Thursday, September 24, 2009

What's wrong with criticism?

J.C. Hallman says James Wood "honed in" a few years ago on what's wrong with criticism:

"He noted the tendency of critics to regard themselves as sleuths and texts as criminals: 'Having been caught out, the poem is triumphantly led off in golden chains; the detective writes up his report in hideous prose, making sure to flatter himself a bit, and then goes home to a well-deserved drink.'"

Result: "The dry, tenure-desperate prose of critics, who already have far too much say over how literature is perceived in the world."

Solution? "Another kind of criticism."

Or, perhaps [tongue-in-cheek alert!] as I've suggested on Harriet... graded short reviews, something like The Dean of Rock Criticism, Robert Christgau’s long-running “Consumer Guide” for the Village Voice. Here’s one version of a grading system he used (substitute poetry book for record, and reading for listening, and you’re in business):

"An A+ record is an organically conceived masterpiece that repays prolonged listening with new excitement and insight. It is unlikely to be marred by more than one merely ordinary cut.

An A is a great record both of whose sides offer enduring pleasure and surprise. You should own it.

An A- is a very good record. If one of its sides doesn’t provide intense and consistent satisfaction, then both include several cuts that do.

A B+ is a good record, at least one of whose sides can be played with lasting interest and the other of which includes at least one enjoyable cut.

A B is an admirable effort that aficionados of the style or artist will probably find quite listenable.

A B- is a competent or mildly interesting record that will usually feature at least three worthwhile cuts.

A C+ is a not disreputable performance, most likely a failed experiment or a pleasant piece of hackwork.

A C is a record of clear professionalism or barely discernible inspiration, but not both.

A C- is a regrettably successful exploitation or a basically honest but quite incompetent stab at something more.

A D+ is an appalling piece of pimpwork or a thoroughly botched token of sincerity.

It is impossible to understand why anyone would buy a D record.

It is impossible to understand why anyone would release a D- record.

It is impossible to understand why anyone would cut an E+ record.

E records are frequently cited as proof that there is no God.

An E- record is an organically conceived masterpiece that repays repeated listening with a sense of horror in the face of the void. It is unlikely to be marred by one listenable cut."


Jordan said...

Did Christgau have a recording career I didn't hear about?

Don Share said...

Dunno, but Lester Bangs did, if that counts.

Don Share said...

Oh, wait. I get it: the Barthean bit about how the critic is a "reader who writes." Nah...

Jordan said...

My clumsy way of saying we're much more likely to get a player/manager/color commentator/poobah than a dean.

Don Share said...

Ah! Gotcha. Well, not if I do it, I daresay. Or is that dare say?

JCHallman said...

Well, this isn't exactly what I mean, though I have no objection to it...

Actually, the anthology that I'm hawking in the post quoted here, The Story About the Story, contains a number of great examples, I think, of how we should write about poetry...

Edward Hirsh on Plath and others. Seamus Heany on Eliot. Sven Birkerts on Keats. Randall Jarrell on Marianne Moore.

By "criticism," I think I still mean it as being something more than a review (in whatever form), but "critical" does not have to mean dull, by default.

Hope you'll take a look at the book.

Don Share said...

Thanks for the comment, JC! I was blending a few things together here, and should have made clear that indeed, it isn't quite what you meant. I do hope folks click on the link and check out the anthology. I appreciate your being good natured about this.

Jordan said...

BTW: One player/manager I admire is posting brief reviews to his blog.

JCHallman said...

No problem, Don. Would you like a copy of the book? If so, email me at