"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Critiquing the Critics

When I was younger, I thought 'critical' comments meant harsh comments, until I realized there was such a thing as 'constructive criticism.' Now, as a 22-year-old, I'm reformulating my ideas about criticism once again. One of my courses this year is dedicated to exploring the creative side of literary criticism, and the more I read for the course, the more I realize that I'm just not satisfied by the narrow definition of criticism that pervades the academic world.

I've never been a big fan of the scholarly articles that college professors encourage us to read and quote in support of our arguments in term papers. Although these critics' ideas can be great - changing the way I read a novel, or teaching me a really important part of its historical context, for example - the way they express those ideas can be very clunky. And that's just the run-of-the-mill critics. What's worse is that, when you get to the really big name critics, whose ideas have spawned entire schools of criticism, the writing is even worse, sometimes totally opaque.

I really dislike having to show up in class and stumble sentence by sentence through an essay that no one except the professor understands - we always wind up floundering in the text, trying to understand it instead of actually discussing it. What I dislike even more, however, is the idea that I should have to spend hours reading and rereading a writer's argument in order to be able to make any semblance of a commentary on it in class or in my own essays. I get graded on the clarity of my essays; why should I cut Jacques Derrida or Roland Barthes more slack than my professors cut me? After all, they're supposed to be geniuses, while I am but a lowly student. Could they really not take a minute or two to stop philosophizing and clean up their prose?

So we have two problems. 1: the average critics try so hard to be clear and follow the rules of scholarly writing that they write utterly boring stuff. 2: the avant-garde critics try so hard to be original and break the rules that they write utterly incomprehensible stuff. What to do? How to write creatively without losing clarity? How to write clearly without sounding just like everyone else?

I suspect the answer may be a simple one (or a deceptively simple one): how about just writing well? But not within the rubric of good academic writing. I think scholarly criticism needs to take a deep breath and look around at other types of criticism being written outside of academia, and maybe then critics can learn something from their colleagues. Good writing has various virtues, including clarity, elegance, organic-ness (matching form to content), rhetorical power, etc. So yes, it's not easy to make them all work together. But some authors have succeeded very well. George Orwell wrote gorgeous essays while simultaneously making very important points about politics and language and political language. David Brooks, who writes for the New York Times, produces great little op-ed pieces about current events, managing to express an interesting cultural critique in a very short form. James Wood (you can find a lot of his articles in the New Yorker and other similar publications) writes literary analysis that is as fun to read as the novels he covers. Anthony Lane (also of the New Yorker) writes film reviews that are both entertaining and educational, offering a subtle instruction in how to watch and appreciate an enormous range of movies.

The problem is that not all of these authors fall under the category of 'critics' in academia. In a hypothetical example, if I were writing a term paper about marriage values in a certain novel, I could quote David Brooks on the importance of choosing a good life partner in modern life, but I would not get credit for that citation because it's not from an accredited scholarly source. Academia reinforces its ivory tower image by segregating its version of criticism from any other kind of journalistic or other forms of writing about culture. Because that, to me, is what criticism comes down to. People writing about culture, providing a new perspective on a book, a painting, a fashion trend, anything. I just read an essay by Benjamin Friedlander, where he describes the way books inspire such different reactions from different readers and then sums up the role of the critic very well: "What, after all, is a critic, if not a reader who takes his pen in hand in order to substantiate the reality produced in his or her head [by a certain book]?" (This is from his introduction to his book, Simulcasts, if you're interested).

So why such a strict definition of what counts as good enough to support the argument of a term paper? According to Friedlander, every critic's argument is a personal one, more or less well-argued or well-written. This is not like scientific writing, where accredited journals weed out properly and ethically run experiments from amateurs' crazy hypotheses. This is just people talking about books, arguing over fictional worlds, about people and events that never even happened. I think we should stop being afraid of putting the personal into the critical/argumentative mode of writing. When I read those accredited scholarly articles, I feel like I'm reading something written by the machine of academia, not by a person who has actually read the book they're talking about, let alone (god forbid!) enjoyed it.

When I think of criticism, I think of all sorts of different kinds of essay-form, non-fiction writing about cultural objects, and I want to be able to blend those forms and approaches freely. That phrase that I learned years ago, 'constructive criticism' - well, that kind of criticism can come from so many perspectives and angles. In fact, often the most constructive feedback a person or a work can get is the feedback of many different people, who come to a book or an author with different expectations and desires, for entertainment, enlightenment, or escape. As a writer/reader, I think it's valuable to cultivate flexibility, in order to write great, multi-faceted books and read other people's great, multi-faceted books in the way they'd like best to be read.

So there you go, I'm still learning things.

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