RE: Literary Criticism

Via HarrietBlog, I just came across this comment which was born out of an apparent roundtable on the topic of literary criticism:


Things are somewhat different for a critic, since the critic is necessarily more conscious than other writers of his own will, of what he wants to happen in the world as a result of his writing. As Kazin puts it, “He writes to convince, to argue, to establish his argument.” (Poetry magazine contributor Adam Kirsch)


I think this is an interesting sentiment and I’d be very curious at the different takes on this. By something that at least resembles choice, I’m more or less out of the loop on any current perspectives on the role of criticism outside of this quote. Obviously the term itself is a direct admission of a behavior of judgment and persuasion by its very existence; that is to say, any review has at least an implicit conversaion of what a book is about, what it might seem to set out for itself and whether it succeeds or not. This is inarguable I think, but to me the reviews I do simply don’t have that feel to them, at least internally. They don’t feel like arguments or persuasions, though they are certainly judgments. What they feel like are admissions. I may be on a soapbox but it’s only long enough perhaps to wheat-paste my thoughts on a lightpole, with a sentiment more along the lines of ‘Maybe you’ll all find this interesting, maybe not.’ Then there is a shrug of some kind and a walking away. No doomsday heralding or polemic browbeating, at least not intentionally.

It has been discussed at some point (probably many points) over at Montevidayo that there are complicated and interesting reasons that criticism particularly in poetry seems to be in decline, that ostensibly many poets don’t feel for whatever reason that it’s they’re ‘job’, the thinking seemingly that they are to be reviewed, not do the reviewing themselves. That they don’t want to ‘get their hands dirty’ with it, which speaks volumes about the permeating if not dominant anxieties between ‘academia’ and ‘art’, if we want to put them on opposite sides of a game  board. I’ve certainly been witness to this if not a participant in my own experiences in an MFA that often puts me (with force, admittedly) quite literally in a seat next to PhD students, and at least to my observant (if sometimes, to be fair, paranoid) mind an unpleasant atmosphere.

So of course I’ll toss in my $00.02, and put simply: while it is true that I generally find discussions of art, of which poetry is of course a member, pointless and frustrating, even the 1% of the time it feels productive and stimulating is worth seeking out. Even if the vast majority of it to our ears is petty bullshit white noise, that noise is important & one man’s petty bullshit noise is another’s favorite band, so perhaps the real work should be on finding the voice(s) one finds most stimulating and seeking out more of the same. It wouldn’t hurt either to perhaps attempt, like we might do in poetry or music, to imitate and contribute to what we find worthwhile.

One thought on “RE: Literary Criticism”

  1. Thanks for leading me to these interesting links. I followed the Harrietblog link over to the NYTimes article, which is pretty short, and semi-interesting. And it made me wonder why Harrietblog chose the quote it did (other than the fact that it was on the first page of the article). The following paragraph begins with “but” – usually a sure sign that the preceding content is not the key idea – and goes on to say:

    “Increasingly, I feel that argument is only the form of criticism, not the substance, just as passing judgment on a particular book is only the occasion of criticism, not the goal. It’s better — certainly it’s better for the critic — not to see criticism as a means of making things happen, of rewarding and punishing, or of becoming what Kazin calls a “force.” 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. Novelists interpret experience through the medium of plot and character, poets through the medium of rhythm and metaphor, and critics through the medium of other texts.”

    And the very last paragraph of the article seems in line with your own approach to reviewing – and reveals that the author is also a poet:

    “Or maybe it’s just that, as a poet, I am all too used to making excuses for the marginality of a kind of writing that I continue to feel is important. 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.”

    As I’ve said many times, I think writers themselves are the smartest critics of contemporary literature. They’re (we’re!) having the most interesting conversations and are reading with the best sense of the art at the moment. Critics have no idea what to do with literature that hasn’t been tried and tested and proven by the passage of time or the quantity of other scholarly articles. I mean, gee, how else do you know it’s literature???

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