What Should Be the Function of Criticism Today?
The premise of this essay is that criticism needs to play a central role in the revival of literature.
At present, criticism, in the form of academic “theory,” is in the curious position
of simultaneous self-exaltation and self-marginalization, being a highly esoteric affair that
makes no effort to reach the mass of readers. For much of the history of literary criticism,
writer-critics, especially poet-critics, have been the most important figures—Dryden,
Sidney, Shelley, Coleridge, Eliot, Tate, Jarrell, to name just a few. Two things have happened
since the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century to make this breed
all but extinct.
1. Provide deep context.
First, “creative writing” has swallowed up poets and fiction writers into a new formulation
of writing, which thrives on narrow specialization (thus, poets can’t be fiction
writers or playwrights, let alone critics) and frowns on traditional literary criticism. In
America, this process is the farthest advanced, but other Anglo-Saxon countries are following
suit. As a result, instead of criticism what we are seeing from practicing creative
writers is a narrow form of appreciation of mentors or workshop-masters in journals and
online forums, a form of empty praise that doesn’t deserve the name criticism.
Second, theory has gone through various phases of resistance and counter-assault,
but it is far from being disestablished in any way, despite the claim of some that we are
already in a “post-theory” era. The problem with theory is also that it is not criticism in
any form that we have known it; the theorist is interested not in evaluating literature qua
literature, but in imposing a set of familiar operations on any text, arriving at familiar
results. Derridean deconstruction, which ought to have been a temporary fad when it
arrived on the American scene in the mid-1960s, has instead monopolized departments
of literature—and many of the other humanities. This form of “criticism,” like its creative
writing counterpart, is not interested in reaching a broad audience, but only in speaking
to like-minded theorists. It is best seen as a deflection of frustrated political instincts, in
the only realm permitted free play to academics—the domain of language and text, rather
than practice and application.
What is missing, then, is a vital criticism that is neither theory—a mundane exercise
in proving, over and over, that all texts are unstable because of inherently contradictory
meanings—nor the renewed form of aesthetic criticism emanating from workshop writers,
which recalls the state of criticism before the establishment of “scientific” principles of
objectivity by New Criticism in the 1930s. My proposed criticism is a form of humanist
criticism, though the term unfortunately recalls the conservative and anti-democratic
criticism of the 1920s, under the rubric of the New Humanists associated with Irving
With the proliferation of “creative writing,” there is currently a mass pool of potential
critics, trained in close reading of a diluted New-Criticism kind, graduates of MFA
programs (estimated at 75,000 about fifteen years ago, and by now presumably phenomenally
larger) who survive in various forms of under- or unemployment, or are unable
to realize the literary goals to which they aspired when they enlisted in such programs.
There are many informed readers in America who could turn to criticism as a vital act,
using the internet as an unprecedented platform; they already do, to some extent, but
criticism unfortunately tends to follow established patterns and it is a matter of habituating
oneself and the reader to new expectations.
The internet is the most important new public sphere. Jürgen Habermas has
explained that eighteenth-century English coffee houses and other public spaces allowed
the formation of middle-class taste in opposition to aristocratic and feudal values, constituting
a revolution in ideals that still fuels whatever is left of political and social liberalism.
Although the internet, as it currently stands, is only in a rudimentary form as far
as the potential for humanist criticism is concerned, nonetheless our hopes must rest on
it. Whereas eighteenth-century taste was genteel and bourgeois, and that proposed by
the nineteenth-century version of the “man of letters” was perhaps even tamer, until the
concept petered out altogether in the academic critic of the second and third decades of
the twentieth century, the new public sphere will be neither genteel nor mildly reformist.
Radical, chaotic, uncontrollable energies are on the loose, and the critic must equip himself
to contest on this hot terrain with all the rhetorical means at his disposal.
The literary product—by which I mean assembly-line writing, in tune with sales results
and committee-thinking, rather than the idiosyncratic creation of the individual genius—
today is manipulated, propagandized, and hyped, and, as a result, unattractive to mass
audiences, indifferent to fundamental issues of class and politics, and pretty much in its
death throes. This holds true above all in America, where conglomerate publishing has
reached its most advanced state, and different genres of writing are the brainchildren of
marketing geniuses and corporate analysts, creating a worthless product as far as literary
values are concerned. Why is this phenomenon not being scrutinized to the degree it
needs to be? Why is the lack of quality not more transparent?
