I don’t want to leave the impression that frustration with the rigidity of academic practices is all I took away from my Louisville conference experience. There was definitely value for me in the work I put into my own paper, as well as in hearing and discussing the papers my co-panelists presented. So I thought I’d follow up my previous post with a sketch of the questions I went to Louisville to talk about.
My paper was called “Book Blogging and the Crisis of Critical Authority.” During the discussion after our papers, all of the panelists agreed that things have died down since the days when you could hardly turn around without seeing yet another “bloggers ruin everything” article. A few diehards still take every opportunity to decry the temerity of feckless amateurs who think they can just go online, say whatever they want, and call themselves “critics” (I’m looking at you, William Giraldi), but by and large (as Dan’s paper convincingly argued) the success of many serious web magazines has proven that online criticism can be as good as if not better than its old media competition, and book blogs in all their idiosyncratic variety are now a familiar, if not always respected, feature of the critical landscape.
Daniel Mendelsohn’s conspicuously temperate “Critic’s Manifesto” was one sign of the changing times; in it he acknowledged (as so many of his professional colleagues would not) the existence of “serious longform review-essays by deeply committed lit bloggers.” Mendelsohn did still conclude that “everyone is not a critic”; he cites “expertise and authority” as crucial qualifications (“knowledge … was clearly the crucial foundation of the judgment to come”) along with a more ineffable quality that he sums up as “taste” (“whatever it was in the critic’s temperament or intellect or personality that the work in question worked on“). Though he concedes that the requisite knowledge does not depend on formal credentials such as Ph.D.s, he does ultimately describe the critic’s job as being “to educate and edify” — so, it’s still a top-down or hierarchical model.
Mendelsohn’s article was one of the sources I cited in my paper, in which I explored some questions about what we mean by “critical authority.” As he notes, once you move outside the academy degrees are neither a necessary nor a sufficient measure of the relevant expertise. But it’s not easy to pin down what does count, how authority is established, especially in a field of inquiry where there are no sure or absolute standards of judgment. Literary critics know that their authority is unstable because the history of criticism teaches us how judgments change over time, while simple experience shows us how much they differ among individuals. We can call variant assessments “gaffes” or “errors in individual taste,” as Mendelsohn does in his recent New York Times review of A. O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism, but he can’t actually prove that “early and wince-inducing takedowns of John Keats’s poetry, [or] of “Moby-Dick” are flat-out wrong any more than I could convince my Modernist colleagues that George Eliot is objectively a better novelist than James Joyce. Still, the rhetoric of criticism as well as its traditional methods of delivery typically seek at least the appearance of offering definitive judgments. As Sebastian Domsch argues in his interesting essay about ways the internet transforms critical genres, criticism has typically attempted to be and sound “monologic,” as if “everything that needed to be said has been said and there are no more follow-up questions possible.”
One reason blogging aroused such hostility, I proposed, was that it exposed the artifice of this model, and indeed of any idea of literary criticism as a series of edicts issued from on high, leaving critics themselves exposed, not as frauds, but as less authoritative than they pretended to be. As Mendelsohn says in his review of Scott, “the advent of the Internet” has “rais[ed] still further questions about authority, expertise and professionalism”; I argued that it has done so by breaking down monologic forms and exposing the inherently dialogic nature of both critical judgments and critical authority. Domsch defines “critical authority” as “the level of acceptance that is conceded by a reader to an aesthetic value judgment”: I think he is right to emphasize that this kind of authority is not inherent in the speaker but conferred by context and audience. In my paper I drew on Wayne Booth’s notion of “coduction” to make the case for the importance of dialogue in developing critical judgments, and I pointed to blogging as a form that establishes “follow-up questions” as both a natural and an inevitable part of criticism.
