Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Critic as Artist?

On his thought-provoking and insightful blog, The New Dork Review of Books, my buddy Greg recently posted about literary criticism (and to some degree, criticism in general) as art, at least partly inspired by a conversation he and I had last month.  I thought it worthwhile to reiterate the discussion a bit here and ask for other opinions. Here is an excerpt of Greg's original article and then some of what I had to say in response.  Please click the link above to see other folks' comments on the subject and add any of your thoughts below:

A few years ago at a Zadie Smith reading I attended, a young man stood up during the Q&A and asked Ms. Smith what she thought about the role of the critic in contemporary literature. In addition to her terrific novels, Smith has also written some insightful essays and reviews on fiction, so her answer was authoritative and fascinating! She resisted the temptation to spout academic theories regarding New Criticism vs. Post-structuralism, and instead explained that she believes that critics are artists themselves, and that reviewers and literary critics who bring a new understanding (or new audience) to their source texts are infinitely valuable for furthering the cause of literature.

Now, I'm not sure if this particular idea of criticism has a name, but I love it and agree wholeheartedly! Anyone who has ever spent an hour rewriting the same sentence until it's just right — whether in a piece of fiction or in a piece
about a piece of fiction — certainly understands the craft, skill and dedication required to write meaningful prose. To me, good writing in most forms is art. For instance, essays and other "creative non-fiction" that move or inspire are widely regarded as art, right?  I mean, if you can spend 2,000 words describing a tree, and keep your reader interested and focused, and give him/her something to take away from your piece, I say you're definitely on par with the writer of a good story!

Not everyone will agree, of course. Cynics will spout their cliches: "Those who can't write teach, and those who can't teach, review," or "Critics are nothing but failed novelists." To that, I say: "Step down from your high horse, and join us here among the grounded."

But even if you do agree with the notion of criticism as art, there still may be discussion about degree. In talking about this with my friend Jeff — a very good bellwether on topics like this — he basically agreed, but also said "I suspect there is no substitute for those who actually create." I guess it depends on your definition of "create," but this point is well-taken, too...

The sad thing is, especially in this wiki world, where opinions and blogs are like noses (everyone's got one, and some are larger, more forceful, and more slanted than others), good, thoughtful criticism — the kind that Ms. Smith thinks is art — is disappearing rapidly. Too many newspapers are cutting their book review sections and it seems that amateur critics who, for whatever reason, thoroughly enjoy eviscerating a book, just to make themselves feel better, are proliferating. (And yes, I fully realize the irony of decrying blogs that exhibit bad criticism ON A BLOG — which may or may not be considered bad, depending on whether I've pissed you off at some point.)   

There's really no agreed-upon definition of what "art" is. And what inspires folks (either to write or while reading) is as widely varied as opinions on particular pieces of art themselves. So I can't wait to hear what the community has to say about this one!

My response:
There are some book/film/art critics who write in a much more artistic (read: creative and insightful) way than others, that's certain. But it's true I don't believe there really is any substitute for those that actually create. At its most fundamental level there's this: without the creators, what would the critics have to discuss?

But, also, more vital to this discussion, I believe that there is a certain risk in creating that for the most part isn't there in criticism. After all, what is criticism but an opinion? If people disagree with your opinion, oh well, that's what opinions are for! I think there is a more visceral vulnerability for the brave soul that puts a song or short story or exhibit or performance out there for the public to see than there is for someone who comments on that piece.

I think in some way at least, my point of view develops from personal experience. I have always fancied myself a pretty good critical writer. I appreciate the essay form, the making of an argument and then supporting that stance. In grad school we had to produce a "substantial scholarly work" for our masters thesis. OR we could choose to do a creative thesis (i.e. write a play or novel, etc.) Though I wish I had, I didn't have the courage (nor likely the talent, I suppose...) to choose the creative thesis,     and instead spent 40-some pages formulating a detailed theory on the use of technology in Michael Almereyda's Hamlet. I think the paper was solid; it was logical and original and thoughtful -- but I wouldn't classify it as art. But, again, just my opinion.    

One final note on critical analysis though: I think that close readings of other works only makes an artist better when creating his or her own art. Which leads me to say that I love the profoundly brilliant talents like Zadie Smith (and perhaps Greg Zimmerman?!) who have the capacity and wherewithal to both create and critique.

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