The theorists don’t care. They hardly pay attention to contemporary literature, and
besides, they are not in the business of evaluation and judgment; their interest is only
in exploding the contradictions of the classic text in question, showing how it reveals
Western biases toward logic and rationality and patriarchy and empire and leaving it at
that. The successful creative writers can’t afford to offend anyone in authority who may
withhold rewards and opportunity in the future—a necessary consequence of nearly all of
America’s literary writers having become, in essence, state employees, upholding a collective
aesthetic of bourgeois realism and individualized confessionalism, leaving the state’s
politics and policies well enough alone for the sake of job security. Somehow, separate
from these two black holes of critical nothingness, a new criticism needs to arise to take
on the honest evaluation of the literary merchandise.
Without such blunt assessment, we cannot know who is doing worthwhile writing and
who is not, amidst the flood of hyped authors being published. We cannot separate the
fads and fashions from the durable and classical. Without outspoken criticism reaching
the vast potential audience, writing itself cannot be returned to a central position in culture,
since the output is immense in volume and drowns out any thought process about
its relevance or importance or meaning. Without discerning humanist critics beholden
neither to “theory” nor to “creative writing,” intelligent readers cannot come into being.
Without a criticism following new principles—not going back to the condition before
post-structuralism, structuralism, or New Criticism, since this is neither desirable nor possible—
we shall remain in a vacuum of analysis, readers continuing to remain in a hazy
state of mind about the true state of writing: there is much worthwhile writing being
produced, even if it is not on the radar screen of the publicity mavens, and moreover, such
writing would increase in quantity and quality if there were a new critical force propagating
its value to large numbers of potential readers.
Criticism should be conceived as the absolute fulcrum of a revived literary culture,
because only it can advance good writing and create new readers, while relegating
boilerplate writing to the trash-heap where it belongs.
We face a situation at the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century
where the critical landscape is almost completely vacant. Such a crisis in criticism is
undoubtedly a reflection of the crisis of political legitimacy; yet this very crisis holds the
promise of a new beginning. The economic landscape is fundamentally changing, and
there is no going back to the verities of the New Deal, the minimal decencies provided by
a reactive welfare state fending off the more generous welfare states of Western Europe
or addressing Communist orthodoxy.
What will the writer of the future look like, how will he fit into new social institutions
and collective expectations, what will be his status as an entrepreneur or employee or a
mix of the two? We don’t yet know, but it is against this vast empty panorama that the
drama of criticism will play out in the near future. Randall Jarrell wrote of the 1950s
that it was an age of criticism; in some ways, as far as highbrow minority culture (of
the Partisan Review kind) was concerned, that was true. We are currently in an age that
gives the false appearance of being also an age of criticism, indeed hyper-criticism, but
the principles animating post-structuralism (very much rooted in the quaint objectivities
of formalism, New Criticism, and structuralism) are drained of passion and vitality.
Literature and criticism have stopped speaking to each other, driving both to irrelevance
The literary critic of the future must be a giant. He cannot think of himself as providing
gloss or commentary against vast bureaucratic forces beyond his ken—a mere commentator
or assimilationist or sometimes wily antagonist to a machine that discounts his
very essence. The writer of the future should think of criticism as his first and only real
training ground, regardless of his branch of literary specialization. Indeed, conditions are
such that without breathing the air of the kind of criticism I am expounding, the writer’s
effort will remain marginal and irrelevant, his fame stillborn, his aspirations to greatness
so much illusion.
The writer’s very survival is at stake. Criticism, far from an additional onerous task
he must take on as pro bono service to the literary field, is the very soil in which his most
individualized dreams and ambitions must be rooted. Both the peril and the promise
are at their peak. Present institutions are rapidly crumbling, or at least their legitimacy is
in unprecedented doubt. The alleged transition from a print to a post-print culture is in
fact a red herring. The real potential of transformation is from a post-critical to a critical
Into the breach, then! Here are some speculations about what a revived humanist
criticism for the twenty-first century would look like, the pitfalls it would have to avoid
and the faint grooves it would have to follow to the very ends, if we are to save literature
itself from extinction.
How deep? Deeper than any form of literary criticism known today. Deep enough
to include investigations of the author’s relationship to his specialty, the connections
between her and others like her and unlike her, the evolution of her thought process
both in an individual and collective manner, and every available insight from philosophy,
psychology, sociology, economics, art, and science to shed light on the work in question.
Readers today have quite discounted newspaper reviews, which are almost without
exception worthless as criticism; editors generally impose a silence over rigorous critical
standards, and reviewers know they must accede to the demands of the editors or
find themselves out of an assignment. The general tendency of shallowness pervades all
review forums, including those online, even among avant-garde publications from which
one would expect different.
2. Merge disciplines.
The problem is that the review has gelled into a predictable form, a genre with its
own conventions and formulas, offered to the public for ready consumption. Each and
every one of this genre’s conventions must be smashed and reconstructed if reviewing
is to become relevant again. The review, instead of being a closed form with summary
assessments, must become speculative, generalized, a mere tip of the iceberg for the
knowledge contained within it. It must be so erudite as to destabilize the veracity of the
work under consideration. It must set itself up as an equal and opposing force against
the work of imagination.
