The Derelict Appendages of Criticism
Nineteen Eighty-Four is not often thought of as a useful text for illumination of the art of criticism, but like all great writers, Orwell contained multitudes of meaning in his writing, leaving great lessons barely concealed for application to whatever subject needed them. At the book’s very beginning, Winston Smith opens his newly acquired diary, and can’t quite begin to write. For a moment, he cannot even recall why he did something so potentially damning. But then it makes sense: he begins to write, and does not stop until his hands start to cramp, because he must do something, anything, to displace the endlessly streaming monologue that has been running through his head for years. This is what is worth death to him: the transference of thought to page.
Looking back on all the words I’ve written the last few years, I fear that I’ve come across as impossible to please, forever sounding the death knell of contemporary criticism. If that’s true, then I’ve made my case very badly (a distinct possibility to be sure). It is only because the rise of the Internet created so many astounding possibilities for the art of criticism that I have become so disappointed with the sad deflation of that art in the last decade or so; it is only because I find criticism such a vital and necessary activity that I demand so much from it. Art may be a mirror in which we see ourselves and our world, but criticism is the window that lets in the light, without which the images in the mirror may not be seen.
It’s temptingly easy to blame commercialism for the decay of criticism, but it’s also increasingly inaccurate. While it’s true that approaching criticism as only a job (not simply as a job, because much great work has been done by critics for pay) reduces it to the level of any other work-for-hire and drains it of the need for a unique perspective. But if anything, the Internet has been the executioner of commercial criticism. It has helped demolish print media, and made the job of a staff critic the equivalent of a typewriter repairman; it has replaced the possession of critical insight with aggregations and mathematical models, as if numbers and data fields could tell you anything useful about a work of art; and worst of all, it has given people the idea that having an opinion about something is the same thing as delivering a critical analysis of it.
Even this is too short-sighted and limited, though; the field of criticism, at least outside of academia — where it still thrives, but makes no effort at involving anyone but the elite in the process of becoming involved in their own culture — has been narrowing for decades. And it’s hard to shake the sensation that this is because we have raised up a generation of critics who don’t believe that they are anything but mere functionaries instead of people actively engaged with art. They flit into our field of vision, deliver a vague and impressionistic encapsulation of a cultural product not markedly different than what we might get out of a publicist’s press release, and then retreat, pathologically afraid of inserting anything into their work that might resemble a theory or a worldview.
While we expect, and even demand, passion and perspective from our artists, we hold them at arm’s length when our critics feature too much of them — or even openly revile them. We have made a fundamental and nearly fatal mistake by thinking we have to agree with a critic to count them as worthwhile, when, in fact, very nearly the opposite is true: we learn virtually nothing from critics we always agree with, while those who provoke us and prod us into an unfamiliar reaction to the familiar, or immerse us completely into the unfamiliar, are the most valuable. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s ideological inflexibility and resistance to commercial art can be immensely frustrating, but hardly a more brilliant and expressive film critic is alive in this country. Greil Marcus’ tendency to go off on dreamlike tangents, forsaking the subject at hand for how it can lead him to observations about the culture at large, strikes many as irrelevant and pretentious, but you will learn more from him than you will from a million straightforward essays by lesser critics. I disagree substantially with virtually everything Harold Bloom has ever had to say about literature; but forcing myself to articulate the nature and substance of those disagreements has taught me more about books than any other critic could accomplish.
What do all of these people, and more like them (for the world of criticism may be in decay, but above it soar dozens of engaging writers, hard to see through the thickening gloom), have in common? Like great artists, they believe in something. They expect art to be a certain way, they demand a particular perspective, and if they don’t get it, they say so. They have a worldview. What is Peter Travers’ worldview? What is Harry Knowles’, Michiko Kakutani’s, Sasha Frere-Jones’? I fear I could read a million reviews by some of our leading critics of music, film, and literature (to say nothing of television, which, with a tiny few exceptions, has generated enormous quantities of critics in the last ten years, but no qualities) and never find out what, exactly, they are looking for in art, or why, beyond the pitiably low hurdle of mere competence.
