why criticism matters


Three years ago, Cynthia Ozick published an essay in Harper’s Magazine lamenting the decline of criticism, which she argued was impoverishing literature itself. Without the “consciousness that only a critical infrastructure can supply,” Ozick wrote, readers and writers are doomed to talk at cross-purposes, or at random; it takes a corps of influential critics to unite individual reactions into a common discussion. Indeed, this excellent novelist and excellent critic concluded, “Superior criticism not only unifies and interprets a literary culture but has the power to imagine it into being.” To see what we are missing, all we have to do is contrast our own moment with the postwar decades “when Lionel Trilling prevailed at Columbia,” and “Edmund Wilson, Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin enlivened the magazines.” There is a grim comedy, then, in turning to Kazin’s essay about criticism — written in 1960, when Ozick’s giants walked upon the earth — and reading about “the absence of echo to our work, the uncertainty of response, the confusion of basic terms in which we deal.” It seems to be a case of “the worst is not / So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’ ” What looked to Kazin like a dwindling, fissiparous literary culture looks to us like a golden age. (As yet another great critic, Randall Jarrell, once said, in a golden age people go around complaining about how yellow everything looks.)

more from Adam Kirsch at the NYT here.