More on the Purpose of Criticism

Some time ago I posted some thoughts on Cynthia Ozick’s Harper’s essay “Literary Entrails” (see “Academic Criticism Criticized”). Belatedly, I notice that there was a good posting in response to it at Scott Esposito’s Conversational Reading which concludes that “Ozick’s better criticism . . . would add another reason to read, a further way to engage a book once it had been closed and to continually re-think and re-evaluate books that have been around for a while. This might not bring any new readers into the fold, but it might make better readers out of those who already do so. Over time, I think that would make books better for everyone.” I like the idea that the critic’s role is to keep us engaged and to encourage us to “re-think and re-evaluate” what we have read; as both this author and Ozick emphasize, the pace of reviewing can be too hasty to allow for a “slower, more contemplative critical approach to literature.” For myself, I have been finding it exhausting trying to keep pace at all with the texts and topics addressed in litblogs and literary journals: I’m starting to look forward to the start of the teaching term in September because I will be back to worrying obsessively over a small handful of books, and to feel grateful for “the canon,” however unstable or elastic its definition, if only because the very idea of a canon implies that there is no obligation to pay attention to everything!

Meanwhile, at The Reading Experience, Dan Green has some good things to say about the distinction between reviewing and criticism: “The essential task of criticism is not to evaluate fiction. It is an essential task of reviewing, but criticism can take place entirely outside the context of judgment and evaluation, or at least it can take place in a context that assumes evaluation and judgment have already taken place. Some of the best criticism attempts not to argue for the merits of a particular work but to describe and analyze a work the critic already values and wants to “read” more closely. Sometimes this results in convincing readers of the quality of the work, but doing that has not been the critic’s primary task.” I like to think in terms of appreciation rather than evaluation, because it sidelines the issue of taste. I can appreciate a work of fiction for being artful, well-crafted, original, historically significant, etc. without actually liking it (Pamela, anyone?). Yet I am unlikely to devote a lot of critical time (or classroom time) to any text that I am not personally convinced has value, whether artistic, intellectual, social, or some combination. We value different books for different reasons, after all. I’m not sure I’d want to convince anyone of the quality of, say, Gaskell’s Mary Barton, though I enjoy reading and teaching it and consider it an important example of Victorian social problem fiction. On the other hand, I find I am prepared to expend a great deal of energy convincing people of the value of Bleak House or Middlemarch! Of course, when past works are the ones at issue, there’s presumably no longer any question of reviewing them–or is there? Actually, that’s an interesting question, and one linked to my ongoing musings about the potential role of something like a blog in my own work. How or why could writing about a ‘classic’ be relevant, useful, desirable to a contemporary audience? I still hold to the fairly simple distinction that reviewing is a form of literary journalism that requires a specific occasion as an incentive, while criticism has more abstract (longitudinal?) interests. In any case, I like Green’s comment that criticism is “a way of paying attention and of perhaps assisting others in the effort to pay closer attention.” Like the comments at Conversational Reading, this one reminds me of Booth’s idea of “coduction,” which seems to me an excellent model of the way our judgments of literature are in fact formed and reformed.

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