I love the last paragraph of the interview:

    I shocked some French interviewer once by saying that I think my critical essays are just as personal as my memoiristic writings; he’d asked me about my memoir, which has all this stuff in it about my gay life and picking up boys on Eighth Avenue, and whether it made me uncomfortable to expose my private life. But why should that make me more uncomfortable than exposing my thinking would? It’s just as intimate. I think it’s a kind of cultural prejudice that one’s emotional life is the greater intimacy. I’m just as self-revealing when I write criticism. It’s very autobiographical; it’s a record of my thinking. Look, I’m not God. Criticism is not omniscient. It’s subjective. And yet the critic has to be a person whose subjectivity speaks sufficiently to a sufficient number of people that you are, hopefully, worth reading.

    1. I thought it ‘gold’ too. Writing should always be an extension of oneself (exempting journalism) and what more proof than to say that his criticism isn’t a separate entity from his personal life. Especially since both deal with ‘truth’ from his perspective, one being artistic truth and the other, personal values truth. I suppose people who don’t write creatively will never understand how much of a writer goes into his work and how torturous it is to bare ones most inner thoughts and feelings out unto the material. It’s as intimate as intimate can be.

      1. Yes! And I think that’s why I enjoy the blogging world. We are being intimate with each other in a way that often doesn’t happen with in person conversations. Too often my face-to-face conversations with friends involve scheduling playdates, discourses on how 9 year old boys create a certain fuggy environment when they don’t shower, and the other usual mundane topics of daily living. :o)

  7. I think “criticism” differs from a “review” in that the former indicates that one is analyzing a work based on certain criteria, often according to “certain standards” set forth by an industry. The latter signifies that an opinion is based on taste. Yes, you can argue that taste always factors into a critique or review, but I think the “critique” is much more strongly based in compare/contrast, intertextuality, and historical perspective. A critique places an emphasis on context: where does this piece of literature/art stand within the context of others of its kind? To me, that is the major difference between the two.

    I could never write a critique of a dance performance. I can only give my impressions and a “like” or “dislike.” I am only vaguely aware of dance terminology. For literature, even though I have an MFA in creative writing with a concentration in literary theory, I would never presume to be as knowledgeable about literature (the literary canon) as Mandelsohn.

    With all of the thumbs-upping on so many “review” sites, i think people tend to consider all of the opinions equal “criticism.” But to me, education or expertise in an area should never be disregarded or considered unimportant, Just because someone has an opinion, it doesn’t make them an expert in the field. I am not egalitarian when it comes to opinion. For example, if I had medical symptoms that concerned me, I wouldn’t get a diagnosis or second opinion from my next door neighbor. I would go to an expert. Similarly, literary criticism falls under the realm of those who have a certain amount of education in literary theory, who are well read, and who take the time to put what they’re reading into context.

    My own reviews of books are just that, reviews. They are not literary criticism. People who have the same taste in a certain topic will more than likely enjoy a book that I’ve enjoyed. However, given my educational background, I will never suffer through a poorly written book, so you won’t find me recommending 50 Shades of Grey. Just go read Anais if you want something steamy and fairly well written. But that just exemplifies the current “problem” with literature. Quite a few people rendering opinions are not “well read.” They don’t know what’s been done before. They don’t know how the past has already made an imprint on the present. That’s why we have professional literary critics. We look to these experts for context, for knowledge, for understanding, for an “educated” opinion–for insights to inform our own reading. Not for a thumbs up or thumbs down.

    With that said, it’s also important to recognize that all professional criticism comes from a human being, so every critique can be refuted. I’ll get off my high horse now. :I think I’ve beaten it to death. o)

    1. Great points.

      *Informed* opinions are not *superior* opinions; “superior” presupposes “inferior,” and to call someone’s thoughts on something inferior is, in my humble opinion, elitist and denigrating, maybe that’s more to my point. I also think considering an “opinion” as based on “taste” also dismissive of the opinion and the issuer of said opinion. I think there are many smart individuals out there who are not “officially lettered” who use more than mere “taste” to formulate an opinion. They use inherent smarts and analysis that can be every bit as penetrating and soul searching and intellectually stimulating as any Ph.D.–but in their own way. Hitting on, exploring, and/or dissecting elements in much the same way, but with shorter words. Do they need to know the entire history of world literature? I would venture to say: not necessarily. And it’s not so much that every opinion is weighed the same…as stated, e.g., a doctor’s opinion carries far more weight in medical issues than mine. I’m saying the fine line is that don’t necessarily discount any opinion in and of itself as useless, because they can’t discourse on “critical thinking.” BUT…opinions can be informed and uninformed. And (I’ve seen it) the highfalutin academic CAN get too wrapped up in his or her own words and thought processes and book learnin’ to see the forest for the trees…maybe even see something that might not even BE there (I’ve heard authors discuss how critics analyzed things that were not intended nor even in the object of their “review”). There are just so many variables, not the least of which IS attitude and ego, but those are obvious and need not be discussed here.

