What Should Be the Function of Criticism Today?
June 5, 2012 8:05 PM   Subscribe

The literary product—by which I mean assembly-line writing, in tune with sales results and committee-thinking, rather than the idiosyncratic creation of the individual genius— today is manipulated, propagandized, and hyped, and, as a result, unattractive to mass audiences, indifferent to fundamental issues of class and politics, and pretty much in its death throes. This holds true above all in America, where conglomerate publishing has reached its most advanced state, and different genres of writing are the brainchildren of marketing geniuses and corporate analysts, creating a worthless product as far as literary values are concerned. Why is this phenomenon not being scrutinized to the degree it needs to be? Why is the lack of quality not more transparent?

posted by deathpanels (41 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Why am I asking you?" -- Hedley Lamarr
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 8:09 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Vastly more, more varied, and better writing is more widely available today than at any previous time in human history, freely and immediately available to any human with the resources to gripe about it on the web.

What Should Be the Function of Criticism Today?

To stop shopping in airport bookstores and maybe take a look at this internet thing the kids have been talking about.
posted by mhoye at 8:18 PM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


The attacks on, a) the MFA mill and Bread Loaf assembly line, and b) Big Crit Theory are accurate enough, if banal.

The solutions offered don't seem terribly helpful.

The real problem is that literature is outmoded; it literally does not transmit information-- or, more to the point, sensory stimulation-- quickly enough.

Literature was made obsolescent by cinema, which will soon be made obsolescent by video games.
posted by darth_tedious at 8:20 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


How deep? Deeper than any form of literary criticism known today.

This from a guy who professes not to like "marketing hype."
posted by RogerB at 8:22 PM on June 5, 2012


At present, criticism, in the form of academic “theory,” is in the curious position of simultaneous self-exaltation and self-marginalization, being a highly esoteric affair that makes no effort to reach the mass of readers. ... This form of “criticism,” like its creative writing counterpart, is not interested in reaching a broad audience, but only in speaking to like-minded theorists.
I fail to see how an essay discussing "literature qua literature" and "Derridean deconstruction" is striking out against this trend.
There are many informed readers in America who could turn to criticism as a vital act, using the internet as an unprecedented platform; they already do, to some extent, but criticism unfortunately tends to follow established patterns and it is a matter of habituating oneself and the reader to new expectations.
And then:
Radical, chaotic, uncontrollable energies are on the loose, and the critic must equip himself to contest on this hot terrain with all the rhetorical means at his disposal.
Vital acts emerge from radical, chaotic energies, do they not? Or are we just talking in code about preserving this genteel, academy-approved, ivory-tower version of criticism?
Why is this phenomenon not being scrutinized to the degree it needs to be? Why is the lack of quality not more transparent? ... Without such blunt assessment, we cannot know who is doing worthwhile writing and who is not, amidst the flood of hyped authors being published. We cannot separate the fads and fashions from the durable and classical.
What, really? Academics have, now and forever, been moaning on about the bestseller mentality, in one form or another, since the dawn of the printing press. Besides, people - academics and common readers alike - are notoriously crappy about predicting what will become a "classic."
Without discerning humanist critics beholden neither to “theory” nor to “creative writing,” intelligent readers cannot come into being.
What? Oh god, I can't go on...
posted by mykescipark at 8:27 PM on June 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


assembly-line writing keeps us supplied with Simpsons episodes and articles in The Onion.

So it can't be all bad.
posted by ocschwar at 8:42 PM on June 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


When critics criticize each other, you win!
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:50 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Literature was made obsolescent by cinema, which will soon be made obsolescent by video games.

Just like the spoken word was made obsolescent by text!
posted by regicide is good for you at 8:52 PM on June 5, 2012 [10 favorites]


The literary product—by which I mean assembly-line writing, in tune with sales results and committee-thinking, rather than the idiosyncratic creation of the individual genius — today is manipulated, propagandized, and hyped, and, as a result, unattractive to mass audiences, indifferent to fundamental issues of class and politics, and pretty much in its death throes.

"Speak not of gifts, or innate talents! One can name all kinds of great men who were not very gifted. But they acquired greatness, became 'geniuses' (as we say) through qualities about whose lack no man aware of them likes to speak; all of them had that diligent seriousness of a craftsman, learning first to form the parts perfectly before daring to make a great whole. They took time for it, because they had more pleasure in making well something little or less important, than in the effect of a dazzling whole." -- Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human
posted by blucevalo at 9:03 PM on June 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


On the one hand, Blehhh...

On the the other, 50 Shades of Grey.
posted by Artw at 9:08 PM on June 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


Literature was made obsolescent by cinema, which will soon be made obsolescent by video games.

