Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A crisis in literary criticism! (Making it new yet again...)

From "A crisis in literary criticism?" by Ellie Robins at the superb Melville House Books website: 

"Spain’s El País newspaper has pronounced a state of crisis in worldwide literary criticism. In an article on Saturday, Winston Manrique Sabogal interviewed some of the foremost names in literary journalism, including literary editor of The Guardian Claire Armitstead; essayist, editor and translator Eliot Weinberger; and Marie Arana, the former editor of The Washington Post's now-defunct Book World review section. The piece attributes the crisis to the economic crash and to the world’s dual advance: the split between print and digital. Commentators didn’t pull their punches, and revealed some true anxiety about this question.

A choice quotation: Eliot Weinberger
The United States doesn’t have the class of literary supplements that you find in Spain and many other countries. It only has one important periodical literary criticism publication: The New York Review of Books. There aren’t any powerful American critics any more, as there were up until the 1960s, writing in a prose that was understandable by anyone and introducing literature into the political, social and moral problems of the day. So-called ‘serious’ criticism has passed, for the main part, into the dominion of academics, who write in a specialist jargon, in the strange belief that the complex can only be presented by means of impenetrable phrases… Criticism, in the United States, has been reduced to ‘recommendations’, which arrive through reviews, blogs and Twitter. Prizes have become the standard validation of literary merit. I can’t think of a single American critic to whom one can turn in search of ideas …"
Still missing the good old days?  Then check out this piece by Jenifer Szalai on "Mac the Knife," aka Dwight Macdonald at The Nation.

If one were to point out that the wider authority of literary criticism is barely discernible today, one could hardly be accused of courting a controversy or kicking up a fuss. There certainly is a coterie of Americans for whom literature and its criticism is a matter of urgency or livelihood or both, but the notion of the literary critic as a cultural gatekeeper, whose judgments shape tastes and move units, sounds either fanciful or anachronistic, depending on whether you believe that such a creature ever really existed. [...]
More remarkable than Macdonald’s ire (unleashed in a magazine more typically associated with bloodlessness than with blood sport) is that the Great Books project, consisting of fifty-four volumes of “densely printed, poorly edited reading matter” by the likes of Epictetus and Hegel, was at one point selling more than 50,000 sets a year—this, despite a price tag that started at $298 and topped out at $1,175, the equivalent of $2,500 to $9,800 today. The stunning success of these extravagant book sets, as well as the 6,000 words of extravagant fury Macdonald lavished on them, are prime examples of what makes this essay collection so fascinating and strange. The criticism on offer is as much a testament to the exalted claims made for culture in midcentury America as it is a casualty of what has happened since.


Lemon Hound said...

It's worse in Canada. Just pathetic really.

What passes for a reading of a book in most of the reviews we endure is criminal.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Right on, Lemon!

It's particularly bad in Canada. Don't believe me? Pick up an issue of 'Arc' mag and read its literary criticism section

Jordan said...

Oh now.

Stephen Page said...

Yes, we must revive literary reviews with thorough premises and logical conclusions.