Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Criticizing the critical critic

with 4 comments

Last week, Dwight Garner of the New York Times—arguably one of the two or three most famous literary critics now at work, along with his colleague Michiko Kakutani and The New Yorker‘s James Wood—wrote a long opinion piece titled “A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical.” In it, he decries what he sees as the decline of serious criticism, as well as the hostility toward the role of critics themselves, who are seen, at least by authors, as negative, dismissive, and cruel. To illustrate this view, he quotes a decade-old interview with Dave Eggers, who says:

Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.

(Incidentally, Eggers conducted this interview with my old college literary magazine, whose fiction board I joined a few months later. Garner doesn’t quote the interview’s last few lines, which, if I recall correctly, became something of a running joke around the Advocate building for years afterward: “And if anyone wants to hurt me for that, or dismiss me for saying that, for saying yes, I say Oh do it, do it you motherfuckers, finally, finally, finally.”)

Well, Garner finally, finally, finally goes after Eggers, a writer he says he admires, saying that he “deplores” the stance expressed above: “The sad truth about the book world,” Garner writes, “is that it doesn’t need more yes-saying novelists and certainly no more yes-saying critics. We are drowning in them.” What the world really needs, he argues, are uncompromising critics who are willing to honestly engage with works of art, both good and bad, and to be harsh when the situation requires it. He says that the best work of critics like Pauline Kael “is more valuable—and more stimulating—than all but the most first-rate novels.” He points out that any writer who consents for his or her novel to be published tacitly agrees to allow critics to review it however they like. And he bemoans the fact that social media has made it hard for critics to be as honest and hard as they should be. Twitter, he says, has degenerated into a mutual lovefest between authors, and doesn’t allow for anything like real criticism: “On it, negative words have the same effect as a bat flying into a bridal shower.”

The trouble with Garner’s argument, aside from its quixotic attempt to persuade authors to feel kindly toward critics, is that I don’t think it’s factually correct. Garner quotes Jonah Peretti’s observation that “Twitter is a simple service used by smart people,” which isn’t true at all—Twitter, for better or worse, is used by all kinds of people, and when we venture out of our own carefully cultivated circles, we’re treated to the sight of humanity in its purest form, including people who didn’t realize the Titanic was real. The same goes for the comments section of any news or opinion site, which is generally a swamp of negativity. The trouble with social media isn’t that it encourages people to be uncritically positive or negative: it’s that it encourages unconsidered discourse of all kinds. Twitter, by design, isn’t a place for reasoned commentary; at its best, it’s more like a vehicle for small talk. And we shouldn’t judge it by the same standards that use for other forms of criticism, any more than we should judge guests at a cocktail party for not saying what they really feel about the people around them. That’s also why attempts at criticism on Twitter tend to look uglier than the author may have intended—it’s the nature of the form.

And when we’re dealing with the choice, admittedly not a great one, between uncritical positivity and negativity, I’d have to say that the former is the lesser of two evils. That’s what Eggers is saying in the interview quoted above: he isn’t proposing, as Garner would have it, “mass intellectual suicide,” but an extreme solution to what he rightly sees as an extreme problem, which is the ease in which we can fall back into dismissive snark, long before “snark” had even attained its current meaning. It’s best, of course, to make nuanced, perceptive, complex arguments, but if we don’t have the time for it—and being a good critic takes time—then it’s marginally better, at least for our own souls, to be enthusiastic bores. I’ve argued before, and I still believe, that every worthwhile critic builds his or her work on a foundation of genuine enthusiasm for the art in question. Hard intellectual engagement comes later, as a sort of refinement of joy, and when it doesn’t, that’s the worst kind of intellectual suicide, which disguises itself as its opposite. Dwight Garner is a really good critic. But to get where Garner is now, you need to pass through Eggers first.

Written by nevalalee

August 23, 2012 at 10:13 am

4 Responses

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  1. It took me a minute to figure out exactly why I disagreed with your conclusion, I agreed with your thoughts on twitter and its unique format, but I think you also point out the problem with your conclusion.

    “Twitter, he says, has degenerated into a mutual lovefest between authors, and doesn’t allow for anything like real criticism” If Garner’s complaint is that real criticism doesn’t happen anymore, just glowing recommendations then his problem with twitter is valid because it leads to this, “the worst kind of intellectual suicide, which disguises itself as its opposite”. The real engagement never happens if i can just tweet something positive hoping that your readers will go buy my book, even if i hate your book. No real criticism occurs and therefore people like Garner are demonized when they criticize a book or an author. Here’s the rub, people are good at looking good on twitter and then not being a real critic ever. Authors have stopped being real critics and have become PR people instead.

    Even before the uptick in articles about too much positive criticism I’ve felt that we as a culture have decided all art is equal and anyone that thinks differently is just a snob. Throughout history critics have been valuable and especially today we need some really good ones that can engage the arts in the manner you describe. Unfortunately most authors have decided to stop helping out, unless they’re bashing some classic from a dead guy.


    August 23, 2012 at 11:03 am

  2. That’s a fair point, and I didn’t mean to imply that we don’t need good literary critics who are also novelists themselves, because clearly we do. However, if authors are reluctant to criticize their peers in public, that isn’t a new development, and it certainly isn’t because of social media. Authors have always had to live with other authors, and it’s generally been easier to keep our negative opinions to ourselves, at least in print. There’s a reason why so few first-rate novelists have also worked regularly as first-rate critics—there’s Updike, Vidal, and maybe a handful of others—and it isn’t because they don’t have the intelligence or capacity. It’s more a kind of gentlemen’s agreement to leave criticism to the critics, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.


    August 23, 2012 at 11:27 am

  3. I think Garner’s big issue with twitter and other social media is that it has become a space where authors do engage more with each other, but only positively. Previously authors might not have criticized each other openly, but they also weren’t able to praise each other so openly. This is his fear I think. That instead of real engagment we’re settling for a fake sociable niceness rather than real discussion. And this is directly attributable to the social media world and probably some PR advice from agents. With critics (actual ones with talent) having less outlets for their arguments I’d think authors would be concerned with the dumbing down of their craft to meaningless positive blurbs of 140 characters for their book.


    August 23, 2012 at 12:36 pm

  4. I guess I just don’t agree that the culture of Twitter has made authors any more reluctant to criticize one another in print than they were before. Fifty years ago, Norman Mailer wrote a famous essay, “Some Children of the Goddess,” that criticized many of his contemporaries by name, and some of them never forgave him—which is why he rarely did it again. If Mailer, of all people, ultimately decided that he was better off mostly avoiding that kind of open critical engagement with other novelists, I can’t blame anyone else for sticking with praise in public. And I don’t really see the downside.

    That said, you raise some interesting points, which I’ll try to address more fully tomorrow.


    August 23, 2012 at 1:22 pm

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