Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Meta Critical Miscellany - Literary, Intellectual, Enjoyable, Forgotten, Fragile

Actually, Criticism is Literature
Writing about the art of writing is an art unto itself.
Jonathan Russell Clark

"Every once in a while, a critic will feel it necessary to define what they think of as their role in the larger literary community. Now as a critic I love these essays; many of these writers have brought brilliant insights into what can often be a dismissed vocation. But while I appreciate the efforts of my fellow critics, there is one aspect to nearly all of these defenses that I disagree with, deeply, and that is the implication that criticism is separate from the literature it describes, as if novelists, poets, playwrights, and nonfiction writers were the players in the game and we critics merely the referees. What’s intimated in many defenses of criticism is this gap between observer and observed, between artist and non-artist."

"This is bullshit. Criticism is also literature. The word 'also' there insists on criticism's inclusion as a genre of literature, and not as a subject that stands outside of it. When viewed as a separate entity, criticism becomes this Big Brother-like authority ready to pop up and take down any unsuspecting artist; it turns criticism into a practical evil that published authors must suffer through; and it devalues the work of those who became critics because they love literature and they love to write."

"A critic is an artist; I am an artist. I write because I love language and because I love using language to depict the various complexities of my life. Some people use their family and friends as inspiration, while others mine history for theirs. Still others find muses in the calm of nature, some in the chaos of the city. I’ve found it in books - it is through them that I’m able to express not merely what I think of literature, but what I believe about life."

The Intellectuals are Having a Situation
Reviewing the n+1 review of reviews.
Christian Lorentzen

"I am not the most famous book reviewer in America, but I've been reviewing books on and off for 21 years, and it is how I make my living, such as it is. Why do I do this? I enjoy writing criticism, performing literary analysis, and reading and thinking about books. One of my friends once justified our activities by saying you have to help create the literary culture you want to be part of."

"n+1 ran an essay called 'Critical Attrition: What’s the Matter with Book Reviews?' Let's begin with 'the earnest reader.' This reader pays attention to jacket copy on books, uses the website Goodreads, searches Twitter for literary opinions, and doesn't know very much about the literature business. I'll be honest, I have no respect for this fictional character or anyone in real life who resembles him. He's buying books, presumably books that he's going to spend many hours of his life reading. Yet when he has read a book he doesn’t like, he feels misled by its marketing. This reader is simply bad at being a consumer. He doesn’t know how to spend his money on products that will please him. He is not in touch with his own taste and ways of satisfying it."

"A sorry situation, as n+1 paints it. Readers who don’t know how to find the books they like and reviewers writing pieces that are tepid and compromised, secretly driven by their misplaced hopes for minor advancement (n+1 is too sympathetic to their plight to call them grifters, but that's the idea). I think these problems are irrelevant because they constitute the sort of mediocrity endemic to any endeavor." 

"The picture n+1 paints of criticism is a joyless one. If there is a problem with book reviewing the problem is that those of us who are good at it aren’t good enough, there aren’t enough of us, and we aren’t doing a good enough job of expanding the scope of literary discourse, to put it in touch with tradition and open it wide to new writing. We have the duty of helping to create the culture we want to live in, and that world should be full of infinitely various delights. The imperatives are to be stylish, to be thorough, to be funny, to be generous, and occasionally to be cruel."

 Critical Attrition
What's the matter with book reviews?
The Editors

Like This or Die
The fate of the book review in the age of the algorithm.
Christian Lorentzen

Let People Enjoy This Essay
How the mindset of an irritating web comic infected criticism.
BD McClay

"If we were using one of those little pain-measurement scales to log how annoying this comic is, 'shhh' in its original form ranks, at the very worst, two out of ten. It’s a little smug. But it’s basically fine. In a happier world it would have slid down into the great content void and that would be the end of it. Instead, some world-historical monster cropped out the last two panels, which in turn became a standalone reaction image. Let people enjoy things went from one piece of an, again, only mildly annoying comic, to a manifesto for a certain type of fan that gets very, very angry if somebody out there isn't enjoying things."

