Friday, March 23, 2007

Needed: More Criticism

A lot of people have linked to Susan Sontag's previously unpublished mini-essay that appeared in the Guardian last week, but so far few have commented on it. Scott Esposito posted about it yesterday, and Ted at myrtias the other day. Ted calls the essay "essential reading". I disagree. I found it sort of rambling and pointless. She starts to say something interesting in the middle of the piece:
"The modern" is an idea, a very radical idea, that continues to evolve. We are now in a second phase of the ideology of the modern (which has been given the presumptuous name of "the postmodern"). This beginning of "the modern" in literature took place in the 1850s. A century and a half is a long time. Many of the attitudes and scruples and refusals associated with "the modern" in literature - as well as in the other arts - have begun to seem conventional or even sterile. And, to some extent, this judgment is justified. Every notion of literature, even the most exacting and liberating, can become a form of spiritual complacency or self-congratulation.

Most notions about literature are reactive - in the hands of lesser talents, merely reactive. But what is happening in the repudiations advanced in the current debate about the novel goes far beyond the usual process whereby new talents need to repudiate older ideas of literary excellence.

In North America and in Europe, we are living now, I think it fair to say, in a period of reaction. In the arts, it takes the form of a bullying reaction against the high modernist achievement, which is thought to be too difficult, too demanding of audiences, not accessible (or "user-friendly") enough. And in politics, it takes the form of a dismissal of all attempts to measure public life by what are disparaged as mere ideals.

In the modern era, the call for a return to realism in the arts often goes hand in hand with the strengthening of cynical realism in political discourse.
Unfortunately, she doesn't do much with this. She goes off on a weird, somewhat dated digression about the "hyper-novel", before finally locating the problem with today's fiction with television. Then she spends several paragraphs on broad generalizations about the differences between the novel and television. I found very little of value in this section, very little that hasn't been said before. By the end it's clear that she is making an ethical argument in favor of the novel; she is saying that reading novels is good for us. It's not immediately evident to me what the purpose of such a piece is. If it weren't a posthumously published piece from Susan Sontag, I don't think anyone would care.

Meanwhile, in the April issue of Harper's, Cynthia Ozick calls for more literary criticism to redress the problems currently besetting literary fiction. This article ("Literary Entrails") was similarly disappointing, though I certainly agree that we need more criticism. She begins by rehearsing the arguments made by Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus in two previous Harper's articles: Franzen's 1996 manifesto fretting about the lack of societal impact of literary fiction and calling for more socially engaged literature, and Ben Marcus' 2005 article, which defended experimental literature, largely from Franzen, by replying in part to Franzen's manifesto, but more to Franzen's notorious (and whiny) New Yorker essay from 2002 about William Gaddis titled "Mr Difficult".

Ozick argues that the kinds of manifestos and polemics made by Franzen and Marcus have nothing to do with the health of literature. They are bickering over readers who are increasingly not there to be bickered over. She says that what's needed is more literary criticism, the kind of literary criticism that "explains, both ancestrally and contemporaneously, not only how literature evolves but how literature influences and alters the workings of human imagination." She proceeds to single out James Wood as exactly the kind of critic we need, one who sees the "indebtedness" and "connectedness" between writers past and present. What we need, Ozick argues, are more James Woods (she actually says "What is needed is a thicket--a forest--of Woods"). Then she approvingly quotes several passages from Wood's criticism--this is a critical mind at work, she says. She mentions some others who provide "inklings" of a "potential critical aggregate", but that she includes Christopher Hitchens in this list is not encouraging (that she includes Wyatt Mason is, I think, encouraging). Again, I agree that more and better criticism is necessary, and I don't object to the idea that Wood is an interesting critic. But I think that one problem with literature today, in the absence of any sort of critical body of knowledge, is that everything is so uselessly contentious. People argue about their tastes, about their favorite authors, with very little general acceptance of the terms being argued over. People line up, as well, to argue about their favorite or hated critics, with James Wood often at the center of such disputes. As such, I don't think his role is positive.

Ozick admits in a footnote that Wood seems to have a blindspot with his partiality to "realism" (and against his bugaboo "hysterical realism"), but she contends that "a critic is nothing without an authoritative posture, or standard, or even prejudice, against which an opposing outlook or proposition can be tested." This sounds reasonable, but compare it with something Northrop Frye wrote in the "Polemical Introduction" to his Anatomy of Criticism (published in 1957). Frye is arguing that criticism should be developed scientifically, into a systematic study of literature, a body of knowledge. He writes:
There are no definite positions to be taken in chemistry or philology, and if there are any to be taken in criticism, criticism is not a field of genuine learning. For in any field of genuine learning, the only sensible response to the challenge "stand" is Falstaff's "so I do, against my will." One's "definite position" is one's weakness, the source of one's liability to error and prejudice, and to gain adherents to a definite position is only to multiply one's weakness like an infection.
Frye would, I think, see James Wood as more of a "public critic" who "tends to episodic forms like the lecture and the familiar essay", whose "work is not a science, but another kind of literary art." Frye wanted a criticism that has "a clear notion of progress" by which a critic could "become anything better than a monument of contemporary taste, with all its limitations and prejudices." What Ozick is calling for seems very different than Frye's scientific ideal. Using his terminology (and noting the names she listed aside from Wood), it appears that she would like to see a broader infrastructure of such public critics, all duking it out over literary taste, essentially. Ultimately Ozick's article disappointed not because she identified a problem in this lack of literary criticism, but because she does almost nothing with it except praise--and quote--James Wood, who is already the most visible critic working today anyway, so hardly in need of the attention.

