Via Andrew Sullivan, J. C. Hallman interviews Walter Kirn in Tin House:
J.C. Hallman: Do creative writers have an obligation to act as critics, to offer up alternatives to traditional critical methodologies and assumptions?
Walter Kirn: Creative writers have no obligation do anything, including their own creative work. That’s what makes them “creative” in the first place, not merely productive. That being said, a novel or a short story is an implicit piece of criticism. It suggests that the job – some job; that of telling a story, say, or representing reality with language, or torturing reality with language – can be done better, or at least differently, than it has been done before. I think I learned that from Harold Bloom. Or James Joyce. Ulysses is a splendid work of criticism, and more influential, I dare say, than any piece of criticism proper written during the same period. Criticism proper is simply an attempt to catch up with the latent criticism offered by such exciting, fertile artifacts.
JCH: As you see it, what happened to criticism? That is, how did we move from Arnold and Pater and Wilde to the kind of academic criticism produced in English departments?
WK: What happened to criticism is that it became a profession, even a guild, heavy on trade craft and jargon and dedicated to exclusion and self-protection. It became a way of credentialing an insider class and assuring its members of an income inside of the academy. As such, criticism took up a specialized vocabulary whose chief function, as I see it, was to signal loyalty to the executive board of the approved critical class. There are all these words in contemporary criticism – “gendered,” “hegemonic,” “interrogate,” etc. – that strike me as verbal secret handshakes. They might have been meaningful once, but more and more they feel like coded transmissions between the troops and their leaders. And they make for very ugly sentences. Critical prose of the type that includes them is singularly ugly prose, and I’m with Einstein and similar physicists in believing that elegance bears a close relation to truth.