The Role of the Critic

I have long lamented the dwindling space provided to quality literary criticism. In May 2009, I invited readers to respond to Kristin Prevallet’s article ‘Why Poetry Criticism Sucks’ and the overwhelming response was that well-informed, well-written criticism is of significant value to both poet and reader.

I am not one to revel in the drama of statements such as ‘the death of the critic’, so I have been reading with great interest the recent series of essays, Why Criticism Matters in The New York Times.

Throughout the six essays, there is alot of discussion about the online explosion of amateur reviewers. Stephen Burns writes in his essay, Beyond the Critic as Cultural Arbiter, that:

Though online reviews inevitably vary in quality and insight, their very existence no longer makes it possible to imagine that there is not an engaged general-interest audience out there consuming and thinking about literary works. The audience now talks to itself.

This is often seen as a threat to the voice of the critic, but Burns sees it differently:

…the crystallization of the common reader changes the function of criticism in precise ways. The age of evaluation, of the Olympian critic as cultural arbiter, is over. While there are still critics out there, often at prominent publications, who like to issue dogmatic rulings (“The novel exists to _____!”) and to chastise writers, their nostalgic efforts merely add to the noise of culture.

…it’s time to hear less of critics talking about themselves, spinning reviews out of their charming memories or using the book under review as little more than a platform to promote themselves and their agendas.

Sam Anderson furthers this argument in his essay, Translating the Code into Everyday Language:

I like to think of the new world order (the iPocalypse, whatever) not as a threat to criticism — or not only as a threat — but as an opportunity. It will cure critics, of necessity, of some of our worst habits. For one thing, we can no longer take readers’ interest for granted. This should create a healthy sense of urgency — it should prevent critics, in other words, from producing the kind of killingly dull reviews that seem intended for someone trapped in a bus shelter during a giant rainstorm, circa 1953.

The value of literary criticism is also discussed at length, but I think it is Roiphe who articulates it best:

…it is in the art of writing itself that information and knowledge are carried, in the sentences themselves that literature is preserved. The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.

Needless to say, there is an abundance of quality writing to be discovered in these six essays. There will be arguments that make you nod and those that make you bristle, but each essay is crafted in a way that pulls you effortlessly to its final line. 

I will finish off by quoting Adam Kirsch, who I think best articulates the place of the critic in the literary community, something which is also discussed at length across the six essays: 

The critic participates in the world of literature not as a lawgiver or a team captain for this or that school of writing, but as a writer, a colleague of the poet and the novelist.

An argument that definitely made me nod.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “The Role of the Critic

  1. Looks interesting – I will have a closer look – thanks Graham for the links.

  2. Haha – love reading Paul’s comments on the issue!

  3. I have also been following those NYT essays, Graham, and you summarise them very well. Of course the critic’s most powerful function is as public reader. The reader is always the key component of any literary work. No artistic work – literary or otherwise – exists properly in a vacuum. It’s that discussion and analysis that forms the synthesis of the reading and helps others join in that discussion – where the work grows from a private experience to a broader, more cultural one – a kind of literary performance. Perhaps the word “criticism” has a negative connotation (though to an author, ‘reader’ is always a positive word), but most critics (online especially I think) work to discover, illuminate, and share what’s good rather than point out the flaws of what isn’t. For authors or publishers with a small publicity budget, the impartial critic is something to be cherished.

    • gnunn

      The critic is definitely an essential part of the greater dialogue, and indeed, should be cherished. Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts Magdalena.

  4. gmc

    if we consider that the principle of the poet is to make lead turns into gold (at least to try to), what can we say about the opposite way of it?

    • gnunn

      Well, I thik the critic is there to help the gold be discovered and to ensure it is written about elegantly.

      • gmc

        marcel duchamp said ” the worse enemy of art is right taste” , if someone has a gold washer soul, he will find what he needs by himself, cause water is the only thing around; in a way, everybody’s a gold washer, gold has many aspects: some like it as the sound of the foam, some others prefer deep sea adventures, some enjoy the war path leading to a possible quietness and some appreciate to move into the mist, aso ^^

        i remember these few words:
        “…J’aimais les peintures idiotes, dessus de portes, décors, toiles de saltimbanques, enseignes, enluminures populaires ; la littérature démodée, latin d’église, livres érotiques sans orthographe, romans de nos aïeules, contes de fées, petits livres de l’enfance, opéras vieux, refrains niais, rythmes naïfs….” (Rimbaud, alchimie du verbe)

        “..I liked idiot paintings, spaces over doors, sceneries, street acrobats tents, neon signs, popular illuminations. Out of fashion litterature, latin from churches, erotic books with no spelling, novels from our grandmothers, fairy tales, small books of childhood, old operas, stupid chorus, naïve rhythms…”
        short way: text is water is blood and anything you want it to be, keep dreaming it^^

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