If this sounds like theory’s claims to superiority over creative work, it is only
superficially so. Theory is invested in specific niches—psychoanalysis, feminism, New
Historicism, queer studies, etc.—closeted within their individual parameters and following
the rules of their sub-disciplines. I have nothing like this in mind. A creative work, if it is
to be worth anything in the twenty-first century, must compel consideration of the vast
edifices of knowledge underlying the author’s worldview. It is these constructions that
need to be brought into the open, the critic’s most valuable function. Every piece of criticism
in this vein becomes an open-ended, demanding, ferocious, relentless investigation
of morality at a structural level. If I read Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, I ought to be
intrigued, as a critic, about any number of fundamental questions of art as a reflection
of national culture and phases of enlightenment. A work like that begs the critic to pull
himself out of the immediate needs of the book and the author, and revert to formative
If criticism performs in this suggested manner, anti-intellectual authors—who unfortunately
dominate American letters today—would receive second-class treatment, as they
deserve. Criticism should explore the depth of underlying ideas, and authors found
wanting should be devalued. Shallowness quickly reveals itself. The tendency of writing
in the twenty-first century, with the barrage of new information technologies, is to drive
the reader toward a metaphysical receptivity where everything indeed does become
apparently illuminated; but this effect, because of present social conditions, can in reality
only be achieved by entering the darkest of labyrinths, the deep marrow of ideas in their
origins and complexities. Authors who spurn their own narrow intellectual origins—every
author starts with a narrow base, but the successful ones exceed it—deserve heavyweight
Deep context means tackling the work of art at a level of complexity greater than its
own, rather than retreating in the face of apparent self-containment. The critic must pry
open books in a radically new manner, because such openness is both technologically
more possible than ever and because readers don’t need to hear mere readerly opinions
or even technocratic lectures about what makes a work of art click. In short, expose shallowness,
rather than back off in the face of marketing hype about an author’s credentials.
Readers need this clarity from the strong critic.
Again, there is superficial resemblance between this principle and a reigning shibboleth
of the academy: interdisciplinarity. I don’t mean anything like the debased academic
notion of, say, putting economics and literature together. I mean the fluid merger of every
known discipline that the critic can bring to bear on the analysis of individual works or
groups of works. There should be no boundaries between forms of inquiry. If theory is
in disrepute outside the academy, then so are the social sciences, particularly economics
and political science, but also anthropology, sociology, psychology, and, on the humanist
side, history. There are a number of reasons for this decline in legitimacy, which the critic
should take advantage of.
3. Overcome specialization.
The social sciences, in their modern form, began with the positivism of the mid-nineteenth
century, reached their heyday in the generally progressive political climate
of the early twentieth century, then faced a crisis of articulation when confronted with
worldwide economic, political, and social upheaval in the 1930s and thereafter. Fascism
and global depression, not to mention genocide, total war, and atomic annihilation, were
not exactly subjects amenable to social science verities. The disciplines became after-the-fact
justifications of much human irrationality manifested in mass global actions, predicted
already by Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, George Sorel, Vilfredo
Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, and other perspicacious thinkers of the early twentieth century.
Nineteenth-century Comtean positivism became an irreconcilable historical anomaly in
the midst of the vast technological and social transformations of the twentieth century.
All of the social science and humanities disciplines are in need of reconstitution, or
reimagination, in the twenty-first century. As with literary studies, they have followed a
path of ironic reflexivity in an attempt to make themselves more lucid and relevant, but
have only succeeded in making themselves more obscure and irrelevant.
Economics, for instance, began as a science of human happiness in the midst of
industrialization in the late eighteenth century, but by the middle of the twentieth century
had become a branch of mathematics, whose inner deliberations only the higher
mathematicians could pursue. It needs to become a science of human fulfillment again.
At the end of World War II, as American power assumed worldwide hegemony, all of
the social sciences and humanities got corrupted as the post-war zeal for empire infected
whatever remained of the myth of objectivity. Psychology rests on foundations that
have tottered so precipitously in the wake of mass irrationalism that today it is without a
base altogether. Anthropology flourished early in the twentieth century when optimism
about the human race and honest belief in moral relativism were enough to provide the
motivation for comparative studies; but later the discipline, beset by its own contradictions,
devolved into a web of self-consciousness, turned on itself, became a commentary
on its own previous commentaries, as have other specialties. History has simply failed,
like other disciplines, to explain, let alone anticipate, the ongoing cataclysms. As for the
hard sciences, they long ago reached a stage of mysticism—the only form in which higher
scientific findings can be presented to the public.
