Saturday, January 01, 2011

Does (Paid) Criticism Matter?

The New York Times Book Review has a feature up on “Why Criticism Matters,” with six book critics opining on the continuing value of literary criticism. Is it necessary? Is it dead? Here’s my question: what does the NYT mean by “criticism”?

They don’t just mean “reviews,” since (as the editors point out) we’re awash in those, from stars to rotten tomatoes to likes and dislikes. And they certainly don’t mean academic literary criticism, since only one of the six critics is a university professor of literature. Instead, they mean something they call “serious literary criticism,” which is less concerned with thumbs-up evaluation than with “larger implications--aesthetic, cultural, moral.”

While this would seem to give “serious criticism” broad scope, it actually severely limits the venues in which we might seek such criticism. It excludes one major mode of professional literary criticism--the kind produced by professors and published in scholarly journals--while dismissing the evaluative reviews that comprise the universe of popular and online discourse.

“Serious criticism,” then, is limited to criticism published in venues aimed at a general, literate audience—venues like the NYTBR itself, or the New York Review of Books, magazines like the New Yorker or Atlantic, or in an earlier era the Partisan Review or Paris Review. The names cited are figures like Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, or Randall Jarrell. This mode of criticism is a genre that exists in the nebulous realm between review and essay, between journalism and scholarship. To simply call it “serious” hides its particularity and reinforces its own sense of self-importance. I suggest, instead, that we follow the label offered by Katie Roiphe in her piece, which refers to the “paid critic” in order to distinguish her from the “amateur.” “Serious” criticism could more accurately be described as “paid criticism.”

“Paid criticism” is not meant to characterize this mode of criticism as crassly commercial, but to describe its place in the literary marketplace. Paid criticism is typically published in venues that pay contributors, making the critic akin to a freelance writer or journalist who is paid by the article and who may generate a significant part of his income from such publications. In contrast, scholarly journals of literary criticism do not compensate their contributors. As an English professor, I receive a salary, but I am not paid to publish, nor is my salary directly dependent on the number of articles I publish (at least in the U.S. academic system) or the number of people who read them. And “amateur” reviewers, like those on Amazon, of course receive no payment for their reviews.

It’s little wonder, then, that the NYT contributors see paid criticism as an endangered species. General-interest publications like the New Yorker or the Atlantic devote less and less space to book reviews, even as their readership declines with the rest of print media. The range of books reviewed has become narrower; readers of poetry in particular know that the major book reviews abandoned us long ago. It’s absurd to blame the Internet, as the NYT does, for this symptom of the decline of American print culture; blame TV if you have to. Paid criticism has been dying for thirty, forty, fifty years. It’s no accident that the major names cited by the NYT contributors all hail from the mid-20th-century heyday of the New York intellectuals.

So let’s restate the NYT’s question: does paid criticism matter, and should we try to revive it? Adam Kirsch presents the most eloquent case for paid criticism, arguing that a “serious critic” goes beyond evaluation of a book to say “something true about life and the world.” The serious critic is thus a figure for that even rarer bird, the social critic or public intellectual, who speaks not to a specialist audience but to the “common reader.” But Kirsch is self-aware enough to add the deadpan remark that if the body of “common readers” still exists, “the readership of The New York Times Book Review is probably it.” That’s exactly right: the “common reader” is not a sociological fact but an ideal projected by print culture. It would be foolish to imagine today (if it was ever reasonable to do so) that the readership of the NYTBR or any other book review was representative of the general public, or even of the class of readers that most matter.

That still leaves open the question of whether paid criticism should try to speak in its traditional, generalized idiom, to make statements of broad significance whether or not anyone is listening. That’s where we get to what I think is the great unspoken Other in this forum: the kind of literary criticism practiced by literature professors.

