The Standards of Criticism

I’ve tried to write and deleted about five different versions of this post over the past month or so, choosing silence because this discussion has already resulted in a great deal of spilled ink (metaphorical or otherwise) undue semi-obsession and the not-so-gradual implosion of an organization that still has its worthwhile moments, but Richard Schickel’s op-ed in the LA Times pulls me back in, starting with this:

Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can

understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a

democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally

undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their

hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object).

It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical

knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or

painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.

Although Schickel is technically going after bloggers (and here we go again with the monolith approach when a mosaic is more appropriate, but that’s moldy, decomposing news) the quoted section applies to anyone who puts paper to pen and offers something to say about a book in exchange for a paycheck (or contributor copies.) Schickel himself just about confirms this with the examples he offers up of great critics: Edmund Wilson, George Orwell and Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, a “name not much bruited in the blogosphere” or in print publications, either. Dropping their names, along with George Jean Nathan, seems to suggest that Schickel isn’t terribly aware of modern literary critics, but maybe that’s the point: who, writing today, is shooting for posterity? How many of those appearing in newspapers or even literary journals will be remembered in future years? How many even care?

Of course there are a number of people who appear destined for future remembrance, but no matter what the venue is, the genre or subgenre discussed, all of us, reviewers, critics, avid readers and everyone in between, should be challenging ourselves that much more. All of us should be engaged, enthusiastic, passionate and fearless and – gasp – thinking about the lasting effects of our words. Not everything is going to pass muster, and I know I’ve written plenty of reviews that land firmly within the bounds of mediocrity, if not outright crap. But I hope I never succumb to Schickel’s admonishing against “read[ing] to confirm our own prejudices and stupidity.” There’s enough of that in daily life, and there’s certainly enough of that within the confines of the mystery genre.