Is it putting too heavy a burden on critics to expect them to undertake the
reimagination of all the academic disciplines? But what is the alternative and who else is going to
do it? Novelists are the best historians, and this is more true today than ever; no historian
shows the comprehensive, big-picture, total understanding of, say, a Salman Rushdie or
J. M. Coetzee or V. S. Naipaul—or a Doris Lessing, when it comes to understanding the
history of women’s awareness. Poets reveal human nature better than any psychologist
practicing in a narrow niche.
If the critic shuns disciplinary boundaries—acts as economist, psychologist, historian,
even physicist if he has the mind and capability for it—then he will train himself as an
imaginative writer whose work will have durable value for the reader of the twenty-first
century; remember, I am postulating the critic as the quintessential writer of the future,
his foundational training occurring in expansive criticism over an extended duration of
self-apprenticeship. Literature can only be immeasurably enriched by taking up the very
mantle of responsible, generalizable, accessible, resonant criticism that the rest of the
disciplines have vacated under the auspices of hyper-professionalism.
One of the main reasons for the cultural irrelevance of literary writing today—possibly
the greatest reason—is that writers are too specialized and as a result their output seems
insular and self-contained, unable to explode out of its bounds.4. Connect to other cultural fields.
Once a cultural enterprise enters the academy, it inevitably results in overspecialization.
Whereas in the past there used to be poets who were also writers of prose narrative
as well as critics and reviewers—and this was true for all branches of literary endeavor—
nowadays not only do we have poets who do nothing but poetry, but poets who specialize
only in a very narrow range of poetics: a Bengali poet may only write about her personal
experiences of assimilation/emigration from a strictly domestic angle in a very specific
mentor-derived style, and that is all she will do for the entirety of her academic career;
she will not write criticism of other poets, South Asian literature, Bengali literature not in
translation, South Asian politics, American politics, American foreign policy, the aesthetics
of confessionalism, or her situation in the academy, let alone foray into different styles
of writing. If she writes short lyrical poems, that is the only style she will ever pursue. The
same self-imposed parameters apply to fiction writers, such as Junot Díaz or Amy Tan,
who have never done anything but exploit their allocated multicultural niches.
The result is immense impoverishment of broad cultural appeal; when a writer
restricts herself in such a manner, the subtext becomes thinner, the poem or short story
or novel becomes only about itself. In a sense, all creative writing today is living out
New Criticism’s attitude toward writing, focusing on itself as sealed-off workmanship,
but it is New Criticism without its sophisticated and occasionally formidable analytical
strategies, since self-expression always intervenes as the ultimate criterion of authenticity
and reality. There always seems to be a ghostly I. A. Richards or John Crowe Ransom
peering over the shoulder of the workshop participant as she formulates a self-contained
artifact, hoping to be able to withstand close textual scrutiny, hoping to arrive at a unity
despite tension. I am arguing for a contemporary equalization among current workshop
writing, the new self-enclosed realism, and what were thought to be extinct New Criticism
What is the role of the critic in breaking down this constricting specialization? First,
my assumption is that the critic-in-training is the quintessential writer of the future. He
should take advantage of the new online public sphere opening up to potential infinitude
by refusing to focus on a particular genre or region, or to ally himself with a particular
writing clique. Critics today are generally offshoots of niches within writing, a situation
that must change.
The critic of the future should address all forms of literature—and really, all forms of
culture—by seeking out venues high and low, speaking in language sophisticated and vulgar,
addressing the common reader and the specialized scholar, sometimes both at once.
Practicing in this manner, the critic not only educates himself to be eclectic, transcendent,
and visionary, but helps educate his reader to contextualize texts outside their explicit
impulses and to see the author as something other than a performer within celebrity
culture. In a sense, the author’s unity of self, his individuality, is being challenged.
Again, this bears superficial resemblance to post-structuralism’s idea of the author
being a reflection of his times, but my idea is radically different. The reputation of specific
authors may suffer, but the authority of authors as a whole should only grow. This is a
deeply humanistic impulse, attacking New Criticism’s ultimate bugaboos—W. K. Wimsatt
and Monroe Beardsley’s barring of the Intentional Fallacy (probing the author’s intentions)
and the Affective Fallacy (investigating readers’ emotional reactions)—and restoring
them to their position of centrality. Wimsatt and Beardsley’s so-called fallacies built
on Cleanth Brooks’s “heresy of paraphrase” (which meant excluding the social context
from criticism) and T. S. Eliot’s “impersonal theory of poetry” (another claim for the
irrelevance of the author’s biography). Specialization is a cover that allows both alleged
fallacies to persist; the critic must blow off this cover.
Reading is impoverished today—book culture is impoverished—because it is created
and imagined as an activity isolated from other cultural fields like painting, sculpture,
film, music, architecture, and so on. How is it possible to evaluate any novel without
referring to major developments in the visual and fine arts in a given decade or era?
