Cynthia Ozick makes at least one very important point in her essay, "Literary Entrails," in the April, 2007 Harper's Magazine:
. . .in searching for the key to the Problem of the Contemporary Novel (or Novelist), there are cupboards where it is useless to look. And there are reasons that do not apply: writers vying for the highest rung of literary prestige; potential readers distracted by the multiplicity of storytelling machines. Feuds and jealousies are hardly pertinent [e.g., Ben Marcus vs. Jonathan Franzen], and the notorious decline of reading, while incontrovertible, may have less to do with the admittedly shaky situation of literary fiction than many believe. The real trouble lies not in what is happening but in what is not happening.
What is not happening is literary criticism.
Unfortunately, Ozick isn't very precise in explaining what she means by "literary criticism," beyond conjuring up a critic possessing "a powerfully persuasive, and pervasive, intuition for how [novels] are connected, what they portend in the aggregate, how they comprise and color an era." Even more unfortunately, she doesn't bother to bring poetry within the purview of criticism, which might have forced her to identify those elements of the critic's task that take criticism beyond taxonomy ("how novels are connected"), which is an important but by no means sufficient activity, and beyond noting what an era's fiction "portends," how it "colors" its time and place, which seems to me to be the job of sociologists and historians, not literary critics engaged in what I take to be their most indispensable work: reading individual novels (and poems) carefully and insightfully, giving other readers a sense of what a particularly dedicated reader experienced while attending closely to the text. The most efffective critics also bring a familiarity with literary history to bear on the text at hand, but simply pointing out "connections" and keeping track of the "aggregate" won't really do.
Ozick invokes James Wood, apparently now almost everyone's default setting for the category "critic," as an exemplar of the kind of criticism she presumably has in mind, but she quotes some of his more pompous, oracular pronouncements--"Belief is a mere appendix to magic, its unused organ. This is a moral problem" [referring to the work of Toni Morrison]--rather than any specific instance of critical analysis that might help us actually read the text more efficaciously, as opposed to admiring the critic's cute phrase-making or joining in on his moral sanctimony. Wood does frequently enough mix in plausible analysis with his moralizing, but it would seem that Ozick prefers his rhetorical posturing to his usable criticism.
Nevertheless, Ozick is right to distinguish between "literary criticism" and most book reviews and between literary criticism and academic criticism. While some book reviewers are also skillful critics (Sven Birkerts, Louis Menand, Daniel Mendelsohn) able to use the book review form to more precisely critical ends, Ozick is right to maintain that the judgments of book reviewers, even reviewers who are themselves writers, are too often "capricious," too often constrained by the formulaic structure of the book review. She is also accurate in her description of "advanced" academic criticism as limited by its "confining ideologies, heavily politicized and rendered in a kind of multi-syllabic pidgin," reducing literature to dogma. (One can only hope that she is correct in predicting such criticism is "destined to vanish like the fog [it evokes].") The success of academic criticism in appopriating "criticism" to itself, however much it has devolved into an insular discourse that long ago left any real interest in literature far behind, has created a situation in which the brief newspaper/magazine review has to suffice as "literary criticism." Ozick justifiably calls for the development of "a broad infrastructure, through a critical mass of critics," for the more amply developed kind of criticism she at least gestures toward in this essay.
This perceived need for a renewal of criticism is where I myself began when creating this blog. To some extent, I have become only more aware of how the absence of such criticism, less deadline-driven and publishing-centered, has created a situation like the one Scott Esposito describes:
Enough with the mad rush of literature where we barely have time to contemplate spring's hot titles before summer assaults us with its books. Why not linger over those spring books (and the winter ones as well), think about them a little longer, say something about them that will last past the end of the year?. . . .
Such a "mad rush" of superficial discussion can only result in a brand of reviewing that emphasizes the trendy and ephemeral, that elevates the "book business" and its trivialities over the long-term consideration of books that more people ought to read, of books that might even stand the test of time and still be read a generation from now, not just next year. One thing Ozick overlooks in her discussion of the current state of criticism is exactly where good literary criticism might appear. (One place to look would be Scott's own online critical journal, The Quarterly Conversation.) Certainly newspapers and magazines are not suddenly going to publish more of it. The current effort by the NBCC to "save" the book section at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is not likely to succeed,and if it did wouldn't make much of a difference--I can't remember the last time I read the AJC's book reviews with any seriousness. Literary quarterlies might usefully devote more of their space to criticism, but that really hasn't been happening very much, either.
In starting this blog (and joining up with other literary blogs in implicitly attempting to create a "broad infrastructure" of serious literary discussion), I was making a judgment that the blog post could come to approximate (in a perhaps more condensed form) if not replace the critical essay--the available forums for which have long been dwindling in number--as the vehicle for "literary criticism." Not only could an individual post attempt critical readings of various kinds and lengths, but that post could be linked to other posts (both of one's own, and of others considering the same subjects) in a kind of chain of critical discussion. I still believe that literary blogs can perform this function (especially since numerous other bloggers have since appeared taking what seems to be the same approach), although Cynthia Ozick either hasn't considered this option or shares the same blinkered attitude to online discourse expressed by Michael Dirda, Keith Gessen, etc. Her one mention of blogs is dismissive, as she refers to "blogging and emailing and text-messaging" as among the distractions the younger generations have succumbed to. I assume she's one of the print fetishists who can't imagine serious literary debate occuring online.
But I can't share either her snobbery or her conviction that, whether serious criticism survives or not, "novels will be written, whatever the conditions that roil around them." I think the existence of literary criticism is a necessary condition of the survival of both fiction and poetry. Without thoughtful discussion of what's being done by interesting writers, as well as continued discussion of what's been done in the past, "novels" as a form of "literature" will descend into further irrelevance. With no one to argue over what makes writing "literary" in the first place, or why such a concept even matters, novels will at best be only the first step in developing the script for the possible movie so many novels already want to be. Unless folks like Cynthia Ozick think rigorous print-based criticism is going to make a miraculous comeback in newspapers and magazines whose editors suddenly come to their senses and seek to safeguard the literary tradition, she ought to contemplate the possibility that "pixels" can form words and paragraphs and essays just as readily as ink.