The Work of a Critic

First published in the Chronicle Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, March 2, 2012


The role of critics varies greatly according to the mission they imagine for themselves and the audience they address. Academic critics writing for their peers will take a different tack from public critics speaking to a general audience, large or small, or from writers themselves using criticism to carve out a space for their own work. Surprisingly, novelists and especially poets have proved to be among our best critics. Poet-critics from Johnson to Eliot form the main line of the English critical tradition, while the foundations for a coherent criticism of the novel were laid by Henry James. Yet American writers are better known for their prickly aversion to critics rather than their appreciation, even when critics built up the following for their work. My favorite example, one that set my blood boiling, was Saul Bellow’s likening of the critic to a deaf man tuning a piano. (Had he merely said “tone deaf” I wouldn’t have been so offended.) Then there are the old saws that continue to surface: “Those who can’t, criticize.” “No one ever grew up dreaming of becoming a critic.” All this implies that critics, with little imagination themselves, are hardly more than mechanical observers or failed writers, stewing in their inadequacy and taking out this resentment on their betters, the really creative spirits. As one wag put it, a critic is one who arrives late on the battlefield to kill off the survivors.

In fact, really good critics are writers, with their own style and literary personality, though their works feeds off other writing, as novelists and poets feed off the text of our common life. Both kinds of writers must somehow be faithful to their subjects yet find their own angle of vision. They have to tell the truth, a truth we’ll acknowledge, but, like Emily Dickinson, “tell it slant.” They distill art into meaning, they punish failure and lionize success, but like all writers they work by way of selection, even distortion. We remember critics for their temperament as much as their critical judgment: the pugilistic vigor of Hazlitt, the digressive idiosyncrasies of Ruskin, the clerical acerbity of Eliot, the transparent windowpane of Orwell, the poetic conjunctions of Benjamin, the Hegelian dynamics of Adorno. We can forgive a great deal in a critic who manifests a striking sensibility or a startling point of view, as we are seduced by writers who freshen our sense of the familiar world. Some critics survive on the strength of their prose alone; some by promoting new artists and movements; others by introducing seminal concepts (the objective correlative, the dissociation of sensibility); by demonstrating sheer intelligence or depth of learning; or by helping reorient the history and direction of an art form. As it happens, T. S. Eliot could qualify under any of these categories.

So let me lay down a few principles that are simply features of the kind of criticism I love to read and have tried to write.

–It was only in the mid-twentieth century, thanks to the New Criticism, that criticism itself began to play a major role in the academic study of literature, which previously was focused on textual scholarship and factual research. Because of the new emphasis on close reading, most academic criticism grew too long, too pedantic and detailed. The critic felt obliged to lay out every step of the reading, not simply the interpretive outcome, the take-away or upshot of disciplined attention. Such monographs too often became little more than stepping stones in the job market, rungs in the accreditation process. Earlier critics read just as closely but luxuriated in aphorism, intuition, and apodictic summation, writerly vices. They kicked away the analytic ladder that brought them to their destination. Most journalistic criticism, on the other hand, is too brief and superficial, too uninformed, almost weightlessly opinionated. Trapped by space limitations and deadlines, such pieces habitually default on context, ignoring much that undergirds the work and conditions its meaning. With the exception of longer, more intricate reviews in little magazines and intellectual journals, they reduce criticism to consumer guidance. They strike attitudes and ventilate feelings, largely unsupported by argument or evidence. If criticism must make its case as illuminating commentary on works of art, then the best vehicle for criticism is not the extended monograph or the hastily written review but the literary essay, personal, reflective, attuned to an ongoing conversation. This is why critical journals (like the avant-garde magazines of the 1920s and 1930s) and critical schools (the New York Intellectuals, the New Critics) were so important to twentieth-century criticism: they kept a conversation going, they responded to new movements in the arts with strong revaluations and critical methods that were responsive to difficult new writing.

–It follows that the criticism I enjoy is more affective than cerebral, more empirical than theoretical. The glory of the essay, since Montaigne, comes in the way it generalizes from the concrete, raising “perception to the point of principle and definition,” as Eliot put it. Much of recent criticism works the other way around, setting up a template of theory or method and shoehorning arbitrary examples into it. It has little truck with aesthetics, too readily dismissed as an ideology. In rare cases this theoretical approach shines a different light on an individual work or a larger issue; too often it is counter-intuitive, distorting literary works with it own ideological agenda, or simply missing the mark. Do we experience a shock of recognition when we read such a commentary? Does it open up a new path of understanding for us, or merely serve as a vehicle for our political or moral prejudices? Does the reading actually confront the power of the literary work or its agonizing failure to muster that power? Love and hate are crucial for critics, along with deep-seated ambivalence. They give evidence that the writer’s work has really touched us. They feed the flame of good critical prose and supply energy that empowers the critic to bring a bolt of clarity to the reader. This is why sharply formulated, deeply felt literary judgment, not simply analytic interpretation, is vital to the critic’s task. It tracks the movement of a genuine critical sensibility. Make-or-break evaluation gives evidence that the stakes are high, that the critic is engaged, the subject really matters. A critic needs an analytic mind but also something of a polemical style, for criticism is also a form of persuasion

