Predictably enough, the symposium on "Why Criticism Matters" in the January 2 New York Times Book Review primarily if unwittingly illustrates just about everything that's wrong with literary criticism as practiced in most general-interest print publications. Its very appearance indirectly reveals what's wrong with "criticism" at the New York Times Book Review: Each of the participants is a literary critic, and each focuses on the function of criticism in relation to literature, but the Book Review offers very little criticism of fiction and poetry beyond the most heralded current writers or the hottest new releases. Many of the "major" reviews of fiction (there are no major reviews of poetry) discuss the political and sociological rather than the literary implications of the book under review, which is of a piece with the general orientation of the New York Times Book Review to treat all books as "news" and as part of a "conversation" about "culture." The NYTBR is concerned with "ideas" not with literature, which is a defensible approach to reviewing books in general, but if Sam Tanenhaus is really interested in the function of literary criticism at the present time, he should devote more space to the practice of it in the publication he edits rather than pretending that criticism matters by publishing this symposium.
One of the critics featured, Adam Kirsch, conveniently enough more or less articulates the reigning assumptions about criticism (more specifically book reviewing) exemplified by the NYTBR. According to Kirsch, "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." A "serious critic is one who says something true about life and the world." The critic doesn't examine, explicate, interpret, or appreciate the work of novelists or poets, he/she competes with the novelist and critic in interpreting "experience." This justifies, even requires, that the critic roam beyond mere literature "because thinking about literature eventually means thinking about society and politics." Indeed, "the study of literature gives you the best vantage point from which to understand an entire society."
Putting aside whether this last claim is actually true (I think it most certainly is not--social science is the proper medium for understanding "society"), that Adam Kirsch believes it explains not just why he is welcome at the New York Times Book Review but also why he has become such a ubiquitous presence as a reviewer at many other periodicals that fancy themselves as providing through book reviews a "vantage point from which to understand an entire society." Perhaps some readers find Adam Kirsch's "thinking about society" enlightening, but I've read enough of his reviews to conclude he has nothing more interesting to say about the subject than any other cultural pundit recycling received wisdom and the usual banalities. This is how I feel about too many "literary" critics given prominent space in too many publications featuring book reviews. The New York Times Book Review is frequently criticized for not including enough reviews of translated fiction (as they should be), but I think a plausible explanation for this phenomenon is that there aren't as many critics available and prepared to bloviate about the sociocultural affairs in non-English speaking countries as there are those willing to pronounce on the "society and politics" of the United States or Great Britain.
Even more extreme in its elevation of the book reviewer to a lofty status is Sam Anderson's contribution. Anderson believes that the increasing influence of the Internet means that critics will need to jazz up their prose styles, apparently in order to reach the attention-challenged readers of online book reviews. I can't disagree that "The contemporary critic has to be an evangelist. . .for literary experience itself," but I don't see why that has to involve condescension toward the reader's capacity to attend to serious criticism focused on the literary experience. I also can't disagree that "the critic needs, above all else, to write well," but that is precisely the nub of the issue: what makes literary criticism well-written? Criticism may indeed be "words about words," but this does not mean that what emerges from the critical exchange with a text is "a third, hybrid, ultratext." Anderson vastly overestimates the number of "great writers [who] have done their best work" as critics. I can think of only a few: Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, perhaps William Gass. If he means that many critics have been "great writers," as opposed to astute critics whose insights are still valid, I also think he's wrong. It's precisely when the critic becomes more preoccupied with the "writing," with producing an "ultratext," than with accurate description and illuminating analysis that criticism stops performing its useful service to literature.
Criticism is not in a contest with works of poetry and prose for readers' interest. It requires, in fact, an initial humility before those "words" that are the occasion of criticism in the first place. Only then can judgment, positive or negative, be rooted in the effort to understand those words.
Anderson tells us that "My favorite work is always that which allows itself to imaginatively intermingle with its source text — to somehow match or channel or negate the energy of the text that inspired it. It can be imitative, competitive or collaborative; it can mimic or mock or scramble or counterbalance the tone of the source. It can be subtle or overt. But it will always have this doubled-over, creative quality: one memorable writer responding, in memorable writing, to another." God help us. Such "imaginative interminglings" make criticism into just a faint shudder in the death throes of "literary journalism" (including Sam Anderson's own--especially including Sam Anderson's own.)
Elif Batuman articulates a more pretentious version of the critic-centric theory of criticism. Batuman advances a view of the critic as interpretive sage, able to take a synoptic perspective on texts as manifestations of larger forces. She first posits Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams as a model of this sort activity, although she disclaims the idea that novels work like dreams, albeit this seems to be because Freudian-inspired analysis dwells too much on authors' "sexual development" rather than the text and its symbology. She then concludes instead that what a literary text is like is "a gigantic multifarious dream produced by a historical moment." I'm not sure this revision introduces a substantive distinction (it just suggests dreams are about history rather than sex), but so be it. The critic's job, then is "less to exhaustively explain any single work than to identify, in a group of works, a reflection of some conditioned aspect of reality." The individual work of literature almost completely drops out of sight in this critical dispensation, replaced by the critic's new "ultratext" in which he/she is free to rewrite the underlying texts to suit his/her interpretive agenda, as when Fredric Jameson, whom Batuman cites, transforms Proust's depiction of high society into a “'distorted' reflection of the Marxist Utopia." Alternately, the critic might offer up "a pile of literary-historical instances..followed by an historical explanation." This allows history or culture to become the text, and again the critic doesn't need to bother with a responsible reading of any one merely literary text for the sake of its own integrity.
