The Function of Criticism Today (Redux)

The end of the year is a bad time for writing on arts and culture. All those Ten Best lists start to run together after a while. That’s why I was looking forward to reading the “Why Criticism Matters” feature in the New York Times Book Review. The book review editors tilted the discussion with setting Alfred Kazin’s “The Function of Criticism Today” (1960) as a touchstone. Each contributor mourned a lost golden age of literary culture, and skipped over pretty much everything that happened since. Only Elif Batuman, in her invocation of Fredric Jameson, acknowledged that any sort of worthwhile criticism was written between 1960 and whenever they started writing.

None of the contributors proposed any kind of radical change in the nature of criticism. For the most part, they affirmed the type of criticism that appears in the New York Times Book Review. These are the salient points of agreement:

  • The Internet has ruined everyone’s attention span and unleashed a mob of opinionated amateurs on the canon. The proper response of critics is to write well. This is the most dubious of the arguments made, as Mark Athitakis points out.
  • If criticism isn’t doing so well right now, it’s because literature isn’t either. Today’s writers produce works that are elitist and apolitical. Criticism serves the interests of “competitive connoisseurship” (Pankaj Mishra’s terrific phrase). In other words, literary culture reflects the culture at large.
  • Critics and creative writers are equals sharing the same basic purpose: to explain the world to the reader. Adam Kirsch is especially good on this point.
  • Although critics are equals to novelists and poets, a good critic should be modest, even self-effacing. He or she should serve the reader and the text under consideration. Walter Benjamin took this position as well. This is also a good way to think about teaching.
  • Literary criticism no longer serves as the model for all other kinds of criticism, as Matthew Arnold believed. I disagree with this point.
  • Literary critics are no longer public intellectuals in the same sense as Alfred Kazin or Lionel Trilling were. I also disagree with this point, although less strongly.
  • The meaning of a literary work isn’t self-evident, so it is the critic’s job not simply to evaluate, but also to explain and interpret. For example, Batuman learned from Freud that “certain facts about our lives are only ever articulated in the form of fictional stories — stories whose plots are related only in the most complex and unapparent ways to the essentially nonnarrative concerns they express.”
  • The value of literature is still hard to convey, but it endures even in the age of the Internet.

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