–The work of criticism is a juggling act, a discourse without clear borders. The critic must play the role of what I once called a double agent, balancing text and context, a sensitive grasp of form along with a feeling for the social currents that help shape art. F. R. Leavis is usually seen as a formal critic, yet he insisted that “one cannot seriously be interested in literature and remain purely literary in interests.” In principle, nothing is alien to the critic: the writer’s biography, the history of ideas, the social history of the times, the tools of philology, the evolution of formal conventions, the parallels to the other arts, the insights gleaned from literary history but also from other disciplines. These blurred boundaries have been unconscionably abused in recent years as critics squander their authority by poaching on fields they know little about, pronouncing on subjects they know even less about. One result is that a stereotyped progressive mind-set, the well-meaning agendas of political correctness, becomes their received wisdom; open-minded scholars are unable to take their work seriously. Historians recoil from the anecdotal evidence of New Historicism, as social scientists resist ideological position-taking in social criticism. Research gives way to fashionable cant, currently some form of postmodernism and anti-essentialism, which caricatures the wisdom of the past, gives unquestioned sanction to all forms of relativism, and effectively assumes what needs to be proved.

–Despite the sins of critics borrowing from fields they haven’t mastered, I call myself a generalist, a public critic, which is simply another name for an intellectual, someone whose first love is the exchange of ideas. As an undergraduate at Columbia I learned to pillage literature for ideas, to quarry it crudely for important themes, but somehow I also imbibed a strong historical sense, what Philip Rahv called the sixth sense of the critic. Eliot noted that this historical awareness “involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” This sense of the present became a watchword among the New York Intellectuals. Intrigued by the ambitious reach of their work, its crossing of conventional boundaries, I became sensitive to the politics of literature, of literature as an actual intervention in the world. But it was only as a graduate student at Yale, then in the last stages of the New Criticism, and at later at Cambridge, still under the influence of Leavis, that I learned more about how literary works were put together, how they were made of language and exploited formal conventions. This brought me back to my sophomore year of high school, when I first read A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Letter and was amazed at the sheer craftsmanship of the whole but also at the architecture of sentences and paragraphs. These books seemed ingeniously tooled, shaped to endure, yet their stories were also full of arresting details, resonant symbols, and a vivid recreation of earlier times and places. They gave me intimations of both literary form and the pressure of history that I understood only years later.

–Despite the importance of craft, works of art are not so much objects as experiences. Critics are not anatomists who murder to dissect but seismologists attuned to every rumble in the terrain of art and of their own inner lives. When Matthew Arnold called poetry a criticism of life, he meant that life itself, the stream of felt experience, is what gives art meaning and value. Before 1900 no one would have questioned this. But in the twentieth century we grew so concerned about the mediations of art – the conventions of realism, the techniques of modernism, the movements that congregated into different schools – that we sometimes lost sight of art’s purpose and substance. Since art reshapes life into staged experiences, this further blurs the boundaries of criticism, creating an opening from aesthetic criticism to moral and social criticism. This was the trajectory of the great Victorian critics – Carlyle, Arnold, Ruskin – though it was also resisted by the successors they influenced, including Pater and Wilde, who disliked moralizing yet themselves wrote in this sweeping prophetic strain. For me the arts offer invaluable clues to the inner configurations of a culture, its intimate depths of mind and feeling. The alienating effects of industrial society created the conditions for a social criticism grounded in aesthetics, for art pointed to a potential for human fulfilment that modern life had undermined. Twentieth-century critics like Orwell, Leavis, Wilson, and Trilling were heirs to this tradition, which has few successors today.

–Despite its ambitions as a critique of ideology, postmodern relativism lays down a path of acquiescence to commerce and power rather than effective resistance. It rejects moral judgment as a form of hierarchy and elitism, though criticism has always demanded a trained sensibility, capable of doing the necessary work of discrimination. Eliot described criticism, simply but memorably, as “the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste,” but “correction” rings oddly in contemporary ears, for it suggests that the few who know more or feel deeply might offer instruction to the many, and might improve society in the process. Yet taste and discrimination remain the ultimate tests of the critic, without which there can be no clarifying insight or understanding. Instead we have today the democratization of criticism represented by customer reviews of books and films on the Internet. Critical judgment increasingly resembles what we find on websites where hotels and restaurants are usefully rated by people impelled to write in or sound off. Their judgments are unedited, and we know nothing about where they come from. We must turn critics ourselves to weigh their worth. Criticism becomes a form of polling, in which we look for enlightenment from the man in the street.

In this context, it becomes wildly anachronistic to hold on to the Victorian notion of the critic as social or moral guide, or to the modernist charge of the critic as mediator and expositor of difficult art, or even to the more general view of the critic as an informed intellectual, someone who thinks hard about art and society, who has developed the faculty of focused attention, along with the rhetorical skills and the cast of mind to craft those perceptions into argument. This remains the mainstream of the critical tradition, and it speaks to the passions that drew me irresistibly to art and critical writing in the first place. At bottom criticism is personal, agonistic, however thoughtful and measured its tone. It is Jacob wrestling with an angel, an existential encounter in which the full being of the critic confronts the full power of the work, which invites yet also resists critical translation.

This essay also appeared in The Critical Pulse: Thirty-Six Credos by Contemporary Critics, edited by Jeffrey J. Williams and Heather Steffen, published in 2012 by Columbia University Press.

1 Comment

Comments are closed.