The Sunday Salon: Why Criticism Matters

In last Sunday’s The New York Times, the Book Review did something new—while there were reviews of new books, it was anchored by six essays discussing and defending literary criticism in the Facebook era. I was fascinated. As an English major, I’m being trained as a literary critic. While I plan to become an editor or otherwise involved in publishing, there are few things I love more than reading a book and sucking the very marrow out of its bones. (This sort of thing is partially why this blog is called The Literary Omnivore—I tend to think about reading in terms of consumption.) It pains me to see people set aside or ignore problematic issues in books instead of addressing them. But I realize literary criticism is not exactly viewed as accessible by the general public, which is why I’m sharing these six essays with you; these are essays intended to explain why literary criticism is so important in the digital era.

At their best, this collection of essays defend literary criticism from itself—the cries of the death of literary criticism are only marking a specific turning point in literary criticism. In this brave new world, a literary critic can no longer rely on a captive audience; in order to get their ideas out in a sea of self-proclaimed critics (such as yours truly), the professional literary critic must become a better and more engaging writer. In the best essay of the collection, “Translating the Code into Everyday Language”, Sam Anderson discusses how a literary critic needs to advocate for the glories of the reading life and treat their work as an art unto itself. Literary criticism, unlike, say, film criticism, works in the same medium of its subject, which Anderson finds exciting—“our work is a kind of ground zero of textuality, in which one text converges on another text to create a third, hybrid, ultratext. This self-reflexiveness doesn’t make critical writing secondary or parasitic, as critics of the critics have said for centuries: it makes it complex and fascinating and exponentially exciting.” If you only read one of these essays, read Anderson’s—it’s fleet and illuminating (or so I like to think, but then again, he’s preaching to the choir here). Even the title of the essay is fantastic; it’s a definition of what I see as the purpose of literary criticism.

But I do have to admit to being rubbed the wrong way by Katie Roiphe’s essay, “With Clarity and Beauty, the Weight of Authority”, in which she discusses the main thrust of the collection—that literary critics must now become competitive writers. Her point is a good one, but she goes about it by reinforcing a particularly vicious binary between amateur and professional critics. (Obviously, there is a real separation; professional critics are paid and amateur critics, well, aren’t.) Roiphe acknowledges that “it is not considered nice or polite or democratic to take the side of the paid critic (though, to be fair, she is paid very little) over the enterprising amateur who would like to shout anonymously on the Internet, but that’s precisely what is called for — unless, of course, the enterprising amateur writes better than the paid critic.” But although she pays lip service to the idea that such an amateur exists, she dismisses it by characterizing all Amazon reviewers and book bloggers as anonymous attention whores who can’t string together two words; a characterization which two minutes in the book blogger world would rid her of. As her point is made in the other essays, please feel free to skip it.

For posterity’s sake, here are links to all the essays in the “Why Criticism Matters” collection:

I’ve finally managed to land myself an internship, which I start on Monday—it’s virtual, which is nice, as it lets me work around classes and rehearsal. (I can’t see this conflicting with the book blog, as I’m scheduled well into January.) I’ve also put out the call of submission on will (hopefully) be my first digital anthology, Hic Sunt Dracones. I’m quite excited about it, but I still need to publicize it a bit more. As far as reading goes, I read Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson’s Animals Make Us Human, which was underwhelming, and Jude Morgan’s Passion, which was most certainly not. I’m going to start on Gail Steketee and Randy Frost’s Stuff, which is about compulsive hoarding, today—I’m very much looking forward to it!

Derek Molata is giving away a personalized set of Lesley Livingston’s Wondrous Strange trilogy until January 20th. The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What do you make of literary criticism? Have you got any favorite literary criticism essays?

22 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Why Criticism Matters

  1. I’ve always been slightly wary about literary criticism, not being an English major, but it sounds as though Roiphe’s essay (at least, the bits you’ve quoted) is referring to book reviews generally (which are often written by other authors), rather than the academic textual analysis which tends not to reach the newspapers. In fact, I often find book bloggers write better reviews of books than reviewers in newspapers do – perhaps because they’re less constrained by print deadlines and column inches – and can actually give you a better flavour of the book. Obviously that’s not always the case, but we take a so-called quality newspaper which has book reviews on Saturday, and I’m very rarely inspired to read any of the books reviewed.

    Of course, newspapers are also constrained by size, and their reviews have to be limited, which is where blogging really comes into its own. Newspapers inevitably have to review new books, but there’s no such restriction on bloggers. There’s a quarterly book review in the UK called ‘Slightly Foxed’, however, which tends to discuss authors rather than individual books, and will cover writers who are no longer in print, or older books by current writers, and so on.

    • Yes, Roiphe is, but I bring it up because it came a little out of left field—she seems to have flattened criticism, conflating reviewing books and academic criticism (which is, of course, not reviewing a book at all, but digging deeper into it—a passing knowledge of the text is usually assumed).

  2. *cough* As a non-English major, I didn’t connect with most of those essays. I did like the Anderson, but the other ones I got to the end of the first page and realised I didn’t care enough to go on to the next one! Too much navel gazing for me, but I’m on the outside.

    However, I have read some marvelous essay collections that include book reviews! And I just read Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism. So obviously, I enjoy reading smart, well-written literary criticism.

    >>It pains me to see people set aside or ignore problematic issues in books instead of addressing them.