In a few days, several thousand literature professors, myself included, will descend on Los Angeles for the Modern Language Association convention, four days of panels, lectures, receptions, and book fairs focused on literature and language. The New York Times, if it bothers with us at all, will write its standard story ridiculing us and then ignore us for the rest of the year, even as it laments that no one cares about literature or criticism anymore. Academic criticism, from the perspective of the paid critic, has become irrelevant in its hyperspecialization and its obscure language—writing by professors meant only for other professors.

This rivalry between academic and paid criticism is hinted at in Pankaj Mishra’s contribution, which laments that literary criticism has become “a private language devised to yield a particular knowledge about a self-contained realm of elegant consumption.” Even Stephen Burn, the lone English professor in the group, values the opinion of “nonspecialist readers” over their “professional counterparts.” Fading into irrelevance themselves, paid critics shore up their position by pointing to the even greater irrelevance of the academic writer.

The idea that academic criticism may in fact enrich paid criticism is rarely acknowledged, but one need only think of the way terms like “deconstruct” and “postmodern” have become staples of journalistic writing (whether used correctly or not) to see how academic thought flows into the realm of journalism. Elif Bautman’s contribution to the forum is likely the first time Fredric Jameson’s essay “Marxism and Form” has been referenced in the pages of the NYT, and if the NYT editors need further evidence of the impact academic critical training can have, they need look no further than their own film critic, A.O. Scott, whose background as a graduate student in literature is evident to any professorial reader of his reviews.

The answer to this rivalry is certainly not that professors should take over the writing of paid criticism; one need only read any of the tedious and interminable articles penned by professors in the pages of the New York Review of Books to be convinced of that. Academic literary critics, too, fret about their narrow audiences and dying field, and are fond of seeking “public intellectual” status for themselves as well, only to find that there really is no such thing anymore.

There are some interesting exceptions. British publications like the London Review of Books still manage to strike something of the tone the NYT contributors idealize; perhaps this is due to the rather different relationship between academic and print-journalistic cultures in Britain (the specialization of the American university has improved its prestige compared to its European counterparts, whatever its impact on public culture), or to the more straightforwardly essayistic mode the LRB encourages (see, for instance, the LRB writings of Stanford professor Terry Castle). The Boston Review is that rare example of an American journal that seems to bridge the gap between academic and paid criticism, but it succeeds in part due to a more pointed political and intellectual focus that moves away from the fiction of the “general reader” the NYTBR still embraces.

So does paid criticism matter? In its current form, no. It is a relic of a model of print reviewing that has not been with us since at least the 1960s. It cannot even pretend to reach that narrow slice of the population formerly called “common readers” (and who were not common at all), and its insistence on walling itself off from more specialized or academic forms of criticism leaves it with an exceedingly constricted space within which to operate, with little to do but wait for Jonathan Franzen to publish his next novel. A critic wanting to speak on issues of broad social importance is more likely these days to write a work of popular science, economics, or psychology--or to write a screenplay or start a blog.

But maybe we’re looking in the wrong place altogether for the future of criticism. What if we looked not at the face-off between two professionals--the paid critic and the academic--but at the interface between the professional and the amateur? Roiphe echoes the NYT’s editors in her loathing of the Internet-empowered amateur: “so many Amazon reviewers and bloggers clamoring for attention, so many opinions and bitter misspelled rages, so much fawning ungrammatical love spewed into the ether.” Something that lively, that messy, that repulsive, is likely where we should be looking for change.

Why can’t Amazon reviewing be an art form? The Bay Area poet and critic Kevin Killian has written over 2300 Amazon reviews, covering everything from poetry to popular movies to porn, and has even collected some of his reviews in print form. A single four-paragraph review by Killian has more energy and verve than an entire issue of the NYTBR, and yet there is no tradeoff in insight: his film reviews are crammed with intertextual references (idiosyncratic, but illuminating), and his poetry reviews pop with one-of-a-kind anecdotes. They’re brilliant, damn funny, without an ounce of snobbery, and viewed by a wide public (Killian is the #65 ranked reviewer of Amazon’s many thousands). If this is the brave new face of online criticism, I’m not a bit afraid of it.