My criticism of your statement: If that argument was toilet paper, I would have brown fingers.

More broadly, comparing contemporary criticism to its arguable heyday in the early to mid twentieth century seems like a fool's errand. There are vastly more books published now, and far more atomised audience. Mass readership, like mass radio, has disappeared for all but a few titles now. And those titles are not a modern-day Hemingway, it's Harry Potter of The Da Vinci code.

Further, I think the criticism elides the winnowing effect of history. Looking back, we see only the best books, and the best criticism; the crap has faded away.

I find plenty of great criticism online and in print, academic and otherwise. Literature doesn't need "revival", and I can't help but feeling to argue that it does is kinda elitist. Mass entertainment has changed and the place of books as a form of it as also changed.

The marketing-driven, bottom-line mentality of publishers has essentially shaped an industry where far, far more books are being published in an effort to win the lottery and find the next Twilight. I might deride the model as facile and myopic, but the results; thousands of new, different books being published, are difficult to ignore.
posted by smoke at 9:09 PM on June 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


>>Literature was made obsolescent by cinema, which will soon be made obsolescent by video games.

>My criticism of your statement: If that argument was toilet paper, I would have brown fingers.

>Mass readership, like mass radio, has disappeared for all but a few titles now.

I invite you to reconsider the relationship between statements (1) and (3).

Sorry about your fingers; perhaps my argument is not the cause of their condition.
posted by darth_tedious at 9:16 PM on June 5, 2012


The real problem is that literature is outmoded; it literally does not transmit information-- or, more to the point, sensory stimulation-- quickly enough.

Maybe you're just a slow reader?
posted by Sys Rq at 9:27 PM on June 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Obsolescence is not the same as "different", darth. Anyone arguing that a +94 billion industry is obsolete is just being silly. It's More than videogames at the moment.
posted by smoke at 9:28 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Truly, your argument is tedious, especially as it is demonstrably false in the face of observed reality. By which I mean "lots of people are reading books, even if you aren't."

Video games are a new medium and aren't even in competition with movies, much less going to replace them.

What a silly, pointless derail.
posted by kavasa at 9:28 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


>"lots of people are reading books, even if you aren't."

"Lots," relative to what group?

Relative to the number of people who are literate and could be reading books?
Relative to the size of the population as a whole?

Not relative at all, and a simple measure of population growth?

The point is that literature is now a niche medium, like pottery; though it will of course always have its practitioners, consumers, and cheerleaders, it will not recapture its former role as the dominant popular art.
posted by darth_tedious at 9:39 PM on June 5, 2012


The point is that literature is now a niche medium, like pottery; though it will of course always have its practitioners, consumers, and cheerleaders, it will not recapture its former role as the dominant popular art.

I think you have bought into a straw-conception of popular literature, much like the writer of the original piece, which neither reflects the diversity of mass-entertainment throughout history, nor the current size and penetration of publishing and literature, currently. It's also, dare I say it, a very Western perspective.

Pottery is not a 94 billion dollar industry. Ceramics as a whole wouldn't even be and that's a much stronger comparison.
posted by smoke at 9:43 PM on June 5, 2012


I'm sorry, I'm too wasted after a long band practice to read this as attentively as I should, but I would like to make a comment anyway. These last two years, I have picked up a book with great blurbs and found it a very slight read. If the book has "book club" questions, put it back, now! For example, I read Water to Elephants an As the World Turns or something like that and they both left me unimpressed. I was impressed by the former's research on Jake Leg Syndrome (after reading an article on Jake Leg and blues songs about it), but...ehhh. I gotta stop reading blurbs.

There are too many ignored classics to read.
posted by kozad at 10:01 PM on June 5, 2012


>I think you have bought into a straw-conception of popular literature, much like the writer of the original piece
>It's also, dare I say it, a very Western perspective.

Consider the context.

The essayist's argument is that

1) literature is no longer the object of mass-cult veneration, because
2) blah blah blah [criticisms of the content of contemporary literature and theory]
3) and the solution is to write different stuff in different ways.

My argument is that, however obviously narrow in appeal Contemporary LiteratureTM might be, the fundamental reason for its relative decline in popularity is not its content, but that newer art forms provide stimulation while requiring much less mental effort.

The essay, then, is in part a complaint that Literature is no longer popular, by the thoroughly Western measure of books sold and trees felled in discussion of those books; my point is that, because of advances in technology, Literature is unlikely to regain its position as the most reactive, predictive, and urgent of art forms.
posted by darth_tedious at 10:02 PM on June 5, 2012


Derridean deconstruction, which ought to have been a temporary fad when it arrived on the American scene in the mid-1960s, has instead monopolized departments of literature—and many of the other humanities.

