Monday, September 3, 2012

Daniel Mendelsohn on criticism

I don't have much to say about this article, except that you should read it:  Daniel Mendelsohn's spirited defense of the professional critic.  He has some nice thumbnail ideas on what makes a good critic, and what critics should do, and the place of critics in the current media environment.

For example.  Writing about the critics he read as a boy, he says:
I thought of these writers above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example that they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments.
Yeah.  That's it.  I felt that too, as a young reader.  And that's what I aim for now, as a blogger.  (Don't bother telling me that I seldom achieve it!)  Later he says:
What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically—which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period. 
Yeah.  That's it.  The best criticism is an exercise in thinking, and therefore a lesson in thinking.

Unfortunately he ends his meditations with a couple of overly-facile statements.  Like so many people writing for pay, he Mendelsohn seems to harbor disdain for those who haven't Made It like him.  Apropos of some current contretemps about criticism, he concludes that
...I wonder whether the recent storm of discussion about criticism, the flurry of anxiety and debate about the proper place of positive and negative reviewing in the literary world, isn’t a by-product of the fact that criticism, in a way unimaginable even twenty years ago, has been taken out of the hands of the people who should be practicing it: true critics, people who, on the whole, know precisely how to wield a deadly zinger, and to what uses it is properly put...  Yes, we’re all a bit sensitive to negative reviewing these days; but if you’re going to sit in judgment on anyone, it shouldn’t be the critics.

Yeah, but.  First of all there's a "no true Scotsman" kind of thing going on here.  Even before the advent of the Internet, a lot of the people practicing criticism would have failed to live up to his "true critic" standards, right?  Obviously it's not amateur vs. professional (i.e., do you get paid to do it) that determines the "true critic."  It's all the things he's detailed over the course of his article (passion, knowledge, taste, etc.).  Print-based professional journalistic critics have no monopoly on those things.  Certainly the internet has loosed a lot of idiots to drool on the keys, but it has also given voice to a lot of people who have passions, knowledge, tastes that could never have qualified for mainstream media patronage.  If criticism is a thing worth doing (as he's convinced us it is), then surely it's worth doing well - it's possible to do it well, and therefore it's possible to do it badly.  And when it's done badly, why shouldn't we sit in judgment?  Why should critics be immune to criticism?  And yet he says they should be.  Hmm.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I agree with you on the hint of True Scotsman defensiveness. For me it was the passage in the middle that did it: "People who have strong reactions to a work—and most of us do—but don’t possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics... Nor are those who have tremendous erudition but lack the taste or temperament that could give their judgment authority in the eyes of other people, people who are not experts." People in these two categories may not be good critics, but they're still critics, just like Dan Brown is still a novelist and Jewel is a still a poet.

That said, this article definitely came the closest I've seen yet to a thoughtful, well-reasoned criticism (!) of Here Comes Everybody culture via articulation of the critic's role. I'm looking forward to a lot more of these as we all grow older and more time-constrained and need to rely on decent gatekeepers again.