November 29, 2011

A crisis in literary criticism?


Spain’s El País newspaper has pronounced a state of crisis in worldwide literary criticism. In an article on Saturday, Winston Manrique Sabogal interviewed some of the foremost names in literary journalism, including literary editor of The Guardian Claire Armitstead; essayist, editor and translator Eliot Weinberger; and Marie Arana, the former editor of The Washington Post‘s now-defunct Book World review section. The piece attributes the crisis to the economic crash and to the world’s dual advance: the split between print and digital. Commentators didn’t pull their punches, and revealed some true anxiety about this question. A choice quotation:

Eliot Weinberger

The United States does not have the kinds of literary supplements that are common in Spain and many other countries. It has only one important frequent periodical of criticism-The New York Review of Books. There are no longer powerful American critics, as there were until the 1960s, writing in a prose that was intelligible to anyone, and inserting literature into the political, social, and moral issues of the day. So-called “serious” criticism has largely become the domain of academics, who write in a specialized jargon, under the bizarre belief that complex thought can only be presented in impenetrable sentences… Criticism, in the United States, has been reduced to “recommendations,” which come via reviews, blogs, and Twitter. Prizes have become the standard validation of literary merit- especially among those who are unaware how prizes are chosen. I can’t think of a single American critic to whom one now turns for ideas…

Them’s fighting words. The commentators largely agree that there’s not the budget nor the independence that sustained literary criticism requires. Some—including Claire Armitstead—suggest that there isn’t the public appetite, either. It’s interesting to compare these statements with the sentiments in The Guardian‘s recent article about the state of broadsheet literary journalism, inspired by Melville House‘s Not the Booker Prize event. In that piece, Sam Jordison quotes ReadySteadyBook founder Mark Thwaite as saying that ‘the conclusion of nearly all broadsheet and mainstream reviews was the same: that the book they are examining is “quite good”. Reviewers, the suggestion was, are so careful to say things that are reasonable and fair that they end up saying nothing at all.’ At the end of his article, Winston Manrique Sabogal provides a list of rules for balanced criticism; the ten commandments of writing about writing. They read as follows:

1. Position the author, say who she/he is and what the book represents in relation to her/his work.

2. Situate the book and judge it from the perspective of a long literary tradition.

3. Give reasoned arguments, with examples, so that the reader can understand and evaluate.

4. Inform, educate and entertain.

5. Little synopsis and plot.

6. Be informative about the style, the meaning and the symbolic weight of the book.

7. Say what the author thinks about the theme of the book.

8. Say what the critic thinks about what the author of the book says about the theme of the book.

9. Neither bludgeon nor drool, a considered decision and a measured foundation are more convincing than an outburst.

10. Ban the adjectives of advertising, it’s the reader who should decide.

It’s interesting that that ninth point seems to directly contradict what Thwaite says about the need for bold comment in literary criticism. People seem to agree that something’s lacking in this field, but not to agree on precisely what that is. Any thoughts?


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.