Does Robbe-Grillet make sense without the French New Wave? Or vice versa, actually.
What about Donald Barthelme and the New York art scene of the 1960s? Consider
the immense flux in twentieth-century art movements, filmmaking, popular music, and
modernist and postmodernist architecture, and ask yourself what kind of critic refuses to
make obvious and necessary connections.
5. Be global.
Again, the post-structuralists have undertaken some of this crucial cultural work of
encouraging connectivity, but their problem is obscurity, indifference toward appealing
to a general readership, narrow specialization, and a political interest in scoring scholastic
points rather than shedding light on particular works of art. The ideal critic I am proposing
will make it a habit not to explore connections between fields of culture for their own
sake, but to radically expand the range of what it is possible for the critic to understand
and convey. (I consciously avoid the term literary critic in this articulation.) Again, a
radically open-ended and welcoming invitation to the reader to make sense of the issues
at stake should be the central goal.
Reading can move forward only to the extent that other art forms move forward; to
the extent that different art forms are segregated and ghettoized, all of them suffer, all
of them eventually become sterile and decadent and unable to influence utopian ideals,
seceding power to whatever institutional forces embody anti-art. Reading cannot be
imagined as an activity in competition with other artistic activity, and the same is true
of all other art forms.
It is surprising that with the rise of new media—the possibilities for collaboration,
interaction, and open-endedness they present—existing cultural boundaries have not
dissolved to a larger and more noticeable extent. One reason is the blindness of media
conglomerates whose interest it is to maintain the divisions within the arts, and to take
advantage of ever narrower niches. The publishing conglomerates’ stated economic rationale
for niche marketing is probably oveshadowed by the ideological succor provided by
spinning off the arts into narrow, nonconversant niches. We should also consider the
elitism of artists of various kinds, including writers, in arguing the superiority of their
chosen art form over all others. The critic should ideally mediate among the arts and, in
so doing, bring excitement to all of them; yet this does not entail giving up the critic’s
essential function of evaluating and judging within a broad frame of reference.
National literary divisions and classifications are the least fertile territory for the critic
of the future. It is my contention that reading will be revived everywhere in general, or
nowhere at all; at the present moment, immense vital energies can be felt emanating from
places like India and China, and these should only gather force to an exponential degree
in the foreseeable future as a broad global middle class comes into being.
6. Adopt a sharp point of view.
Today American criticism is globally worthless because it is so deeply parochial. The
power of coordinated institutional taste mechanisms such as the leading review organs,
the distribution of awards and grants and teaching positions, and the endless hype of the
publicity machines of the media conglomerates, offer critics a choice between liking or
disliking a handful of “major” authors. Needless to say, the class dimension in such ideals
of taste formation is evident, and this class solidarity persists across the global landscape.
In effect, there does exist a global club which endorses the literary—and cultural—product
at an elite level, but which excludes the bulk of the real vitality of the human endeavor,
particularly in an age of momentous social transformation. American writing will not
ascend to its full potential unless American critics—and it should be clear by now that by
this I really mean writers—adopt a cosmopolitan, anti-nationalist, globalizing, universal
How can such a change come about, given the exigencies of class and education and
locality? I suggest that such a transformation is easier today than ever, not only because
of the pervasiveness of new media influences (all the world really is closer to being one
than ever before) but because of the writer’s interest in her own survival. The critic, if
she thinks of herself as American or British or Indian, is doomed; she will be unable to
say much of use, since reality today is global (and becoming increasingly so, despite the
efforts of American reactionaries in the last decade to stop its progress) and therefore
criticism and writing must also be global.
In practical terms, this means that the critic writes not for an ideal reader in a Texas
or Pennsylvania town, or even for a broad national audience, but rather for a potentially
global audience of one or zero or everyone. Whom one writes for changes everything;
critics today need to ask the question “For whom do we write?” with great urgency, as
do the creators of every kind of art. Who is the audience, and what can we say to it to
break down formal and abstract divisions? At present, critics write to the narrowest possible
audiences, and targeted reach is a measure of success. The ideal critic must aspire
to precisely the opposite motivation.
There is no such thing as strictly national culture anymore; there is no such thing
as uniquely national writing or criticism; the writer is either a global person or he is, so
far as posterity is concerned, a non-person. And if the critic feels the case is otherwise,
he should make a compelling argument why he does. But he cannot avoid confronting
The barriers between the journalistic and scholarly enterprises are particularly
onerous when it comes to criticism. Criticism needs a new style, recognizably polemic,
argumentative, even crass and vulgar when it needs to be; it needs to not only respond
to the aggressiveness of much of popular culture, but to adopt and co-opt that style and
transcend it. At stake is more than just reaching out to an audience for criticism—and for
readership—that doesn’t yet exist; at stake is the very matter of criticism's function, of why
the critic is doing his job in the first place.
