The critics among us

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A few weeks ago, as readers of this blog know, I sat down to read James Wood's How Fiction Works and reveled in its elucidations and provocations, its lusty, kinetic, uncompromising language, its call to writerly action:
Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or lifesameness, but what I must call lifeness:  life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry. 
I got the same charge early this morning reading "Why Criticism Matters," the cover story of this weekend's The New York Times Book Review, which yields the floor to literary critics Stephen Burn, Katie Roiphe, Pankaj Mishra, Adam Kirsch, Sam Anderson, and Elif Batuman, all of whom have been invited to report on "what it is they do, why they do it and why it is important."  Alas.

There is much value in the whole, much in the way of substance and fine thinking, a little necessary historicism, not too many bricks thrown at the obvious.  I am particularly fond, in this sequence of essays, of the emphasis that both Katie Roiphe and Adam Kirsch place on the essential eloquence of the literary critic—on the responsibility the critic bears to write well and meaningfully.  Here, for example, is Roiphe:
Now, maybe more than ever, in a cultural desert characterized by the vast, glimmering territory of the Internet, it is important for the critic to write gracefully. If she is going to separate excellent books from those merely posing as excellent, the brilliant from the flashy, the real talent from the hyped — if she is going to ferret out what is lazy and merely fashionable, if she is going to hold writers to the standards they have set for themselves in their best work, if she is going to be the ideal reader and in so doing prove that the ideal reader exists — then the critic has one important function: to write well.

By this I mean that critics must strive to write stylishly, to concentrate on the excellent sentence. There is so much noise and screen clutter, there are so many Amazon reviewers and bloggers clamoring for attention, so many opinions and bitter misspelled rages, so much fawning ungrammatical love spewed into the ether, that the role of the true critic is actually quite simple: to write on a different level, to pay attention to the elements of style. 
Kirsch concludes his essay like this:
Whether I am writing verse or prose, I try to believe that what matters is not exercising influence or force, but writing well — that is, truthfully and beautifully; and that maybe, if you seek truth and beauty, all the rest will be added unto you.
Perhaps I focused most intently on these passages because I keep discovering, at the age I have become, how little good writing is starting to matter to an alarming number of people—to those holding to the notion that grammatical errors (not witty errors, mind you, just plain mistakes) make writing more "hip," to the celebrants of books that are plied with all manner of (unintended) language abuses, to those who declaim against masterful books with sentences riddled with prepositional failures and astonishing noun-verb mismatches. We need standard bearers in times like this, intelligence on the page (and screen), and when I read Wood or Roiphe or Kirsch or the others featured in the Times today, I am elevated. These aren't blustering writers, or showy ones.  They are well-read critics with capacious minds who teach not just through the substance of their sentences, but by the very form of them.

I thought of myself as a critic once, writing for, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Book, so many others.  I don't see myself as a critic any longer, forswearing reviews, on this blog, in favor of reflections, and still seeking to learn from the masters.


Elizabeth Mosier said...

Thanks for alerting me to this article, Beth! I like to think of criticism as continuing a conversation the writer has begun -- which seems to me a humble position, rather than the authoritative position some critics take. Like any productive conversation, this exchange necessarily starts with trying one's best to read carefully to understand what the writer tried to say and do in the work. By specifically addressing the writer's aesthetic in her review/response, the critic allows room for the reader's response.

Lilian Nattel said...

Beth, so well said--reflections. That is a wonderful way to put it. I also appreciate the excerpts you posted. Truth and beauty, yes, that's my aim as well.

Richard Gilbert said...

This reminds me of the Woods book I'd heard about, and endorses it in such a personal visceral way, that I really want to read it now. Thanks, and for the link to the article.

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