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:
- “Beyond the Critic as Cultural Arbiter” by Stephen Burn
- “With Clarity and Beauty, the Weight of Authority” by Katie Roiphe
- “The Intellectual at Play in the Wider World” by Pankaj Mishra
- “The Will Not to Power, but to Self-Understanding” by Adam Kirsch
- “Translating the Code into Everyday Language” by Sam Anderson
- “From the Critical Impulse, the Growth of Literature” by Elif Batuman
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?