      I’m not disagreeing with the perfect critic being thought-provoking, analytical, enlightening, etc., I’m saying I don’t see much of that in actual practice. Granted, I don’t consider myself all that well read and college lit was many moons ago, but in the hit-and-miss “critiques” I’ve come across, I’ve seem more bashing than “I wonder if this was what the author was trying to do” kind of thing. I’ve seen personal attacks on authors, just short of outright name calling. Just because you can tear somebody apart does not mean you do it. But I’m one data point, and but a small one. No, Amazon reviews are not academic criticisms, but I also don’t think any one of those writing them–nor Amazon themselves–thinks for second they are high, literary analysis (but, again, I could be wrong!). I think those who write them feel it’s their OPINION, and those who read them feel the same. Of course a Ph.D. is gonna bleed red all over them, that’s the nature of elevated learning–learning the heck out of something.

      But to also think there’s some kind of ongoing battle between Amazon opinions and the critical literati…?

      Thanks for this discussion! Very enlightening and it forced me to put into words something I’ve thought about off and on for quite some time. :-] Namaste to all.

      1. Hmmm. Thinking here. I do think taste evolves with education and understanding, to a certain extent. My taste in literature has changed over the years. That’s not to say I’ve gotten more intelligent. I don’t confuse intelligence with education. It’s changed because I’ve changed as a result of my education and experience, the two being inseparable companions. My taste in interior decorating has evolved as well, but not by much–a sore point between me (a Midwesterner who decorates with piles of books) and my husband (a man who worships at the altar of Dwell magazine).

        I do think that literary mud-slinging is NOT criticism. It is someone aiming to settle a score with a pen OR to created a fuss that will sell more papers/magazine.

        I don’t think formal education necessarily creates critical thinkers. Far from it. I do think that an education, whether formal and completed inside the hallowed halls of some institution or informal and completed in the outside world, helps provide a broad base of knowledge on which to form opinions. So we agree about “informed” opinions.

        I don’t think there is a war between the critical literati and Amazon opinions. There are thoughtful Amazon opinions that are helpful and others that are not so thoughtful or helpful. I just think Mendelsohn mentioned Amazon and FB as easy examples of the “like” and “thumbs up” sort of criticism that is nowhere near the realm of analysis.

        Thanks, fpdorchak, for your opinion and analysis.

        Thanks, Samir, for raising this topic! It’s interesting that your readers feel so passionately about it. :o)

    2. Jilanne, I love your opening paragraph and how well you explain the difference between reviews and literary criticism. I certainly think critics have a place in the Arts and their discourse is necessary (as you can see below in my response to fpdorchak), I just wish they’d keep reviews and criticism separate from each other.

      I also don’t like that most critics often seem to approach any piece of work with hesitation and doubt, already indicating that nothing will measure up to the standards they hold so dear. If a subject is approached in this manner, it not only has to convince the critic of its merits but it first needs to eliminate the critic’s fear of disappointment. Writers don’t write with the intention of doing this… critics need to be more objective and open-minded. I can’t help but feel that this attitude has created a rift between consumers of literature and critics, since no one seeking pleasure or information (consumer) is interested in another persons ego (critic).

      Critics have a lot to offer us but I think they need to repair the damage done to their image and reach out to the readership to help enlighten us and improve the overall standard of literature in the mass market. As long as they keep their noses stuck up or think they are intellectually superior, they not only alienate readers further away from them but they do literature, or better to say the Arts in general, a shocking diservice. And sadly, more people will read 50 Shades of Grey rather the Anaïs Nin.

      Any critic… actually any human being worth his two cents should remember that humility is more powerful than arrogance.

      1. Definitely. I do think that Mendelsohn is more in tune with pop culture than many critics who tend to dismiss pop culture as a necessary evil. Shakespeare was pop culture once upon a time.

        Your comment about overcoming initial hesitation and doubt is interesting. I haven’t thought about that before, and I think it’s true. It leads me to wonder if editors also take that position when an unsolicited manuscript comes in. Hmmm.

