Literary critics – nicees and meanies battle on

And the literary enthusiasm debate rolls on. What is it now – Round 2? Round 3? And this isn’t shaping up to be the type of debate that can be resolved by a decision. No, it’s going to take a knockout. The latest blows have been landed by the New York Times Dwight Garner (anti-enthusiasm) and a couple of anti-anti enthusiasm rejoinders from Salon.

Last week Roxane Gay weighed in with an at times incoherent attack against Silverman’s article, making weird charges like that he thinks Emma Straub can be a writer or a woman but not both (Huh?). She does make an excellent analogy between serious criticism (classroom) and social networks (cafeteria) that, I think, correctly deflates the Twitter/Facebook aspect of the issue.

Interestingly, among Gay’s examples of worthwhile reviews is Ruth Franklin’s recent piece on Gombrowicz, a writer she acknowledges not having known about before. The mention of Gombrowicz is significant for a couple of reasons. For one thing, a more robust, opinionated criticism might make it less likely that a someone like Gay would be ignorant of one of the great and unique writers of the 20th century by helping clarify his superiority to the masses of shit that have been published since he wrote his books. Granted, it would still be an uphill battle, but redressing this balance is one of the purposes of criticism beyond advising consumers on their daily purchases.

Another thing it might be worth pointing out is that if you dislike negativity, discord and are as concerned with political correctness as Gay is (mentioning Straub’s famous father and her husband’s profession are apparently a sign of Silverman’s casual sexism – Again, huh?) then you should probably steer clear of Gombrowicz.

Salon has taken the debate outside the antiquated and depopulated literary realm altogether now with Laura Miller’s “The case for positive reviews,” which can be read as an epitaph for American culture if she’s at all right. The article is too absurd to go into much detail over, but her main point hinges on the fact that everyone watches TV and that if a critic wants to engage more than a (sneer) specialist audience they have to focus on a “slice of culture” we have in common, such as “The Newsroom,” “The West Wing” or “Sports Night,” (Sorry, never seen any of them).

In other words, despite appearances to the contrary, it’s not the critics who are idiots. They write some vapid fluff – part of the job, can’t be avoided. No, it’s the “readers” (who don’t really read anyway, so why call them readers – let’s settle for advertising consumers). They spend all their time watching idiotic sitcoms, so why should we write high-falutin literary stuff for them?

Photo – José Antonio S.N./wikimedia

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One Comment on “Literary critics – nicees and meanies battle on”

  1. JS
    18/08/2012 at 1:35 pm #

    The Salon piece is a bit of a ramble, and in there somewhere LM might very well be making a salient point or two. But I still don’t get what all the fuss is about. It seems to me there are plenty of outlets for reviews no matter the length or depth or take (though not in print, true). I suppose an implicit distinction is being made between major and minor outlets, including personal blogs.

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