If critical authority is not something you simply have but something you have to earn and maintain by your own participation in a dialogue — if it is best understood not so much as a top-down assertion of superiority (“the critic’s job,” Mendelsohn proposes in his recent review, “is to be more educated, articulate, stylish, and tasteful … than her readers have the time or inclination to be”) but as a process of establishing yourself as someone whose input into an ongoing conversation is sought and valued — that helps explain why “expertise” is such a tricky thing to define for a critic. Mendelsohn’s original formal training is as a classicist — despite his wide-ranging erudition and critical prestige, he would almost certainly not qualify for an academic position in any other field — but obviously he has written with considerable insight on a wide range of subjects, from Stendhal to Mad Men. That so many of us read Mendelsohn’s criticism with interest and attention no matter what he writes about is a sign that we have come to trust him, not as the last word on these subjects, but as someone who will have something interesting (“meaningful,” to use one of his key terms) to say about them. If we disagree with him, we are not challenging his authority but continuing the conversation — and in fact one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is how little disagreement really matters to this kind of critical authority. If what we go to criticism for is a good conversation, then engaged disagreement can be seen as a sign of authority — a sign that you care enough about the critic’s perspective to tussle with it, if you like. I can think of a number of critics in venues from personal blogs to the New Yorker whose views I would not defer to, but which I want to know because they provoke me to keep thinking about my own readings — which (however definitive the rhetoric I too adopt in my more formal reviewing) I always understand to be provisional, statements of how something looked to me in that moment, knowing what I knew then, caring about what I cared about then.
I’m not saying we can’t or shouldn’t defend our critical assessments, but awash as we are and always have been in such a variety of them, it would be naively arrogant at best and solipsistic at worst to imagine ourselves as “getting it right,” no matter who we are or where we publish. Blogging very often reflects that open-endedness in its tone, and its form is based on just the process Booth describes as “coduction”:
‘Of the works of this general kind that I have experienced, comparing my experience with other more or less qualified observers, this one seems to me among the better (or weaker) ones, or the best (or worst). Here are my reasons.’ Every such statement implicitly calls for continuing conversation: ‘How does my coduction compare with yours?’
The comment box makes that implicit call explicit. This doesn’t mean “erudition, taste and authority” (the qualities Mendelsohn repeatedly invokes) don’t matter — though the extent to which they matter will depend on what you want from criticism. Domsch argues, for instance, that Amazon reviewing ultimately returns us to the most monologic form of criticism: people seek out, or are steered to (by algorithms, ‘like’ buttons and so on) the reviewer whose views and tastes are closest to their own, and once they find their “virtual” critical self, their critical proxy, as it were, they have found their perfect authority, a guarantor of their own well-established tastes. But Amazon is fundamentally about shopping. If you read criticism for some reason other than deciding which book to buy next, you are likely to look for and concede authority to different qualities. In my paper I noted that I don’t want to be told about books — I want to talk about books. So sympathetic as I am with most of what Mendelsohn says, I resist his insistence on the critic’s superiority as a necessary or structural part of the relationship.
The result of accepting, rather than resisting, the challenge blogging poses to old-fashioned critical forms is, I argued, not a catastrophically relativistic criticism of the kind Peter Stothard dreaded but a pluralistic criticism, such as that described by Carl Wilson in Let’s Talk About Love:
a more pluralistic criticism might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment, with all its messiness and private soul tremors — to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare. This kind of exchange takes place sometimes on the internet, and it would be fascinating to have more dialogic criticism: here is my story, what is yours?
I’d be very interested to know what you think about this argument, particularly about my proposal to redefine “critical authority” in a more reciprocal and context-dependent way than the anti-bloggers always do. What makes a critic “authoritative” to you? Or is “authority” not something you think or care about? If it isn’t, how would you explain what makes a critic someone you want to listen to or engage with? Are there critics you pay attention to because their taste (I might prefer the term “sensibility” myself) reflects yours, or because they push you to less familiar points of view? Does disagreeing with a critic make you doubt them, or does it depend on the critic, or the context? More generally, what do you want from criticism, and how do you think that affects where you read it and who you listen to?
The first picture here is one I took of the Big Four Bridge across the Ohio River from Louisville to the Indiana side. It was a really nice walk across and back!