7. Argue from personality.
I would go so far as to claim that arguing from a strong point of view, proving and
disproving premises, hammering away at opponents, abusing one’s enemies when necessary,
overpraising and indulging and hitting hard and delving into personalities—all of it
should be on the table if criticism is to be revived as a vital cultural enterprise. The cult
of objectivity infects the newspaper business, but scholarship suffers from it too, to its
great detriment. The very basis of New Criticism was objectivity, and this has been true
of all the critical movements that have followed in reaction to it.
The cult of objectivity puts the critic in a bind right from the start of the project. True
impartiality is an impossible ideal, as all critics know well, and this hypocrisy should be
laid to rest. The critic must be willing to explore and expose his own biases, his prejudices,
his subjective disabilities and strengths, his irrationalities, and his passions and
hatreds, so that the reader is challenged to respond or retreat, as the case may be. The
reader cannot be engaged if the critic maintains his faux Olympian stance. One result of
letting go of false objectivity is that the critic becomes more human; he admits his
weaknesses; he cannot be in equal control of all the cultural fields, or even particular branches
of literature, and where he is weak, his passion allows him to be honest. Honesty and
integrity are integrally linked with passion, not objectivity—a paradox, but a little reflection
shows it to be true.
The critic of the future has the chance to be a central cultural figure, because all fields
of discourse have been imperialized by polite objectivists. Therefore it is difficult to find
truthful commentary on any subject. Something as rudimentary as the blossoming of
multicultural literature in all its forms, a mission that has been well underway for almost
forty years in the Anglo-Saxon countries, has yet to receive honest critical treatment in
accessible forums. Political correctness is part of the problem, but the polite mannerliness
of criticism, quite aside from political correctness, is also to blame. How should we
evaluate a memoir of addiction or grief? Here again, the critic would have to speak from
a strong point of view, otherwise the cloak of authenticity (the raison d’être for much of
today’s literary writing) cannot be penetrated.
There is much dishonesty in the literary venture today; the critic must rise to the challenge
of exposing it and arguing for a more utopian literature by shedding his impartial,
pragmatist, fair-minded, genteel persona, and opting for a style of writing that lets his
character shine through. Then only can the debate about the merits of forms of literary
creation truly commence. Examples from the last century are rare, but would have to
include H. L. Mencken, Cyril Connolly, and George Orwell. As the culture becomes
higher-decibeled, the critic’s voice must also become loud enough to be heard above all
the noise and distraction. This doesn’t mean shouting or screaming one’s positions, but
letting the force of one’s convictions emerge unfettered. Of course, this also means having
convictions in the first place, but if the writer has (re)positioned herself as a critic first
and foremost, then there should be plenty of convictions to elaborate.
Theory has lately taken a turn toward the confessional. It is most amusing to read the
convolutions of graceless prose writers, utterly in thrall to their own self-importance as
arbiters of goodness and benevolence, as they strive to inject their bland personas into the
usual machinations of theory, so that instead of any sense of the author’s autobiography
coming through, what the disenchanted reader encounters is the ugly spectacle of theorists
posturing as latter-day confessionalists, desperately striving to bring some warmth
to their abstract conjectures but managing only to generate autobiographical sketches
tacked on to the usual ramblings of theory. The theorist Marjorie Garber exemplifies
this leisurely, hands-off approach. Though she speaks in the first person, she fails totally
to invest the first-person point of view with any humor, passion, or dynamism. The sense
of disconnect between the academician and the work of art remains palpable; irony penetrates
the whole enterprise so that blame or responsibility ultimately cannot be assigned
to any party; in the end all we have is a holier-than-thou attitude, the academic deigning
to share some private experiences in order to make herself more marketable to peers and
adjudicators. Leave it to theorists to create a yearning for standard confessionalism, even
if all they fess up to is the predictable repertoire of personal dysfunction.
8. Dispute the possibility of art.
What I am calling for is a radical subjectivisation of criticism, so that the critic’s personality
can be front and center; it doesn’t always have to be, but there should be more
than plenty of room for it. What this will require is the expansion of the reduced boundaries
of confessionalism from the present arena of private dysfunction to the critic’s
relationship with society, including his relationships with publishers, editors, and fellow
writers, his relationship to work and to literary status or lack thereof, his education and
class, his politics as they affect his personal life, his quirks and idiosyncrasies, his acts of
violation, solicitude, trespassing, and intrusion, whatever makes him respond personally
to the work or author or genre in question.
