Solving the Literary Critical Crisis

Nigel Beale points to some startlingly reactionary remarks from Salon’s “Internet Killed the Critical Star” article. Now that I’ve read this “discussion” a second time, Nigel is right. Why would anyone go to the trouble of reading a literary critic if there is “no intention of ever opening books they tout?” Is Miller really so recalcitrant a reader that she’s incapable of picking up a book that James Wood has liked and deciding for herself whether it’s any good? Is she seriously suggesting that there isn’t a single work of fiction overlapping her tastes and Wood’s tastes? This strikes me as a sad, incurious, and mononuclear existence. Perhaps Miller prefers a supplemental relationship with literature, as opposed to something that involves the book itself!

Here is my solution to the literary critical “crisis”: To ensure that those practicing literary criticism still maintain some passion for books, I think that all literary critics should be asked what they read for fun. Not a list of the greatest books. Just the last thing they read for fun. If the literary critic cannot name a single book that made them laugh, filled them with joy, or otherwise caused them to get excited over the last year, then the guilty literary critic should be banned from writing for any newspaper or periodical for a six-month period until they can truly embrace a love for literature. This should weed out the dullards and the dimwits and the humorless individuals who transform the promising pastures of literary criticism into soporific fallow.


  1. “Here is my solution to the literary critical ‘crisis’: To ensure that those practicing literary criticism still maintain some passion for books…”

    The obviously unfounded implication here being that “passion” behind any activity is a predictor of quality in the results. No: quite a few of the earnestly half-arsed or untalented are driven by passion. Marion “Rosebud” Davies was a “passionate” singer whose voice could crack mirrors (and kill small dogs); Uwe Boll is a “passionate” filmmaker.

    Isn’t that “passion produces wonderments” superstition a hokey tenet of the faux-egalitarian, New Age, post-PC morass we’ve been mucking around in for decades? Isn’t “passion” the universal fairy dust that “passionate” makers of money use to sell fantasies with?

    I see culture-wide crystals of mutual-congratulation forming, passionate in their unifying greed for validation. I’m also seeing less and less work of genuine merit and gigatons of crap. Coincidence? Hardly.

    Was Paul Bowles a “passionate” writer? Is Joan Didion? What if Pynchon is “passionate” about jazz but merely a genius at writing? Frankly, I associate (self-professed) “passion” with B-listers like Herman Wouk or creeps like William F. Buckley or out-of-control burnouts like Bobby Fischer. It’s a histrionic term to apply to anyone who is, necessarily, forced to do rather lots of cool-headed calculation-and-revision for most of every productive day.

    It’s kind of a showbizzy junk word when it comes to Art, Ed, though I know that plenty of people who wouldn’t know the difference have rather “passionate” opinions on the matter. I’m fully prepared to be ignored or jeered at for this post (by the usuals), but how about some boldly idea-generating discourse instead?

    Lost cause?

  2. I’m with Steven on this one. Passion is no guarantee of either interesting or rigorous criticism. It may inspire such criticism, and the very best criticism may be that which communicates love of its subject along with compelling analysis, but on its own, passion (or enthusiasm, or whatever you want to call it) is as likely to generate “soporific fallow” as to counteract it.

    That said, every critic I know (and as it happens, most of my best friends are literary critics) is extraordinarily passionate about literature and would have no trouble generating a list of the kind you mention.

  3. I’d say that asking critics to name a book they read recently for fun would make the point that not all of their reading is for professional reasons. Critics who only have time to read on assignment is more likely to have their opinions warped and jaded by purely professional concerns.

  4. I’m with Ed on this one, I’m afraid, Kids. Only I think we should refine our definition of what particular passions our sanctioned critics may experience. Here’s how we do it: we show each critic a photograph of James Wood and those who fail to react with rage, paranoia, jealousy, and ressentiment, we take out back and shoot.

  5. Nah, James Wood isn’t a problem; he’s just one guy with an opinion or two. It’s his legion of bumbling disciples that can be a drag now and then, but even *that* nuisance is, more often than not, funny. There’s more important stuff to worry about, in any case, than who agrees with us, or doesn’t, at any given moment, eh? This isn’t politics (unless one considers it the pointless politics of the virtual hive), in which votes count, or popularity confers an advantage.

    Here’s an idea: why not go read a good book? Far-fetched… ?

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