Identifying and delineating a trend in fiction or poetry is an entirely justifiable thing to do, but it is only one task tthat literary criticism might perform. Ideally it would be the first step in a process that would ultimately include closer consideration of individual texts, which are, after all, what readers actually encounter. Batuman wants to make the synoptic approach the primary strategy of literary criticism. Insofar as this view of criticism emphasizes the performance of the critic for its own sake, it is of a piece with the views of Kirsch and Anderson. Insofar as it emphasizes history and culture over literature, it is also of a piece with current academic criticism, which similarly finds the cultural more interesting than the literary.
Stephen Burn is an academic critic, but his essay is the most cogent of the bunch, even echoing the criticism I have been making of the other contributions."It's time," he writes, "to hear less of critics talking about themselves, spinning reviews out of their charming memories or using the book under review as little more than a platform to promote themselves and their agendas." He also correctly discerns that the questions about the role of criticism (and thus the motivation of the NYTBR symposium itself) have been sharpened by the emergence of online literary discussion and its threat to the authority of the book reviewing establishment. Further, he believes literary criticism can actually take advantage of the new medium to produce a new, better form of book reviewing. This would involve developing what Burn calls "different kinds of vertical or horizontal mapping." Vertical mapping would include the kind of extra-textual commentary described by Kirsch and Batuman, by which an effort is made "to ascertain where a work fits into the contemporary and historical field," although for Burn this would tend toward attempts to assess genre or literary history. It would also involve the kind of grouping favored by Batuman, for example noting "the dominance of time as a thematic obsession in works of the last 20 years, or the emergence of the family epic. . .as it becomes perhaps the signature subgenre of the American novel today." However, in Burn's version attention would remain on particular works that happen to foreground such issues, not on the "ultratext" constructed by the critic.
Horizontal mapping would lead to such things as the "analysis of the hidden springs that govern the shape of the novel’s sentences" or "an effort to establish a dialogue with the intellectual currents in other disciplines that have informed or challenged the work under review." Although this would take the critic beyond the details of the text itself, its ultimate goal again is still to illuminate the individual work under consideration. In my view, other modes of "horizontal mapping" would bring both critic and reader even closer to the work: attention not just to the "hidden springs" of the sentences, but to the material realization of "style," as well as to the "shape" of the text itself, its arrangement of sentences, through narrative or some other formal principle, into a verbal construct to the ordering and artifice of which all discussion of what a text has to "say" must remain contingent. Nevertheless, I agree with Burn that the best effect the migration of literary criticism from current mainstream print publications to blogs and online book reviews could have would be in encouraging more critics to try "delving deeper into open-minded analysis." I really don't agree that this new criticism would need to completely forgo "opinion." A better balance between "mapping" and judgment is what is needed.
Burn's brief for a transformed literary criticism harkens back to an older model of academic criticism, one that did emphasize close analysis as the proper ambition of serious literary criticism. It isn't clear whether Burn would like to see academic criticism return to this model, since the focus of his essay, as is the case with all the contributions, is on generalist book reviewing. As Rohan Maitzen points out, all six of the participants in this symposium more or less "conflate criticism with book reviewing," probably assuming that when the New York Times Book Review sponsors a forum on "criticism" what it is looking for is a discussion of the sort of thing it does.The divide between what publications like NYTBR do with books and what academic critics do with books has become so wide that the former can't really regard as criticism anything other than the journalistic book review, while the latter don't generally consider such a review to really be criticism at all. Burn's essay is to some extent an effort to bridge this gap, but it still assumes that the proposals made would be applied in the writing of better book reviews. Cyber criticism would be most successful if it broke down the association of "criticism" with "book review" and the presumption that any more extended criticism is inevitably ponderous and pedantic.
Burn's essay also unfortunately points up another serious limitation of "Why Criticism Matters": like all the other contributions, it restricts its attention exlusively to criticism and reviews of fiction. (Kirsch is a poet, but his essay provides no more than a few passing references to poets and poetry.) This is of course also reflective of the reviewing practices at the New York Times Book Review, where poetry is reviewed--well, "infrequently" would be an understatement, even if a poetry "column" appears every once in a while. Any invocation of "literature and crticism" that proceeds as if poetry can simply be ignored hardly seems credible. As far as that's concerned, there's no discussion in this symposium of reviewing nonfiction, either, as if "criticism" can't be relevant to writing other than fiction, primarily the kind of "notable" fiction pre-selected by the editor of the NYTBR. Since the great majority of books reviewed at the NYTBR, and most newspaper book reviews, is non-fiction, this seems peculiar. Ultimately it works to make this symposium seem not as much an effort to justify the approach to book reviewing taken by the most high profile book review in the country but mostly just incoherent.