"'Let people enjoy things' is, partly, just about figuring out when it is and isn’t appropriate to get into a disagreement, which, for conflict-enjoying people, is a lifelong process. There’s a right time and a right place and, maybe most importantly, the right companions for me out there. The problem is this: For a small but vocal number of people online, any opinion they dislike is, essentially, being expressed by somebody in their home. 'Let people enjoy things,' as a way of saying 'learn basic conversational dynamics,' is a banal but true statement. But in practice, 'let people enjoy things' means something else: it is rude or inappropriate to dislike something."

"The 'let people enjoy things' problem is a pathological aversion, on a wide cultural level, to disagreement, discomfort, or being judged by others. I don’t want to move 'let people enjoy things' one tier up so that now we are all fiercely demanding to be allowed to enjoy cultural criticism. Negative criticism can be just as tedious, misguided, and fan-service-driven as positive criticism. But the paradox of a wide-open digital publishing field is that it has tended more and more toward consensus, with its two modes being the rave and the takedown, instead of diversity; even in terms of subject matter, culture verticals focus on the same things, instead of branching out."

"People are as interested in conversation over pieces of art and entertainment they like as they have ever been. But all of these take place within a context where interest and fandom are already established, which is part of why a harsh review can provoke such an angry reaction. A recap isn’t really meant to be evaluative. Much like evangelicals created their own parallel version of everything, from music to magazines, fan culture has its own alternatives. Negative reactions - up to a point - can live comfortably in this world. Negativity is just another brand.  Even so, many kinds of negative criticism, particularly of a vaguely political bent, come down to trope recognition: women in refrigerators, Bechdel tests, who dies first in horror movies."

"But criticism - by which I mean something that demands maintaining distance between the critic and the subject, not a negative or positive viewpoint - is, in a fandom world, an obsolete exercise. The growth area in culture writing is culture coverage - interviews and profiles - not criticism."
Have We Forgotten How to Read Critically?
Since the internet has made the entire world a library with no exits or supervisors, many readers treat every published piece of writing as a conversation opener, demanding a bespoke response.
Kate Harding

"Not every piece of short nonfiction writing is an opinion piece, crafted to advance a particular argument. This is the first thing we all need to understand. I love the essay form because it’s an opportunity to watch someone - including yourself, if you write them - think deeply, out loud." 

"We used to understand this, I think. But social media has tilted things so that books by contemporary authors - let alone essays - are no longer portable worlds that awaken when a reader enters and slumber when one leaves. Today, the author is not dead until the author is actually dead. In the meantime, every published piece of writing is treated as the beginning of a conversation - or worse, a workshop piece - by some readers, each of whom feels entitled to a bespoke response."

"There is no apparent awareness that, in writing a piece and publishing it, the author has said what they meant to say and turned the project of thinking about it over to the reader. Today’s reader will simply not accept the baton being passed. If something is unclear, the author must expand; if something offends, the author must account and atone. Simple disagreement triggers some cousin of cognitive dissonance, where the reader’s brain scrambles to forcibly reconcile beliefs that don’t actually contradict each other."

"Reading can make you feel close to someone without actually knowing them, a precious gift in a lonely world. But if the pleasure of reading is feeling connected to a distant stranger, then the pain of watching people read badly is its opposite: a severing of shared humanity. A cold, demoralizing reminder that we never can look inside each other’s minds, no matter how we try."

"Books once kept the boundaries between writer and reader distinct. Unless you met an author under the controlled circumstances of a public event, you’d never get a chance to say hello, much less insult their intelligence and demand they go to therapy. Now, you and 300 other furious strangers can tell an author to kill herself before she’s finished her first coffee. Technology is a miracle."

Authorial Fragility and the Limits of Poptimism
It's good when critics dislike things.
Christian Lorentzen

"It seems strange to me that people have to invent ulterior motives for critics who don't lavish every new novel, film, television program, or art exhibition with slobbering praise. Disliking most of what you see and hear seems to me the natural way of things. All the more pleasure when you find something that grips your attention. Reading novels and watching films and looking at paintings and sculptures are hedonistic activities. Negative reviews are simply the expression of displeasure. The critics who write them don’t tend to be normal people because if they were their reviews would be boring and either nobody would print them or nobody would read them. In any case evaluation isn’t the ultimate point of criticism, though in the crude slipstream of social media it's usually taken to be."

