Tuesday, August 29, 2017

at the NYT Thomas Mallon proposes an axiom that critics of every stripe should read more, think longer and write less.


Thomas Mallon


In an essay for Harper’s Magazine in 1959, Elizabeth Hardwick worried that books were being “born into a puddle of treacle” instead of the once-colder shower of scrutiny she could recall. The bedside manner that she deplored has become only more marked in the intervening decades, as the reviewing of fiction and poetry has fallen less to professional critics and more to fellow novelists and poets — colleagues who don’t wish to run into those they’ve disapproved of while riding the same circuit of readings and writers’ conferences. Today’s literary reviews too often turn into participation trophies, quiet tour-guide appreciations. Few things, of course, are duller than self-indulgent put-downs; but informed and spirited dismissals are another matter, and they remain in too-short supply.

So do informed and spirited approvals.[emphases added] The phrase “everyone’s a critic,” once the complaining sigh of the creator, is today closer to being a literal truth. Criticism was always (and certainly in Arnold’s time) vulnerable to careerism and hackery, but amid the pingings of Twitter and along the web pages of Goodreads and LibraryThing and Amazon, the fast one-star slash and the instant five-star burble are now given the same algorithmic weight as the lengthy and well-considered three- or four-star comment. There are, one should note, many of the latter, but they always seem about to drown in the shrill orthographical chaos surrounding them, complaints often written by those who look forward to the demise of critics — and editors — with a populist glee.
Far removed from all this, and from most reality, we have academic literary criticism, now reducing literature to fodder for pseudoscientific cultural studies, taking its first duty to be the discovery of ways in which books can cause crushing personal offense. Students are fed literary theory before they’ve read an appreciable number of literary texts to which those theories might be applied. It’s all telescopes and no stars. [emphasis added] Looking back on his own long critical career, in a lecture called “To Criticize the Critic” (1961), T.S. Eliot took note of the theoretical concepts he had developed (“dissociation of sensibility,” “objective correlative”), but declared that “my own theorizing has been epiphenomenal of my tastes, and . . . in so far as it is valid, it springs from direct experience of those authors who have profoundly influenced my own writing.” Theories, like standards, should arise inductively; the critic has to remind himself that he exists because of the author and in service to the reader. The simplest prescription for better criticism of all kinds — electronic, journalistic, academic — remains: read more; think longer; write less. [emphasis added]

There's two reasons this ending jumped out.  Semicolons?  Really?  Was that a complex series?  No. 

But then there's the thought I've had about how it seems I have written much less this year than earlier years.  We're at just 120 odd posts this far into 2017. 

I think a caveat for this sort of generalizing is that we should not get too fixated on categories of high and low.  I plan to address that division later when I finally finish reading all of John Borstlap's The Classical Revolution.  But another way of putting it, which I've demonstrated elsewhere, is that I'm willing to discuss Batman cartoons as seriously as I would discuss novels by Jane Austen or Fyodor Dostoevsky.  If I talk about Adolf Schlatter or Emil Brunner I'll take that seriously just as I would discussing anime by Mamoru Oshii or the animated series The Last Airbender.  I don't feel at all bad that I gave up on Game of Thrones after one season; that I never even bothered with The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or Mad Men or The Walking Dead.  I did, however, feel bad that I had managed to not catch The Last Airbender and Samurai Jack back when they were actively on television. I went back and fixed that! 

One of my college friends told me that what he thought was both funny and cool about what I write is that I really do treat Batman: the animated series as being at the same level as a Dostoevsky or Kafka novel.  Why not? If critics take their literary and analytic discipline seriously why can't we take cartoons as seriously as we take works in a literary canon? 

The concern that students are being given the tools before they've read enough texts to use them is an interesting concern.  It's not one that I can really speak to since I'm not an academic and am not in academia.

But in terms of the criticism I've written I'm happy to have written a few thousand words about a Stevie Wonder song; another few thousand about the guitar sonatas of Wenzel Matiega; patterns of social identity in Pixar films, specifically Ratoutille; and, of course, the many essays I wrote for the 20th anniversary of Batman: the animated series, indexed at this blog.  I feel like my critique of nostalgia for 1980s cartoons was unfocused.  I knew I wanted to address what I regarded as an ill-advised nostalgia I was hearing from guys in my generation about how the 1980s cartoons were better than the 1990s and 00's cartoons.  That's not true, really.  If you happen to like G1 Transformers more than Samurai Jack you're welcome to that.   If you like G. I. Joe or Thundercats more than Justice League Unlimited or The Powerpuff Girls you're welcome to that, too.  I'd still say you're wrong across the board.  If you like the old Ducktales better than Superman: the animated series ... eh, actually I remember Ducktales being a pretty well-made show. 

I could have done a better job articulating the idea that the rose-colored lenses of you remembering with nostalgia the stuff you liked when you were a kid isn't the same thing as being able to defend subjecting a future generation to the show.  But I've got another direction I want to go with the idea, seeing as film critics are understandably incensed that they may be assigned to review yet more Transformers films. Those are films in which critics pass judgment and reward themselves for the good sense and good taste to hate Michael Bay's films on general principle.  I've been percolating thoughts about that but they'll take some time.  The irony for me is that all my thoughts about the cultic elements of Transformers have come to mind because I was reading about the total work of art in the European avant garde because I was flabbergasted at Francis Schaeffer seeming to have never familiarized himself with Wagner's operas and theories associated with those operas.  Wagner had magical rings and incestuous love affairs before Game of Thrones was conceived or Tolkien had hobbits carrying a piece of jewelry to a mountain.

Perhaps one of the things criticism can help us remember is that we're more apt to recycle ideas that we don't quite realize we're recycling.  But that may just be a lead in to another post.

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