When Criticism Means Getting Over on Someone It Serves No One

The prolonged adolescence of criticism

I look at critics the way I look at suburbs. I can’t imagine a world without them, but I’m unconvinced of their worth.

When a critic alerts me to a rewarding book or exhibition or performance, I’m grateful. But if I have had to wade through snide exhibitionism for the privilege of the critic’s conclusions I’m disquieted. I see entirely too much adolescent petulance and one-upsmanship in most criticism, too much special pleading. I read the Times Literary Supplement religiously, but I would gladly do without its lapses into snideness and deployment of language in the cause of schoolyard bullying, and I could similarly cite many a less admirable review.

I have the unshakable suspicion that criticism as it is practiced among us is an artifact of a prolonged cultural adolescence. I understand its underpinnings: it sells books, films, art, performance, and therefore it’s a financial service. I also understand that to question it is to raise one more question about capitalism itself. And I understand that criticism is also a tool of non-capitalist societies. But the inescapable popular impression is that the critical establishment pays attention to all the books that deserve its attention, and this is simply not the case, no matter what critics in its hire may say. The more influential the publisher, the more advertising money he has to spend, the more critical attention is likely. The specious argument that is often heard in defense against this charge is that it is the influential publishers who are most likely to publish the best and most important books, and that, too, is simply not true. They are likely to publish the books they think they can most readily market, and there is a cosmic chasm between merit and marketability.

Is there an alternative? How else do we call attention to human creativity? My pathetically modest response has been to employ this blog to write about poets, for example, whose work delights me-and, correspondingly, to say nothing at all about work that has left me cold. To this solution, born of not having to answer to any commercial enterprise, I add one refinement: I write only when I think I might shed some light on the work at hand. In other words, I read a great deal that delights and enlightens me but about which I have little to say that could not be said better by others.

Not everyone has the luxury of old age and near-namelessness. And yet I think I’m on to something: isn’t it simply more decent to say nothing than to strut one’s sickly body of knowledge on the runway at someone else’s expense? Isn’t it, in fact, more civilized? And if criticism is not to serve civilization, what then does it serve? Its commercial sponsors, of course. I believe that much modern criticism is about getting over on someone. Surely that does not make for high culture or even, in the last analysis, for sound economics. I regard many popular television shows as a reflection of this obsession with winners and losers, with put-downs and invidious and immature comparisons. This phenomenon, it seems to me, is characteristic of a culture unwilling to acknowledge that excellence does not have to be at someone’s expense. But why this unwillingness to step over into a further dimension? I can’t answer this question. Surely there is an element of fearfulness, but I suspect that contemporary criticism, like our politics. is related to unresolved anger.

Criticism in America reflects our winner-take-all commercialization. We deserve to win the lottery, to own a McMansion, and what does not sell is not worthy. This game theory cheapens everything. It disables us in our quest for excellence, and yet it is widely celebrated as our very quest for excellence. To equate winning with riches, as we do, is to fundamentally handicap our culture. Our culture can’t excel because we don’t know how to measure excellence. Is excellence about a great book, a great painting, a medical breakthrough, or is it about making money? As a society, we literally don’t know. But by measuring with money we have ended up in hock to China. China is our pawn shop because our values had all to do with money, and we found no other way to measure achievement.

I take it as an indicator of our childish circumstance that critics so often ask themselves rhetorically if a writer can top a good book. Who the hell cares except the critic? And why does the critic care? What difference does it make? A good book is a good book. If one poet writes one superb poem and another writes a hundred superb poems, how does that diminish the one good poem? This kind of criticism betrays its cheap commercialism, but it is often disguised with hifalutin blab about a writer’s oeuvre, his legacy, his development. A good work is a good work and blather is blather.

When I was s newspaper editor I used to cull through The New York Times news service, sometimes fitting critics like Walter Kerr, Eliot Fremont-Smith, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, Bosley Crowther and several others into the available space of The Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel. I admired their restraint, tact and compassion for work they felt had gone wrong. I admired their distaste for cruelty.

They were the lords of popular criticism and their successors at The Times have upheld their standards. Elsewhere there are venues like Art Forum, and The New Yorker, where I have particularly admired Adam Gopnik and Peter Scheldahl, and The New York Review of Books. All of these have had their lapses into juvenile sneers and nasties, and many other venues specialize in such high school parody of highbrow exposition.

My reservations lie elsewhere and are more general. I think it is the mark of a high civilization to eschew dismissiveness and disparagement and to celebrate at all levels any human endeavor to create, to celebrate the materials at hand. I remember when Jean-Michel Basquiat was called a criminal despoiler of property. I remember similar responses to the early rap artists.

I do not think a high civilization can afford to leave it to critics to define art. Criticism that elevates exposition over deprecation and the haughty aside is nearer to an evolutionary high-water mark. If our secondary schools and colleges were succeeding in their twofold job of inculcating in graduates how little they know and the passion to know more, critics would play a lesser role and culture would benefit. We live in a society cocksure that it knows more than it knows, and that is one measure of a failing society. I argue that our critical establishment, with a few lovely exceptions, reflects this failing.

Del’s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm

New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/

Artists Hill, Literal Latte’s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/

His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com

His mother’s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com

His aunt’s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com