    Do you mean on blogs? Or just people in your life talking about books? I’m just curious as to how you know when readers are ignoring a book’s issues. 🙂

    • Oh, everywhere—online and in real life. I usually “detect” it by either people telling me flat-out they’re going to ignore this subtext or people telling me to shut up when I bring up problematic points in a discussion (not randomly, mind you! …I hope!) I find it a lot in discussion about The Chronicles of Narnia, for some odd reason; people try to ignore or gloss over the Christian subtext… but it’s text, seeing as Aslan is Jesus and all that.

      This also extends to all forms of pop culture; once, at a dinner, talking about problematic issues in pop culture, I mentioned the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” as problematic—another guest immediately whined that it was her favorite holiday song and I ought to shut up about it. I think cutting off discussion or ignoring a problematic element ends up preserving a flawed image of the text that doesn’t do justice to the text itself. We can love things with faults, people! It’s how that system works, or so I am told. 😉

      • Oh, ok, so in discussions you’re having! I wasn’t sure if you were talking about bloggers ignoring issues when they’re posting about a book or something else. And Narnia is definitely a divisive one!

        I agree: loving something doesn’t mean it’s perfect. 🙂 And I’m regularly shut down when I try to open up various topics for conversation too, especially food!

  3. As an English major I’ve been exposed to the best and the worst of literary criticism. I am thrilled to read Anderson’s statements concerning the reader’s interest. This has been a major gripe of mine since my first lit class ever. Generally I don’t like poetry because of well-meaning (I think) English teachers who tried to tell us all what the pieces meant and that we were stupid if we didn’t “get it” …and if we saw something else in the poem (I’m channeling Louise Rosenblatt now), we were not worthy of reading the poem to begin with. I have really strong feelings about this and am convinced that these attitudes are why the majority of students now simply do. not. read. anything. In my compositition classes the students who have actually read an entire book in their lifetime are a minority. Again, I at least partially blame a way of teaching and an attitude of literary criticism that completely ignores the reader.

    An incredible American Lit professor introduced me to the poetry of Anne Bradstreet in grad school, and finally I came back around to giving poetry another chance…If literary criticism can affect someone like me, an avid reader, imagine what it does to those who’d rather not read to begin with. I generally read mostly through reader response and feminist lenses…both perspectives that do not try to separate readers and literature into classes.

    Thanks for such an interesting and thoughtful post!!

    • And thank you for your comment! I’m not terribly fond of poetry because it’s so ephemeral and subjective—this is probably why I prefer the poetic stylings of e. e. cummings. Reader response, as a school of literary criticism, is one that I think primary education students would be better off exploring.

  4. “anonymous attention whores who can’t string together two words” — I don’t read much literary criticism (non-English major also) but that pre-disposes me to not liking her.

    There is a place for literary criticism and I think it’s an important part of the reading experience. I liked Anderson’s essay as well but I think it’s one I can identify with and Burn’s made some interesting points. The others no so much.

    In some ways, all of the writers felt to me that they were providing reasons to keep the book section in general (I believe that’s a good thing) which has been disappearing from newspapers for years. There was a feint air of desperation to some of them that made me think back to the paper’s tagline – the newspaper of record – and how in many ways newspapers are losing their grip on the audience due to the fact that there are so many other ways for people to get information. Maybe it’s me just feeling a little snarky this morning though. Can’t really tell.

    • I think you’re right in that keeping a book section in a newspaper is part of their overall goal—without it, it may be difficult to get literary criticism out to the average Jane who may not seek it out on her own.

  5. Congratulations on the internship! I hope you have an awesome time at it!

    Katie Roiphe always irritates me, and not just because she is (or was) convinced that if one in four of her female friends were being raped, she’d know about it, and she doesn’t, so girls must be lying about date rape. Even when she’s not talking about that, her dogmatism still puts me off.

  6. Re: Roiphe. Gah. And an EXTRA gah re Jenny’s comment above. I hadn’t actually put two and two together and realised this was the same person :\ Anyway… with so many interesting things that can be said about literary criticism, why must the same simplistic professional versus amateurs arguments be used again and again? I’ll read Anderson essay for sure, though.

    I’ve had the same experience as you with people trying to get me to shut up about problematic aspects of books, movies, TV shows, etc. It does seem to happen a lot.

    Also, congrats on the internship!

  7. Thanks for linking to all these. I had heard about them, but hadn’t really sat down to read them. I was an English major, once upon a time. Now I’m getting my master’s in Spanish Lit, which, SURPRISE, is the same thing. I had to go through all those same theory courses… again. I guess I needed the refresher, but I wasn’t exactly thrilled ;). Congrats on your internship! I’d like to be working at a publisher one of these days, too. I just have to finish my thesis and then I can start looking for internships/jobs.

  8. This isn’t necessarily geared towards your topic or readers of book reviews, but I really enjoyed this film critic’s (her blog, btw, is awesome) take on the importance of intelligent, reasoned criticism to artists and other creative types:

    As a creative writing major, I can’t stress enough that every creative person needs someone to tell them when to stop. 🙂

    • Also, I was under the impression that Katie Roiphe’s take on the date rape issue (while extremely problematic) was a bit more complicated, but I have read some of her work before and found it gratingly pretentious, so there’s that. 😉

  9. I also was an English major, delighting in literary critique. I don’t think I was ever good at it, but I loved writing essays.

    That said, since I entered this stage of life called “stay-at-home-motherhood” I’ve found that often my responses to literature are more of the “blind” variety. Not for classics so much but definitely for the fault-filled modern literature that I’m just reading because I really do need a break. I do think I differ far from the “professional” critique in that I cannot approach what I read in any other than a personal way. I think some other bloggers are far more deep — and that’s why I love to read their thoughts!

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