Monopolized? Assuming deconstruction was at its most visible in the 80s-90s, this would have been laughable even then. Almost nobody functions as a pure theorist. In the humanities, objects are always foregrounded over methods: it was as true of post-structuralist philosophy (at least as a method rather than a body of writing) as it was of philology or bibliography or rhetoric.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 12:05 AM on June 6, 2012


NOT EVERYTHING HAS TO BE ABOUT MAKING MONEY GODDAMMIT!
posted by Windopaene at 12:21 AM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Boring, is there a twitter feed?
posted by sammyo at 4:08 AM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


...assembly-line writing, in tune with sales results and committee-thinking, rather than the idiosyncratic creation of the individual genius— today is manipulated, propagandized, and hyped, and, as a result, unattractive to mass audiences, indifferent to fundamental issues of class and politics, and pretty much in its death throes.

With one exception, this is completely spot-on in the YA book section. You can't swing a dead cat in there without hitting 14 series based on a quirky girl vampire in a dystopian world. (The exception being the "death throes" part. Kids are still eating this stuff up.)

However, there is no reason why you have to read new books when your library is full of old books. That's what I've been doing with my kids. "Here's one I liked as a kid...okay, we finished that, now here's one I've heard a lot of people talking about lately...." etc. If you completely immerse yourself in ANY time period, you are going to get sick of it. Switch it up a little.
posted by DU at 4:08 AM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why does this person - by which I mean the one who wrote the article referred to in the post at the top of the page, rather than, say, some random homeless person on the chilly streets of Portland in the middle of a bitter Pacific north-western winter - write precisely like Nigella Lawson, the buxom television cook and widely acclaimed author, frequently subject to snide remarks from the hoi polloi herself? I can't abide the smooth, creamy, smarmy unctuousness of it all, both sharpened and bittered with fragrant lemon, redolent of the Amalfi coast, and some seedy tour guide who wants to drug one's pleasingly dry vino then somewhat bothersomely take one's kidneys, leaving one in a charming claw-footed, cherub-bedecked bathtub full of ice with a view of the coast.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:35 AM on June 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


That article was so awful I couldn't finish it. That may mean what I am going to say is not entirely fair, but...assembly line writing is not new or some odd thing that must be dealt with. People have been doing grunt work like this for ages because publishers have always operated on wanting to sell stuff. All those railway novels of the 19th century are good examples, not to mention a huge chunk of what authors like Wilkie Collins churned out both with and without attribution. There is no golden age in the modern era when writers were not on the whole also jobbing authors (unless, of course, they were independently wealthy).

And with the Internet people read far more than they ever did, I think. Some of it is literature, some of it is offshoots of literature in fan fiction form, and even more of it is other forms of media turned into literature also via fan fiction. It may not be good literature, but that's an entirely different issue altogether.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 4:41 AM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why does this person...

Take a look

(Wilkie Collins was actually pretty good.)l
posted by IndigoJones at 4:43 AM on June 6, 2012


(I read The Moonstone recently. It's about 3x longer than it needs to be (Harriet Vane in one of the Dorothy Sayers books says something about how he "never misses an opportunity to avoid ending the plot") but the characters are awesome. Both Sayers and Collins are good examples of reading non-contemporaneous books to refresh the palate.)
posted by DU at 5:54 AM on June 6, 2012




Literature was made obsolescent by cinema, which will soon be made obsolescent by video games.

I'm going to grind levels in Diablo 3 as a satire of my "real" life. Literature? Pffft. Done.
posted by deathpanels at 6:08 AM on June 6, 2012


You know, I made it halfway down the page. I don't know what I read. All I got was that he thinks America's literature is shit. Well, fuck you Anis, your name sounds like an asshole.
posted by CrazyJoel at 6:13 AM on June 6, 2012


Well, fuck you Anis, your name sounds like an asshole.

But it also sounds like the spice that gives licorice its flavor, so as far as his name affects the validity of what he's saying it's a wash.
posted by Jpfed at 6:18 AM on June 6, 2012


Because we keep talking about best selling authors instead of best writing authors. You get what you measure.
posted by dgran at 6:23 AM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


things are as they have always been, and the way they've always been is good
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 6:49 AM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


The real problem is that literature is outmoded; it literally does not transmit information-- or, more to the point, sensory stimulation-- quickly enough.

I don't know about the positions on either side here, but this is idiotic. Literature is not just a tool for "transmitting sensory stimulation." If anything, it's (among many other things) a tool for cultivating and practicing the crucial cognitive faculties used to reflect and engage critically with the world using higher order reasoning functions.

Literature exercises certain frontal lobe functions that are crucial to abstract reasoning, analytical thought and self-reflection. Taking in raw sensory stimulation--any non-symbolically encoded form of information, like video or audio--doesn't engage the parts of the human brain most vitally important to our conscious reasoning and critical thinking processes.