He can do all this while maintaining his sense of privacy, a paradox which is going
to become increasingly central for writing of all types in an age of confessionalist
new media. He can do all this and remain an unknown entity, should he choose to.
Autobiography can be entirely or partially fictionalized, but that should be of no concern
to the reader. What is important is the intersection of the character of the critic, with its
irrationalities and foibles, and a work of art that assumes closure, wholeness, perfection.
In other words, the writer-critic’s life becomes an ongoing, perpetually unfinished, tentative
work of fiction encountering equally delusional works of fiction.
That is the nature of the future struggle between critic and writing, and it is also the
nature of the struggle between critic and reader, because the reader’s interpretation of
works of art is crucially bound up with certain verities about the stability of his own
personality and that of the author in question. To the extent that authorship is problematized—
not from the “death of the author” perspective, as with Barthes and Foucault, but
from the point of view of his material relationships within the institutional textures of
publishing—the autobiographical mode of narration can have much benefit.
I believe that this is one of the most important functions of the critic of the future—not
to proselytize on behalf of particular works of art, but to quarrel with the very possibility
that any art is possible in the age of new media, whose early stages suggest much more
radical changes to come. Continuing to try to prove the existence and importance of art,
high or low or in-between, is a losing proposition. It creates the opposite of the intended
effect. The only way that art can become central again is if it is attacked repeatedly and
from every front, from every angle possible, by critics agnostic about its existence, or even
militantly atheist toward it. Instead of advocating for art, the critic of the future should
passionately foretell its demise, marshal every resource at his disposal to bring it down, to
bring the whole miserable enterprise to an end. This confrontational posture is the only
service a critic can provide to art at this late juncture; everything else is mere dishonesty
that doesn’t compel strong artists into being.9. Make the tradition new.
How can there be art when hierarchies are flattened as never before, when democracy
is stripped of idealism, when the canon has been brought into disrepute, when there is no
time for leisure and reflection, when war has long been elevated to the highest aesthetic,
when there is no ideology, no utopia, no conflict, no desire worth speaking of? What
function can poetry possibly serve when all the poetic dreams have been appropriated by
the media, converted into debased forms of visual manipulation and aggressive denial?
What role can fiction possibly have in a mass society whose rules and conventions have,
for at least a century, been subjected to thorough humiliation, from the modernism of
Joyce and Woolf to the postmodernism of Borges and Calvino, so that only a shell is left,
trappings and rituals, not the spiritual core?
What role can any of the literary arts have when the elite itself frowns on the possibility
of literature, when so many great works of the past have already been shown to be
corrupt from the many politically fashionable angles of today’s orthodoxy? Did deconstructionists
manage to destroy literature? Aside from the fact that this was very much
their goal—at least literature conceived naively as the product of great minds resonating
with great cultures—this is only a small part of the answer. Twentieth-century mass society
militated against art, even as artistic effort reached a pitch of feverish desperation, as it
tried to grasp political nightmares and collective self-suicides in its almighty vision.
The critic must absolutely accept and bend to the political nightmares of the twenty-first
century (which are on a different order than what has gone on before, since ideology
is not a part of the clash, only personal demons extrapolated to the global scale), and
accept that there is no possibility of any art, making this his first and last assumption. And
from there, he should determine what’s left, what’s worth exploring for its failures, in a
landscape where empty materialisms are fighting it out. The critic must understand that
henceforth all successful art will be premised on its own failures. That’s the only territory
worth rooting around in. Art will conquer all when it has been completely conquered.
Theorists dismiss the canon as the reflection of specific cultural prejudices that can
make no claim to universality. They propound an alternative canon—why is that not subject
to the same criticism of local prejudice?—written by women, minorities, the enslaved
and oppressed, regardless of comparative literary worth. The creative writers do not
understand the canon and don’t care about it because all their time is devoted to imitating
models of contemporary writing in the pursuit of immediate publication and job security;
the very premise of “creative writing” is to divorce it from its contextualization in the
canon, and instead to encourage the apprentice to write from personal experience. The
mainstream reviewers don’t have the intellectual aptitude to grasp the canon.10. Downplay politicization.
Which leaves a big hole for the critic to fill, and he must take advantage of this
moment where the genres of writing have dissolved to a point where the canon can be
made anew. What this means is that there is far greater potential for writing to be revived
by means of the existing and the ancient—even the musty—rather than through alleged
avant-garde work, experimental breakthroughs churned out at the speed of blogs and
multimedia. The baroque and grotesque and impenetrable medieval or ancient work of
literature has suddenly become profoundly modern, ahead of our times—and this should
be obvious to any critic able to see the current moment of dissolution for what it is.
