Situation critical: a justification for robust literary criticism

Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays by Cynthia Ozick

Complaining about the state of literary criticism in 2021 seems somewhat futile. First, because it has always been futile: public perception of literary critics has historically viewed them as parasitic on creative endeavours or, even more damning, culturally irrelevant. In contemporary discourse, professional critics are seen as elitist at best, at worst, outright disposable.

Ever since there has been literature, there have been critics. And ever since there have been critics, there have been writers, readers, and others accusing them of all manner of sins: jealousy, pettiness, poor reading, ad hominem attacks. In an epigraph to her 2016 book Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, Cynthia Ozick cites Alexander Pope, who referred to “Those monsters, Criticks!” Pope’s 1711 treatise, “An Essay on Criticism,” is written in heroic couplets and presumes to lay out the guidelines for good criticism, as well as pointing out areas in which the critic can slip up. A satirist at heart, Pope is unable to refrain from indulging his wit, writing early on, “In poets as true genius is but rare, / True taste as seldom is the critic’s share.”

Writers bellyaching about bad reviews is nothing new, but it might be more common in our contemporary culture to lament the relative lack of review coverage at all. Certainly in the mainstream media, the prevalent tendency is to cut back on pages devoted to reviews of new books; McMaster University assistant professor of sociology Phillipa K. Chong, author of Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times, suggests that fewer than 5% of new books get any kind of coverage in larger media outlets. In such a relatively barren field, it is not surprising that professional critics are a vanishingly rare genus.

Ozick quotes a 1928 essay by Edmund Wilson, who bemoaned the fact that “it can probably be said that no such creature exists as a full-time literary critic – that is, a writer who is at once first-rate and nothing but a literary critic.” Here in Canada, the last person who could reasonably be said to have made a living as a literary critic in mainstream newspapers is probably Philip Marchand, whose work in the Toronto Star and, later, the National Post found its apogee in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. These days, the status of the professional critic has been devalued and subordinated to enthusiastic amateurs giving thumbnail reactions to works of fiction past and present on Amazon and Goodreads.

The ubiquity of social media presents a conundrum: while it is no longer possible to earn a living as a working critic, the internet has provided us with arguably more amateur criticism than at any other point in history, from BookTube to Bookstagram to Book Twitter. More people are expending more words on more books than ever before, but the vast majority of this coverage goes unrecognized by the large majority of the reading public, with individual commentators usually maintaining small, fragmented audiences that are frequently genre-specific or otherwise limited in scope. The elevation of an undifferentiated mass of online voices has resulted in what Elizabeth Hardwick, writing in 1959, referred to as “a sort of democratic euphoria that may do the light book a service but will hardly meet the needs of a serious book.”

This is because serious works of literature require a response that is more nuanced, calculated, and considered than the rapid-fire thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdicts proffered online or in venues such as the reality-TV inspired elimination contest Canada Reads. It is fashionable in 2021 to decry the elitism of expertise or the artificial proscriptions of so-called cultural gatekeepers, but what goes missing in the absence of trained, professional critics writing for a general audience is a sense of being able to approach a work on anything other than the surface level. This often takes the form of assessing a work of fiction as though it were a piece of sociology or an educational tract meant to instill in the reader moral values or a greater understanding of injustice or inequality.

Death of the Critic by Rónán McDonald

While these are no doubt noble pursuits, what is missing is any discussion of literary style or technique, the very thing that differentiates a work of imaginative literature from a polemic or an essay. In his foundational essay “Technique as Discovery,” Mark Schorer writes, “The novel is still read as though its content has some value in itself, as though the subject matter of fiction has greater or lesser value in itself, and as though technique were not a primary but a supplementary element, capable perhaps of not unattractive embellishments upon the surface of the subject, but hardly of its essence.” If this was true when Schorer first published his essay in 1948, how much more true is it today, when novels, stories, and poems are evaluated almost exclusively not as aesthetic performances but as vehicles for communicating a particular message or improving a reader’s character.

For Schorer, such an approach ignores the fundamentals of what separates literature from other forms of art or communication: “For technique is the means by which the writer’s experience, which is his subject matter, compels him to attend to it; technique is the only means he has of discovering, exploring, developing his subject, of conveying its meaning, and, finally, of evaluating it. And surely it follows that certain techniques are sharper tools than others, and will discover more.” Yet try to find more than a handful of working critics or book reviewers capable of discerning good from faulty literary technique; critics willing to speak of an author’s style or language – as opposed to a novel’s moral or message – are virtually extinct.

In The Death of the Critic, Rónán McDonald writes that “treating literature as social document, though it momentarily gives critics the more primary aura of the social historian, undermines the disciplinary ground on which they work.” Yet criticism that does otherwise – that treats literature qua literature – struggles to find an audience while less rigorous, thoughtlessly enthusiastic approaches dominate the discourse.

This critique is not self-serving – or, at least, it is not only self-serving, for there is obviously a certain element of that at work – but rather born from the deeply held belief that literature cannot thrive in the absence of a robust critical culture. By cutting off the oxygen from discussions of how writers achieve their effects, what traditions they are working in (or subverting, whether consciously or otherwise), how their use of language reaffirms or breaks with what has come before, we lose out on an important level of understanding. Language and literature are living things; critics are the gardeners who either tend them or allow them to wither and die.

Situation critical: a justification for robust literary criticism