Reading on the web, hell, sometimes that is literature, so that's no argument against literature. So, no, literature is not outmoded, even if paperbacks might one day be. Or if it is, the human project is doomed, because one way or another we need narrative to sustain us.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:52 AM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I haven't finished the essay yet, but I'm agreeing with several of the statements he makes so far. Especially:

"All of the social science and humanities disciplines are in need of reconstitution, or reimagination, in the twenty-first century. As with literary studies, they have followed a path of ironic reflexivity in an attempt to make themselves more lucid and relevant, but have only succeeded in making themselves more obscure and irrelevant."

Absolutely true, which is why no one outside of academia reads literary criticism or indeed, anything written for a more educated audience. I was commenting to my husband the other day that no one knows what "literary fiction" is anymore. To most people, it's boring, plotless stuff they were forced to read in school. For the average reader, literature is the calcified stuff of term papers. At the university where I used to teach, a new prerequisite was introduced for students wanting to enter the creative writing program. They had to take an intensive semester of survey in which they read novels, short stories and poems. The department had decided that it was getting a little too embarrassing to be graduating students in English Lit who had barely done any reading. English Lit majors can't write all their papers on "Donnie Darko", after all.

The "assembly line" he's referring to are the programs that churn out hundreds of MFAs with New Yorker aspirations who write lifeless stories polished to within an inch of their lives. We called them "workshop stories"--the ones that seemed engineered to get favorable comments from colleages, professors and critics that were nonetheless ultimately forgettable. A big part of the problem is that what the academic writers value and what the mass audience values aren't really the same things anymore, and no amount of browbeating is going to shame the public into picking up books of poetry.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 7:30 AM on June 6, 2012


Literary criticism can go die. Literature will be fine without it.

('Literary Fiction' will hopefully be collateral damage.)
posted by MrVisible at 7:33 AM on June 6, 2012


He's also quite correct that there's a strong dividing line in academia between the critics and the artists. Artists indulge in enough criticism to learn the dominant aesthetics, but will often complain about how criticism is a mere "tearing down" of someone else's creative output. The criticism students, on the other hand, seem to mystify and slightly fear the act of creation--that critical voice having dominated their reading for so long. I have no problems with literary criticism, I'm actually one of those people who read it for fun. Criticism to me is a lot like conspiracy theories--mental constructs I enjoy collecting with no particular need to take up residence in one.

However, this: "What role can any of the literary arts have when the elite itself frowns on the possibility of literature, when so many great works of the past have already been shown to be corrupt from the many politically fashionable angles of today’s orthodoxy?" is also quite familiar. Though this is essentially the most obnoxious form of criticism, I don't think it really harms the work any to allow it to be exposed to this kind of scrutiny. Yeah, I read all the stuff about colonialism, but it didn't change my opinion that Heart of Darkness is a great book.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 8:20 AM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Literature was made obsolescent by cinema, which will soon be made obsolescent by video games.

Yeah, just as speech was made obsolescent by handwriting, and handwriting was killed by the printing press.
posted by General Tonic at 8:34 AM on June 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


I take it literature is something other than a good read? I read most everything that crosses my path, some of it good some of it not so good. A good read is all I ask for. I don't need a formal critique to know what I enjoy nor would one inform me on how to think about the intent and purpose of the writer. I have always felt critique as presumptious bullshit anyway.
posted by pdxpogo at 10:10 AM on June 6, 2012


I don't need a formal critique to know what I enjoy nor would one inform me on how to think about the intent and purpose of the writer.

To be fair, most serious contemporary lit critics (which I doubt mainstream readers often actually encounter in a non-academic context anyway) don't bother much with analyzing an author's intentions. There are different critical schools, but most tend to either use works of literature as a point of departure to discuss other broader cultural/political issues or to discuss issues related to language use, narrative technique and rhetoric. It's rare to see any straight interpretive lit crit of the kind we might remember reading in school from the old days anymore (i.e., crit concerned with analyzing the author's meaning/thematic concerns and ranking works of literature relative to other works based on some formal criteria for evaluating literary greatness, etc.), FWIW.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:01 PM on June 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Many a college students will hate almost anything they feel like they are "forced" to read or learn, if all they think about school is that it is a necessary for credentializing (which it is, not saying that this isn't the primary reason most go to a university), or their parents wanted them to go to school or demanded it, etc. I wouldn't cite this as a reflection of the quality of American literature, past or present.
posted by raysmj at 1:54 PM on June 6, 2012


Take a look

That just changed my question to 'why is he also doing that thing with his nose?'
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:41 AM on June 8, 2012


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