What Do Critics Do All Day?

Whenever I said I was a literary critic, the majority of people outside the university environment thought that meant critic as in ‘critical’, and forgot or never knew that it was actually related to ‘critique’.  There is a big difference. The dictionary’s prime definition of ‘critical’ is ‘containing or making severe or negative judgements’. The word ‘critique’, by contrast, is described as both a ‘commentary’ and an ‘art’ whose basis lies in the Greek word for discernment (kritikos). For me criticism is valuable when it is practiced as an art of discernment, and somewhat shoddy when it is used as a whip of negativity intended to make its wielder feel powerful. Alas the history of criticism is littered with instances of the latter, and although history works its natural justice, we have to wonder what the real cost to art might have been. For criticism is a parasite, and one that is regularly in danger of devouring its host.

Take, for instance, the critical reception to Willa Cather’s novels. Cather’s entry onto the literary scene was facilitated by a group of critics who were fed up of Boston tea parties and wanted to see something striking being written about poor, ordinary people. This happy accident meant that Cather’s early novels about farming in Nebraska, eccentric for the time, met with critical success and were vaunted for displaying ‘the eternal tragedy of man’. But Cather unwittingly walked into a fight with her first post-prairie book, One of Ours, about a young farm boy who enlists and dies for his ideals on the battlefields in France. The real bone of contention was the notion of idealism. The books that were then gathering acclaim were showing the horror and butchery of WW1 (like e e cummings’ The Enormous Room) and Cather’s work was regarded by the new wave of prominent male critics to be silly romantic nonsense. The fact that the book was a popular success and a contentious Pulitzer winner only made the critics madder.

Edmund Wilson looking pugnacious

From here on in, Cather’s works were dismissed by the people whose voices mattered. They found her best novels – A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House, Death Comes For The Archbishop – old-fashioned, insufficiently experimental, dull. The best Edmund Wilson could come up with was to call A Lost Lady, ‘a charming sketch’, a judgment that entirely misses the passion, the bitterness and the tragedy of that novel. Worse was to come when literary criticism moved into Marxist and Leftist territory in the thirties. Her novels were then seen as failures to understand economics; Clifton Fadiman declared that she had ‘no report to make to us on the America of her time’, clearly forgetting that the America of middle-aged Cather’s time probably was located in the nineteenth century. The virulence of the critics wounded Cather deeply, and she developed an entrenched and defensive attitude. She became a recluse, manic about her privacy. When friends died, she requested her letters to be returned and then burned them. (Whilst critics may read her papers, it is still forbidden for them to quote from the letters that survived.) Her later books never regained the quality of those written when the force of criticism was so strongly against her, and whilst she remained a very popular writer, she remained a very misunderstood one.

Cather did have supporters, but they were not helpful. She was the champion of the Catholic critics, and the conservative Right, who saw her work as redemptive and uplifting, things which it most certainly is not. After her death, ‘her admirers gathered up her abused corpse and took it back to their fort, whilst the rest of the world forgot about her,’ as Joan Acocella memorably describes it. Or at least until feminism came along. The feminists swooped in on Cather and restored her to her rightful place as a great writer, but they wanted something for their trouble and Cather, with her male narrators and her less than victorious female characters, refused to provide it. The critics were stumped for a way to appropriate Cather until queer theorists recognised the potential in her intense female friendships, her unmarried state. Cather’s novels were then read as texts full of ‘gaps’ and ‘fissures’ into which latent or disguised homosexuality or simply conflicts over femininity could be inserted. One could only imagine the fiercely private Cather spinning in her grave.

Joan Acocella looking altogether jollier

But was any of this criticism justified? Was it an example of the art of discernment that I suggested is the real business of the literary critic? Joan Acocella, whose book on Cather I’ve been summarising here identifies the worst of the problem as resulting from political approaches in criticism, approaches that demand specific attitudes from novels and have no qualms about bashing texts around a bit if they do not naturally arrive in the correct shape. Apparently the latest thing is to upbraid Cather for the way Pueblo Indians are represented in her novels, which does seem ludicrous in works that are wholly anachronistic to such modern concerns.  Whilst politics can’t be removed from literary discussion, Acocella argues that it does no favours to focus on political matters to the exclusion of everything else. But I think there is a bigger question lurking here, a question about our intrinsic critical approach to books, which has increasingly been to place demands upon them – demands that in many cases the authors could not have seen coming – and to claim justified disappointment if those demands are not met.

