In his frequent posts on the goals of literary criticism, Nigel Beale often falls back on his core notion that criticism is essentially an evaluative act, an attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff in literature, to identify those works that are worth readers' further attention and those that are not. I have on several occasions responded to Nigel's assertions by emphasizing that criticism should be at least as much descriptive as evaluative, an effort to account for a work's effects as honestly and thoroughly as possible--and to do so on its own terms--before passing critical judgment. Indeed, I have argued, and continue to believe, that literary criticism in its most useful form more or less takes for granted the superior accomplishment of the work at hand and proceeds to illuminate the strategies by which the work has brought this off.
But then I am reminded when reading something like these remarks by J.R. Lennon at the blog Ward Six of the need for honest evaluation, at least in book reviewing:
. . .knowing lots of other writers is nearly inevitable, especially if you study or teach at a college, and for the most part it's desirable, too.
It becomes problematic, though, when you wish to perform the geuinely useful act of substantively criticizing other people's work. What if you end up on a panel with that writer someday, or have to deliver a reading together? What if that writer reviews books, as well, and yours falls onto her desk?. . .
Writers should criticize one another, respectfully and carefully. To offer only praise for the things you like doesn't quite constitute a useful dialogue--if something bugs you about a peer's work, and you can support your views, you ought to be able to express them, calmly, without the fear of making an enemy--and you should have the humility to accept similar criticism yourself. . . .
It's at first hard to disagree that a writer acting as critic would want "to perform the genuinely useful act of substantively criticizing other people's work," but unfortunately Lennon frames this discussion of "criticism" as a criticism useful mostly to the writer on whose work the critical comments focus. They shouldn't be so critical as to make the next panel discussion uncomfortable; they should be in the form of "useful dialogue" between colleagues; above all, presumably, they should be "respectful" and "careful," the sort of comments that can be supported with specific examples.
This is criticism as derived from writing program workshops. It's a "dialogue" among "peers" learning, and later practicing, the craft, but it doesn't take either the reader or the larger context of literature itself, within which the reader must approach the work, into account. The service it provides is a service to a fellow writer, who would no doubt benefit from the constructive criticism Lennon advocates, but it hardly acts as "substantive" criticism except as advice to fellow writers about ways to improve their practice. Surely it does not amount to the kind of substantive criticism one would hope to get from literary critics who conceive their first and primary commitment to be to literature as a whole, defined as an ongoing collective enterprise with an identifiable history to which current works inevitably have a meaningful relationship and among whose current exponents some equally meaningful connections can be made. Such critics must take works of fiction and poetry to be important (or not) beyond their origins in the effort of any one particular writer, certainly beyond their status as samples of "other people's work."
Not only, then, is Lennon mistaken to suggest that "the only people who are really qualified to review books are other writers," but to extent that these writers are unable to transcend the kind of "respectful" attitude their workshop training instills, they are probably the least qualified kind of book reviewers. Literary critics have to make judgments that leave behind concern for writers' self-esteem, even when this exposes one's own writerly self-esteem to similar injury. They have to accept being occasionally, perhaps always, unpopular. Probably they have to forego the opportunity to attend dinner parties with other writers.