I haven't yet made it incredibly far into Anatomy of Criticism (I'm about halfway through the first the four main essays), but I wonder if he allows that a "definite" critical position can be held that can't be reduced to mere taste. I wonder, too, how someone like Gabriel Josipovici would fit in with this kind of schematic. It seems to me that he has a definite position, but can it simply be reduced to a matter of taste? Given his talk about Modernists, and present-day novelists writing in bad faith, some could argue (and did, in some of the comments, here and elsewhere) what if you just don't like the Modernists? I'm interested in reading in more detail what he has to say about such things (to that end, I ordered two of his books: The Book of God and On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion, each of which were like $1.00 via Amazon. Alas, his earlier Lessons of Modernism is nowhere available for under $50, as far as I can tell, and the recent The Singer on the Shore collection is still relatively pricey); I will no doubt be reporting some of what I find here, as well as more from Frye's book.


Andrew said...

I confess to being somewhat dubious about the merits of literary criticism and what feels like its searching for a contemporary literature which ticks various boxes of intellectual desirablity. It's not as if when some correct conclusions are reached that out will pop the requisite masterpiece. I doubt Hamsun and Kafka were particularly influenced by critics' eassays as to what kind of literature they should write, and it would strike me as a fairly feeble artist whose individual muse would follow these dictates. Art by numbers. Maybe it's unfair but it seems to be resonant of a dried-up age of mediocrity with attendant facile notions of progress that are worlds away from artists of the depths such as the mentioned Hamsuns, Kafkas, Dostoevskys of this world.

Richard said...

I'm not sure I know what you're talking about. Your comment about a criticism that is "searching for a contemporary literature which ticks various boxes of intellectual desirablity" doesn't sound like the criticism I'm either talking about or interested in (though it does sound like a reference to Josipovici, given your previous comments about that talk, but I have a hard time seeing how one could infer that that's what is going on). Nor is anyone saying that writers (Kafka, Hamsun, or whoever) did follow the dictates of what some critic said they should write. Of course they didn't.

Andrew said...

No, it isn't a reference to Josipovici, Richard. I admit it might be unfair as I am largely impatient with what indeed may have value such as 'the kind of literary criticism that "explains, both ancestrally and contemporaneously, not only how literature evolves but how literature influences and alters the workings of human imagination'. I experience an inner revolt in particular at the 'how literature influences and alters the workings of human imagination' bit. It seems demeaning to me-have poking around in the self like it is some machine. This certainly a very subjective reaction but it would be false to myself to pretend otherwise, and I'm sure it seems a strangely antagonistic stance. This however I'd try and tie up with the dried-up age I mentioned, which is perhaps characterised by being excessively mired in reason- maybe Freud in other ages would have been looked on with distaste as a grubby little man.
I apologise for the antagonism of the view but my reaction to the critics is a kind of 'So what?' It seems to me to be largely irrelevant and phrases like potential critical aggregate, I find veritably depressing. So, yes that was I'm sure possibly indecipherable and rambling but in recompense here's an interview with one of the most sparkling imaginations on the planet, and an antidote to the dried-up age, Victor Pelevin:

Richard said...

Well, ok; I'm still not sure I know entirely what you mean. But, please note that, in a sense, I was opposing what Ozick was saying (though I agreed with her call for more criticism) with what Frye seemed to be trying to develop.

Thanks for the link; I'll take a look at it.

Andrew said...

Just to quickly add, I'd need to properly peruse your piece but to say that I'd agree with what you say about Sontag. What you highlight is of interest but the kind of What the novel should be in this age, or why the novel is still important stuff seems pretty tedious stuff. One can imagine the "Well thank goodness for that, we can feel a comforting glow about the relevance of the artistic experience/novel etc" respones from those in need of such validation.
Finally to go back to that 'potential critical aggregate' phrase; I could imagine it coming from a Microsoft 5 year business plan or some such. What happens, I wonder, upon arriving at this wondrous stage. "And then the proletariat will rise up en masse." More apologies...

Anonymous said...

Carl from here. I mostly want to thank you for engaging these issues; they're very prominent in my concerns, as a critic (of music, mostly, rather than literature, but I prefer to think of it all as "culture") these days. But I don't feel that Frye's idea of a "scientific" criticism is very helpful right now. That model derives from what I think is a status-seeking emulation of the power source of the 20th (and 21st, but less so) centuries. Much like psychoanalysis, I think, was valuable in its own right, but was broken on the altar of its own worship of science - neuroscience is going to serve as a useful reality check, but psychoanalysis deals with social-psychological dynamics that I think are beyond the reach of brain scans, and our betrayals of our supposed authentic selves require a philosophical language that can't be reduced to neurons, I feel sure. And so it is with literature - we need to mobilize arguments about what is morally and artistically valuable much more than we need an ubertheory of artistic change and interpretation. That requires a serious engagement between caring readers/listeners/viewers, and its rightness and wrongness, beyond the basic requirements of rigour and honesty, is less important. The critical aspect is that our subjectivity can be conditioned, and interrogated in its conditioning; that art can be called into question on intellectual and emotional terms that aren't only about pleasure and power; and that something about this activity is fundamentally human. Criticism is not a religion and it's not a science; it's a literature, the literature of marginalia and contest, and it should be loved as an enterprise in its own right. So let's have more of it, yes, but better, too. And not just in academic-field jousting, but as a loving and mutual way of life.

Richard said...

Hi Carl. Thanks for reading, and thanks for the interesting comment.

I haven't yet made it any further into Frye's book, but I will say that I feel a certain ambivalence myself. I'm unsure of my own position--even in the area of critics taking a position. So I'm still working this stuff out.