I don’t think it’s fair to simply bash the critics and theorists here: every generation of critics takes its own preoccupations to the literary world and seeks to work them out through texts old and new. This is one way of keeping the old stories refreshed, one way to show that they still have value and relevance despite their age. And no matter what critics say about them, the books remain the same. They are stolid, unperturbed parents, even if their churlish or petulant children fuss futilely at their feet. Every fresh wave of criticism adds to our understanding of books, even if at the cost of a little deformation. And perhaps most importantly, critics are themselves subjected to formidable pressure over the course of their training. In education there are many barriers to be overcome, most of which rely on candidates being able to express opinions that please the hierarchy and comply with the currently fashionable form. Contributions to the field of knowledge are just as rigorously policed as those to the field of art; critics as much as writers, have a living to make, and will do so by the competitive means available. Or if you like, as a society we get the criticism we deserve.

But I’ll return once again to this notion of discernment, which we could split up into its component parts of what is insightful, what is appropriate and what is accurate. If the doctrines of Marx, the avant-garde, feminism and queer theory did not find satisfaction in Cather’s work, it is quite possibly because her novels were not appropriate places to explore them. In fact, I think Cather was profoundly feminist, in the way that she wrote about exactly what she wanted from whichever gender viewpoint suited her. But my point here is that if we want to be insightful critical readers, we have an obligation to listen to the story first and figure out what it is doing, not impose constraints according to we want it to do. I suggest that we have to practice humility, and embrace above all the acknowledgment that our own attitudes, political or otherwise, may well be subject to gaps and inconsistencies themselves. Anyone can turn up to a novel with a shopping list of criteria to be fulfilled; if we want to be accorded authority, then we have to be able to do something more interesting, and more profound, than declare whether our boxes have been ticked or not. Essentially my point is that there is an experience of reading that we cannot change, that may be good or bad or indifferent according to our subjective  responses, but an interpretation of a book, a critique of it, is a product of intellectual choices. The very best critics, the ones that history will not render foolish, work to eradicate the knee-jerk response that what may not fulfill our expectations is necessarily bad and not worth reading. And I think we owe this courtesy to contemporary novels more than any others; what novels might Cather have written, late in life, had she benefited from critiques that made her own work more interesting to her, that stimulated her by accurately pointing out her strengths and flaws rather than dragging her into battles that were entirely irrelevant to her writing? As criticism continues to be blindly demanding, so the courage of writers is undermined – and ultimately we are the losers.

18 thoughts on “What Do Critics Do All Day?

  1. I love this, just love it! I recently read a string of reviews that implied that it is essential to point out all the ways in which particular books were ideologically flawed as regards sex and race. One reviewer even seemed to be criticizing other reviewers for not pointing out that a character was sexist and criticizing the author for not making clear that his views are wrong. I found it rather frustrating because it was related to a minor point in the book, and the author doesn’t endorse the characters’ views. She just lets him have them. I would hate to think that to be a proper critic—or even amateur blogger—a person must assess whether a book has expressed the appropriate views toward sex, race, sexuality, and so on. I’m also often unsettled when people dismiss classic works as racist or sexist merely because the books either don’t address those issues or address them in ways that don’t jibe with our contemporary understandings. Bringing up the issues can make for interesting conversation, but to say a work is no good because it doesn’t get everything right by our understandings seems limiting.

    I also love what you say about getting beyond our knee-jerk responses. I find that sometimes the very process of writing a blog post about a book helps me to do that. It may not lead me to some extraordinary insight, but it does help me to pick apart what bits of my response come from me and what comes from the book. And then commenters help me pick that apart even further, and so I become (I hope) a better reader for it.

