We live in an age that is antithetical to literary criticism. When, in 1959, the American critic Elizabeth Hardwick castigated the New York Times Book Review for “flat praise and … faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article,” she might have been speaking today. So too when, in the same essay, she wrote, “Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns.”
Things have only got worse since Hardwick composed those baleful lines. Consumer culture has fostered a blockbuster mentality in which sales figures stand in for literary value; a pervasive anti-intellectualism has fostered a culture besotted with light entertainment, heavy moralizing, and writing aimed at a young adult audience. Newspaper and magazine pages devoted to the coverage of books and literature are disappearing, replaced by emotive TikTok videos in which users pull faces for the camera, crying crocodile tears over the death of a favourite character in an au courant fantasy series that will no doubt be forgotten six months from now.
In Canada, the critic and professor Northrop Frye – a figure deeply unfashionable today – wrote in 1956 that “the critic of Canadian literature has to settle uneasily somewhere between the Canadian historian or social scientist, who has no comparative value-judgments to worry about, and the ordinary literary critic, who has nothing else.” In 2022, the value judgments of “ordinary literary critics,” those vanishingly few who remain, are dismissed in favour of sociological commentary and bland middlebrow pontificating.
Objectors will complain that these examples from the middle 20th century are outdated; this is in large part testament to the dearth of this kind of writing by general interest critics outside the academy in the current context. William Giraldi quotes another piece by Hardwick to make this point: “[I]n a 1987 essay, Elizabeth Hardwick says this: ‘The charms of publication, the escalation of the discovery that almost anyone can be a writer, have been accompanied by a devaluation of the product required.’ If Hardwick were alive today, she’d be downright apoplectic.”
But apoplexy is hardly useful for the true devotee of literature and its unique pleasures: the appreciation of real aesthetic style, an original voice, a fresh approach to language, a keen and unsparing eye for the way we live today. (One abiding philosophy to which this site adheres comes from the late Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who said that being an artist means never averting your eyes.) These are the qualities That Shakespearean Rag was created to promote and celebrate.
The site features a range of literary content, separated broadly into three categories. “The Colophon” is a general interest catch-all, emphasizing but not restricted to Canadian writing and publishing. Here the reader will find reviews, author interviews, and publishing industry pieces. “Brief Encounters” is dedicated to short fiction – a chronically underappreciated and underserved form that represents some of the best literary output being produced today, as well as a rich and vibrant literary history. “The Horror Show” is a passion project devoted to the most disreputable of genres; in addition to reviews and news, it investigates our perennial fascination with the dark side of human nature and its enduring audience throughout history.
While the site is intended to showcase the creator’s literary enthusiasms, one ancillary enthusiasm is the ability to feed oneself; therefore, a modest subscription fee of $5/month – less than the price of a cup of coffee and breakfast pastry in most markets – is being charged for access to content beyond the first three articles. It is hoped that this will help offset authorial penury and allow the creation of more material in the future.
That Shakespearean Rag is conceived, written, and managed by Steven W. Beattie.