  8. Wow, this hits a nerve in me. While I basically agree with the above, that criticism *can* stimulate points of view, I find critics and their efforts a mixed bag. *Reviewing* works and critiquing are not necessarily the same thing. Neither is in-depth analysis. Critics can be useful as long as they do not become “a skeptic of the arts.”

    Is it really a need to “stimulate” other people’s thoughts or POVs or something else—something not so tritely nor easily even to be labeled as “arrogance” or “ego.” It seems—to me—that most of what *I’ve* seen, having “critic” applied to it, involves ripping apart movies or literature. Maybe I’m not reading the “right” publications, but that’s usually what I see when I see “critic” and “literature” or “movie” in the same breath.

    It’s part of Human Nature to analyze and categorize (so I find the whole “puerile argument” moot and a bit arrogant, partly because critics do not find Amazon readers and commenters professional critics; and who says that Thumbs up/down are not useful—people ARE buying based on that!? And really, when it comes right down to it, you’re saying YOUR opinion is not only better than another’s, but far superior; everyone is entitled to their own opinion; when you start regulating that you get on dangerous ground), but I do get tired of “reviewers”/critics ripping apart other people’s works. One person’s trash is another’s treasure. Everyone has different likes and dislikes, and as long as critics do not become skeptics, than I suppose, theoretically, that can be a good thing. But, in my experience, it’s becoming more and more quite like someone labeling themselves a “skeptic.” “Critics” seem to be going into the “review” ready to rip and tear. Find fault. This is skeptical behavior. The definition of “skeptic” does not imply an open mind (e.g., one who employs a doubting attitude; you can’t be open minded with a doubting *attitude*). If you’re intentionally looking to rip something a “new one,” that is not being open minded, its not being *useful*. And from what I’ve seen of critics outside academia, I see a ripping of material, not an open-minded analytical treatise, as one should expect from a “critical analysis” of works. I also find a thinly veiled anger/attitude in Mr. Mendelsohn’s words that [might] belie some of his *words*. What difference does it make if there are other “posers” out there in “his field”? Why should he behave angrily toward them with expletives thrown in their direction? This, in my most humble of opinions.

    1. This has also been my aversion to critics and criticism in publications and journals… there’s always a section in a critique that I do like which is an honest dissection and analysis of the subject, then there’s the thread holding it all together which is 9 times out of 10 that critic’s dislike and disapproval of why the work doesn’t measure up to a certain (unknown but to a few) standard. This later part says nothing to me. I’m not interested in someone else’s standard or some standard assigned by an institute or what not.

      I’m interested in my standard. I read. I study. I learn. I write. I think. I therefore have my own standards to which I measure art. If I can explain why I like it or don’t like it, then I have a right to this opinion contrary to what someone else thinks. I feel that critics want to deprive us of this base right because we are not in their circle and do not use their system of analysis, their lingo and their scales of standards. It becomes an us and them issue. The subject of art itself is suddenly shifted to the background. Even amongst themselves, critics squabble in debates when they disagree with one another to the point where I think it becomes a contest of whose vocabulary is the more impressive and whose thoughts can reach newer abstract levels. Again, the subject itself is lost.

      Then there’s that little part in a critique that I do like. It does provide insight and new information that make me appreciate the work more (or less). This is where I think criticism should focus on and nothing else. Someone with the capability of providing objective analytical judgement only. They can express their subjective opinions in separate reviews if they really need to, but then aren’t we all already doing that part ourselves?

      1. Thanks, again, Samir, for this opportunity! It has been quite enlightening, as I said before, and I agree.

        I hadn’t touched on the topic of “need” for critics, though floated the idea around in my head for a spell, because it would create its own post, here…so I posted some thoughts on it myself; please see my Reviewers, Critics, and Literati, at http://fpdorchak.wordpress.com/2013/01/11/reviewers-critics-and-literati/

        Well. THAT got the blood flowing! :-]

  9. For me the only useful function of literary criticism is when it helps a reader approach, appreciate, or understand a text. Otherwise I regard it is a waste of time (to write or read). Personally, I’m not that interested in value or quality judgments as I find the basis for many of these to be rooted in fashion and the not-always-reliable assumptions of the critic.

    1. As it should be – criticism should help us further develop our own thoughts on the work under the magnifying glass. When a critic doesn’t achieve this in a critique then I’m inclined to agree that it’s a waste of time because the objective of the exercise has been ignored.

      As for quality judgements, I’m not interested per se in them and it isn’t the reason why I read a critique. I’d like to form my own opinion whether or not I would like to engage the piece of work or avoid it. What I do like with criticism is when I’m stimulated to see things I didn’t consider before – and this need not be focused on the negative.

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