They also know — and here is where we can blame the Internet, with its insatiable demand for content and its replacement of the deep read with the click-through — that there is a substantial body of work in every artform that is simply not worth paying attention to. They are conspicuous for what they ignore as well as what they embrace. Many younger writers feel that they have to have an opinion about everything; equally afeared of being accused of inconsistency, surely the most ridiculous way to attack a critic but depressingly common, they fail to revisit and reread. They hold their first opinions on a subject as inviolate, ignore what they’ve always ignored, and worst of all, think the worst thing in the world is to be wrong. Faulkner once wrote that the most cowardly and base of all things for a writer is to be afraid; if I could by fiat drop one idea into the minds of critics, it would be that it’s perfectly fine to be wrong. Until you conquer the fear of being wrong, you will never hold an opinion worth hearing.
Possessing no especial perspective and afraid to admit the obvious truth that our critical perspectives change by the day as we are exposed to more and more of the culture, contemporary critics engage in what are essentially mathematical games: playing connect-the-dots from one influence to another, an amusing activity that nonetheless resembles keeping score in a baseball game more than it does assembling a genuine critical perspective; substituting personal anecdotes, funny stories, and cultural reminiscences for genuine ideas, theories and observations; and, worst of all, the creation of endless ratings, rankings, and hierarchies. This is a poison as addictive as sugar, and it can teach us only what a critic’s personal preferences are at a specific moment in time — which is good to know on the same level as knowing your blood type or what kind of food you’re in the mood for, but can reveal absolutely nothing about art or what it means. It is exactly why Manny Farber, a great artist in the way that criticism can be an art, felt that evaluation was generally worthless, and that whether or not a critic liked something was of only marginal relevance. He spoke of such hierarchies and orderings as “the derelict appendages of criticism”.
And so we bog down into critical work that would be laughably absurd if only we could see them for what they are: reviews of film and television that make no reference to how they look, reviews of literature that make no reference to the quality of the prose, reviews of music that make only the most perfunctory attempt to tell you what it sounds like. It is this stupefyingly misguided approach that Flann O’Brien identified over 60 years ago in critics of Joyce as “ignorance of the essential”. Our critics single out plot, a fleeting trivium; they speak glowingly of individual performances with no reference to how they contributed to the meaning or message of a film (a good performance in an ineffectual film is barely worth even speaking about, let alone writing about); they praise special effects, which is the equivalent of eating at a restaurant and praising the waiter because the chair didn’t collapse underneath you. Speaking of a cultural object’s meaning, or emotional or intellectual import, or departures from form or idiom, or place in a historical moment, is felt not to be absolutely essential, but marginally relevant and possibly elitist.
It is possible, especially now, to overestimate the role of the critic. It’s particularly difficult to resist such habits if you are one. But I am convinced of this: we will not have great art if we do not have great artists, but we will not know great art if we do not have great critics. We can trust our own critical opinions only if we have been exposed to an environment where they are shaped and nurtured and allowed to form, not if we have let them spring up in a vacuum of meaning and conviction. If we do not have critics who believe in art as being this or that, we will not have artists who believe it, either, and what use is an artist who doesn’t believe in art? If a dead ear hears, a dead hand strums the guitar. If no one cares about the shape of the words, the writer will have no cause to shape them. If the mind behind the eye doesn’t believe that what it’s seeing is capable of great meaning, great meaning will not be shown to it. We will instead stumble around in our own culture, from event to event, and it won’t matter if we labor fast or slow to see it, because there’s always more labor after. We must be like Winston Smith, who did not know what he believed but knew he must believe something, who wrote because he had to make real in the world what was constantly running through his mind. If we do not, we will have finally reduced culture to commerce, because it will no longer be something through which we can reflect or improve or empathize, but merely a list of activities to be checked off as they are completed. The greatest critic will not be the one who sees the most in what he is watching, but the one who sees the most overall — a practitioner of cultural Taylorism, a competitive eater of art who can consume the greatest amount in the least time.