  2. I bought a book of essays by Acocella after you mentioned her in a comment. I’m intetested in her writing but that is a bit beside the point of your post. What you mention isn’t different from scientific writing in general. The writer is also in his text. In this case the critic as much as the novelist. No matter how much people praise objectivity, the writing subject is present as well.
    Cather’s “case” explains nicely how authors can undergo such a change in appreciation and end up being forgotten altogether. I’m quite intersted in her “One of Ours”.

  3. Teresa’s already used exactly the words I would have started with – just love this, as well as the way you have dived into Cather’s work and through it, her world. This is as fine and succinct an understanding of criticism as we are ever likely to read.

    It also seems to beg the question: what of those contemporary wiriters at the highest level, who attract the fiercest criticism – if they ever choose to write to please the critics, do they write better or worse books, and will those books stand the test of time?

  4. Thank you again for an insightful post. “The art of discernment… is the real business of the literary critic.” I totally agree. The sharpening and honing of such skills and art warrants another post… and I await your discussion on that.

    In recent months, I’ve been mulling over the issue of “the democratizing” of opinion. In an article in the Guardian, an interesting discourse on the role social media plays in criticism. Seems like everybody has an opinion nowadays, and a voice… ironically, such a democratization might prove to be detrimental to literary writing. Here are a couple of quotes I find particularly apt in light of your discussion here. One is from the film critic Philip French of The Observer:
    ‘It could be that bad criticism might drive out serious writing’
    Another one is from Hari Kunzru, novelist: ‘Critics praise work that doesn’t upset them.”

    Like your post implies, being ‘politically correct’ may well be one major criterion for good literature nowadays. In case you’re interested, here’s the link to that article http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2011/jan/30/is-the-age-of-the-critic-over

  5. “I suggest that we have to practice humility, and embrace above all the acknowledgement that our own attitudes, political or otherwise, may well be subject to gaps and inconsistencies themselves.”

    So very well said. I think there can be something to be gained from exploring older texts with modern values in mind, but certainly never with the goal of determining whether they fulfil certain criteria or not and are therefore worthy or unworthy of being read. What interests me about the process is learning about the blind spots of the past in a way that may illuminate the ones of the present. There is more continuity between what people find distasteful or problematic in older fiction and the beliefs we hold now than some people care do admit.

  6. Yes! I don’t think it’s easy to get past the knee-jerk reaction, but it’s important to try and worthwhile, because it’s so much more enjoyable to read literature without getting angry at it all the time!

  7. I was an art history major in the early 1970’s and became so turned off to the field which was going through a stage of art “critics” basically selling modern, minimalist art with grandiose explanations and all art that came before that, such as impressionists, as “popular” and “for the masses,” essentially the touch of death. You had to be really brave to prefer Matisse to Jackson Pollack. Criticism became highly judgmental.

  8. Teresa – well exactly! The problem with demanding political correctness from books is that you are then confined to books from about the past decade or so. Anything further back and undoubtedly something will be wrong! And I completely agree with you about blogging. I’ve always found that putting my feelings about a book into words makes me consider it from more angles, and then commenters add something extra and important too. No one can think everything about a book – you need that group input. I love those book discussions where everyone has an open mind and just wants to understand a book more completely – there’s something so liberating and exciting about that. It’s a dreadful shame to shut it all down because a book doesn’t match what’s inside a reader’s head. And thank you also for the kind words – I do appreciate them.

    Lilian – oh thank you! I’ll cherish that comment.

    Caroline – I really like Acocella – she is so pithy. I agree that reading books is never a science – our subjective responses are always to the fore. For me, the better a critic gets, the more he or she is able to recognise emotional responses as they arise and use them, not be blinded by them. Being curious about the effect a book has on us is a nice way forward – inviting and not constraining. I’d be very interested what you think of One of Ours – not a book by Cather I have but I’m interested in all her work at present.

