Sunday, January 2, 2011

Criticism matters (but all of it?)

Today the NY Times Book Review featured a forum on "Why Criticism Matters," which is nevertheless worth the read if you want to hear where (some of) the general concerns lie for/about the genre of literary criticism. I recommend the contributions by Pankaj Mishra, Sam Anderson, and Elif Batuman. However, Tim Yu provides a more complete scope about the gimmicks and (often paradoxical) concerns of professional, as opposed to academic and to amateur, criticism in his post: "Does (Paid) Criticism Matter?" He notes that it is a classic example of one-upmanship by the self-marketing, quasi-insular, honorific (bourgeois?) literary scene that wishes to appear as the specialized-though-not-too-specialized arbiters between the potentially misunderstood artist and the ignorant public. As if to appose specialized "esoteric" prose and a terrestrial, "commonsense" content (or, if you like, a time-consuming, tediously prepared meal and the quick, packaged, healthy supplement meal in a candy bar), and ask: Which would you prefer? Yu notes: "Fading into irrelevance themselves, paid critics shore up their position by pointing to the even greater irrelevance of the academic writer." This does seem to be the editors' point, but it is also to advertise, to re-romanticize the life of the paid writer; the very sort of aphoristic tragedy that works to dignify MFA programs (which they discourage ostensibly) as a dying breed. The point is, isn't it rather insulting to lament the wavering interest of the "common reader" (a construct) with a hopeful tone that concessions can be made. 'You may resemble dumb, ungrateful animals, but we can win you back!' Although Anderson's piece makes the case that Criticism plays a vital role in the intertextual production (and play) of meaning, the feature's title "Why Criticism Matters" is pure genre-pandering. The question begged, 'Does it matter?' suggests an unconscious opinion poll. Yu makes it clear: this is an ad campaign for the major reviewing venues. Paid-criticism presents a more palatable alternative for the reader. To me, this seems a greater sin than (arguably, over-)specialized criticism, which doesn't take the reader for an impossibly limited beast. The question is: do paid-critics feel threatened? Does the web's increased access to free content pose a danger to the print/subscription-limited reading industry? Have they failed to build an insurmountable hedge around their commercial production of homogeneous Taste?

Also, we mustn't forget, as Yu reminds the NYT: "The range of books reviewed has become narrower; readers of poetry in particular know that the major book reviews abandoned us long ago."

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