Everyone's a Critic
Richard Joseph

Your Bubble is Not the Culture
From Hamilton to Harry Potter, critics keep misreading popular culture 
and writing off things that their audiences love. Why?
Yair Rosenberg


  1. While sometimes I feel inclined to despair at the overall state of book critique, we also have a sort of renaissance with video game criticism so it's not as gloomy as it might seem on the surface.

    Still gloomy, though. Rare are the opportunities to really chew and shew over a book.

    1. I think good criticism in any arena is probably good for the world.

      I suspect movies are the "easiest" thing to really have a handle on, because there are relatively few of them released every year, and they're relatively short.

      Do you think that video game criticism benefits from being able to show the audience screengrabs and things like that?

    2. Yeah, absolutely.

      It's one thing to say "the enemy balancing at the end of Elden Ring is whack", and another one to have video evidence of it.

  2. Along the lines of what Dan is saying, I also have found some really compelling podcasts for comics criticism as well. Jay & Miles Explain the X-Men and Cerebro are two excellent X-Men analysis podcasts, the former being an issue-by-issue examination starting from Giant-Size Uncanny (they skipped Silver Age) and still working up to the present, and the latter is a character-by-character examination. I would love if there were something of equivalent depth as these two for Doom Patrol. Wait What is another good comics-related podcast that does news and industry discussion but also veers into analysis often. I also recently started listening to Mangasplaining which is the only ongoing anime/manga podcast I know of that is not grating, and they do solid analysis as well.

    I also listen to several of the New Yorker literary podcasts which are good, but tend not to be all that analytical, they're more like audio books with a bit of light discussion around them sometimes. I'm not super involved in the literary world, but I appreciate the idea of criticism at least on a lay-level, it's cool to read these ideas.

    Even if it were negative criticism, I would love to read somebody break down my own works through a critical lens. I've tried doing some "not-reviews" on my blog because I often abstract details in my memory too much for a satisfying review, but I tend to be a little more detail-oriented around "criticism" (at least my lay understanding of it) so maybe I should give it a spin at some point.

    1. Started listening to Mangasplaining on this recommendation, enjoying it so far.

      But yeah this is a great point in terms of where the hub of lay criticism is at its liveliest.

    2. I think the challenge of really engaging critically with something in a way that's not just a summary with a few extra thoughts tacked on to the end is something I'm continuing to work on.

      Trey Causey is doing something similar with comics to what you describe, where he's reading the entire output of DC in the 1980s leading up to Crisis on Infinite Earths, essentially in "real time," in the order and at the pace they were originally released.

    3. Ya, like I can get really granular and nuanced when I'm thinking about the subtext of a thing or its various themes and critiquing it on that level, but if you asked me to give a coherent summary of the surface-level plot or events, it would be so superficial and abstracted as to be basically worthless haha.

      But this conversation has me thinking more consciously of this than I maybe have previously, so if I can basically weave the surface-level stuff within the context of a critique, that might be a more effective strategy for me.

      Like, given that I have not found a compelling Doom Patrol podcast akin to something like Jay & Miles for X-Men, I've thought about doing one of my own, but the idea of going issue-by-issue doesn't appeal to me (as a producer) for the reasons I've stated.

      I dunno, I have too many other things going on for that anyway haha, but it's worth thinking about how I might approach the idea, even just as a thought experiment...

    4. Have you looked into War Rocket Ajax yet? Not Doom Patrol centric but it's been around for long enough that they have to have covered it.

    5. No I don't think I've heard them before but I'll check it out, thanks for the recommendation.

  3. The selection you pulled from "Have We Forgotten How to Read Critically?" makes a particularly compelling point for me. I've gone so far as to end relationships with some acquaintances because they refused to accept "I'm not interested in how you think I can improve a piece of finished writing" as a valid boundary.

    1. My actual favorite part of that essay is her thorough explanation of how others are misreading a different essay, but I didn't feel like there was a good way to summarize that part.

      I can see that being a provocation worth blocking someone over if there was no way to convince them to stop.