    Deborah – oh thank you – that is so nice. You pose a very good question about contemporary authors. I think writers grow in a context of healthy, vigorous debate. If you have a circle of writers and critics who are really engaged with the problems of the day, and questions of narrative, and there’s a lot of thinking and creativity going on, good stuff comes out of it. I think what shuts authors down is finger pointing and contemptuous, rather vindictive sneering. I mean, critics and get it wrong, and they can point out flaws; in themselves these things don’t destroy a writer, they may even spur him or her on. But a poisonous atmosphere in which writers are lazily misunderstood is dreadful.

    Arti – that’s also a good point. I should put my money where my mouth is and talk about that very discernment one day. Thank you for the link to the very interesting article. I’m ambivalent about this democracy thing because a) I agree that critics in newspapers and so on still have distinct personal likes that they do not own properly but which are used as objective standards, and b) whilst it is good that we all have our voices online, I have that teacherly urge to praise people when they strive to improve, and to upbraid them if they decide that they know everything they need to know and don’t ever have to challenge themselves. Wrong! We’re all learning, all the time, and if we don’t keep learning, we stagnate.

    Nymeth – well I quite agree with you. The real question is exactly how we use political approaches, and the more they become a stick to beat a text with, the less likely they are to produce anything of actual interest. But I’m not suggesting that we simply steer clear of political issues (and indeed as a feminist critic in my day, never did), just we want to find the most skillful ways of using them.

    Dorothy – lol! Absolutely. Because anger precludes thinking, and so chops discussion off at those jerking knees.

    Squirrel – Oh I completely believe this. I get the feeling those poor old Impressionists (not to mention the pre-Raphaelites) are still persona non grata. Sort of defeats the purpose of art criticism if all that art is just going to be dismissed.

  9. Eep – I think my comment came across the wrong way, for which I apologise! I know you’d never suggest we avoid political approaches altogether. I meant that more as a general observation on how polarised conversations about this can become: on the one hand, we have people taking these approaches too far and treating texts as checklists like you said. And on the other hand, we have people reacting as if any kind of political analysis is by definition disrespectful of a book’s historical context and must amount to a plea for it to be banned. But I know from reading your wonderful posts all these years how very balanced your own approach is, and how very far from either extreme you are.

  10. Dear Nymeth! – just to say no, your comment was absolutely fine! Completely and absolutely! I confess I wrote my replies earlier this evening in rather a rush and so wasn’t thinking out what I said quite so carefully as usual. And you know what the internet is like – it always comes across cold or repressive unless you warm up your terms a bit, So no need to apologise at all – as ever you are a model of fine commenting!

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  12. Great post.

    I would add that critics of non-fiction also bring their biases and brandish them high. The challenge of anyone now having access to an opinion (a la amazon reviews or blogs) is that anyone can — and will — trash your work with little or no understanding or care for the genre, your goals, your methods, your research or analysis. Let alone anything else on that subject, which critics are generally expected to know.

    “I don’t like it” or “It’s boring” are puerile and unhelpful, but that’s often about as sophisticated as it gets.

    Writers of memoir, who may play coy (or embellish or lie outright for a “better story) are also easily taken to the woodshed as “critics” attack them personally, completely overlooking the book’s larger value in their instant and hearty dislike of the narrator and his or her voice. I’ve been seeing many ad hominem attacks on my new book in this respect. It is tedious and apparently inevitable.

  13. Broadsideblog – I don’t think anyone on amazon escapes the curse of the belligerent, dismissive review, which is a real shame. I do think they say far more about the reader than the book, though, not least that they have hardly given it a chance. I’m really sorry if you’ve suffered this – I worry about the attitude that seems now completely accepted that writers and books are free game for attack. No, they’re not. It’s not fair.

  14. Darn that Will Cather! What nerve she had to not write the kinds of books the critics wanted her to! I mean, who did she think she was? Who do authors think they are?😉 Those critics can be pretty silly sometimes.

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  16. I think Willa Cather still suffers today–maybe this is silly to be annoyed (and what can you expect really from the wikipedia, but as so many people do look there…) she is not even listed in the entry on American authors. How could they possibly overlook her? Lovely post and very even handed–just what a critic should be I think. I also don’t understand why readers get angry (as Dorothy mentions) with books. It seems that while all books are not perfect they still probably have someting to offer a reader.

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