What about the tradition of the picaresque novel from the sixteenth and seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries, for example? It is avant-garde to the hilt, utterly in tune with
contemporary disorientation and disillusionment, which is always cloaked in the mantle
of firm belief. What about Middle English poetry? Renaissance drama? Greek prose
narrative? Roman satire? Japanese epic? German high romanticism? All of it can be
seen, suddenly, as utterly new and charming and fresh; and it is because we have come
to the end of the cycle of many genres as they have evolved over the centuries. It is time
to replenish them.
This is not a conservative agenda of arguing that a particular canon is somehow
supernatural in origin or superior to other canons; Harold Bloom’s exercise in The Western
Canon was one of the more wasteful examples of the genre. The canon is always in flux;
nonetheless there is a canon; it needs to be fought with, cut down to size, treated with
disrespect most of the time, but it is a curiosity that yields infinite new insights—otherwise
the canon wouldn’t be the canon. The canon, for the true critic, is transnational,
history-breaking, non-obligatory, but despite all this it can be the greatest force for the
revitalization of art.
Defoe, for instance, was operating under very different presumptions about the role
of the author in society, had a very different attitude toward “realism” than the one we
now take for granted, and treated his readers in a very different manner than current
faux-democratic premises allow. The critic is always in search of new models of professionalization
of the writing venture—or we might say anti-professionalization. Each era
yields its secrets in that direction. Probably the most fruitful activity that any critic can
undertake is to dig into the canon in this disassociated manner and come up with new
treasure. It turns the very idea of relativism on its head, since in the end the critic discovers
that things somehow always remain the same and yet assume different shapes.
This is a key way in which the crisis of literature—which is at bottom a crisis of political
confidence—can be displaced to different territory.
In some ways this will sound like the most unexpected proposition of all, the most
radical, given the tenor of all that has preceded it. But think about it and it makes sense.
How is it possible for the critic to play up any political angle when there is no political
ideology worth speaking of? Politics is at a similarly exhausted stage as literature, and in
both instances a consumerist cornucopia disguises the ultimate lack of choice, the lack
of quality in either realm. To advocate a particular politics at this juncture would be the
greatest dereliction of the critic’s duty.
The aim should be to put politics aside, to return literature and art to the center, the
exact opposite of what the theorists have done, and of what the creative writers have
done. In the case of the former, what has all the subtextual Marxism, the watered-down
radicalism, actually accomplished? The net result of theory has actually been a depoliticization
of the academy, to the extent that language has been fetishized and politically correct
discourse prevails everywhere. The academy would have had a far greater political
impact had it not fallen into the trap of taking its own trendy political ideas so seriously
and instead concentrated on the work of hardcore education.
And that is exactly what the critic should aim for. The greatest act of politicization
for these times is to refuse participation in any of the debased political ideologies, all of
which are various forms of cover for consumerist capitalism of the most vulgar kind. In
my own case, I fervently believe in a cosmopolitan politics of transnational civil liberties,
anti-religious and anti-nationalist, almost anarchic at times, based on absolutely open
movement of people and ideas, and yet I want to reconcile this politics somehow with
fair distribution of income and collective responsibility for welfare. But I don’t see how
criticism can become the vehicle for advancing my politics.
Is it natural for me to select books and authors for discussion who accord with my
views rather than those who don’t? Perhaps, although if I have certain problems with,
say, Salman Rushdie’s growing American neoconservative bent, compared to his earlier
straightforward British socialism, I don’t see how that in any way should affect my estimation
of his later novels. The work of art, in other words, needs to be freed again from
the political shackles that have bound it over the last forty years in particular. The world
needs to be politicized, not art; the corollary of aestheticizing politics (fascism) is politicizing
aesthetics (deconstruction). This is not a quietist posture, actually, but the most
radical one for contemporary times. This is also certainly not New Criticism’s posture of
aestheticism, divorcing the work of art from political and social reality, as the preceding
propositions should have made amply clear.
A related trap is creative writing’s conservative, realism-oriented, personalized, confessionalist
aesthetic, which on the surface bears the trappings of the anti-political attitude
I am advocating; but there is actually no similarity. The creative writer refuses to accept
his brand of politics as such; he thinks of himself as apolitical, enamored of objectivity—
which in the case of writing masquerades as realism.
Literary artists like to think of themselves as liberal; yet mass taste demands conformity
to the status quo. As a result, there is a perpetual schizophrenic split between the
writer’s needs and the reader’s needs, and blandness and mediocrity come to pervade
writing and criticism because it is impossible to reconcile the two conflicting urges. If
the critic can address the problem of politics with the subtlety I propose, he can end up
redefining the problem of authenticity for our times—just as in directly interjecting his
personality into criticism, he can help redefine the problem of confession and privacy.
The redefinition of the critic’s function in society is a redefinition of writing’s function
in society. To rethink criticism is to rethink writing. The agenda presented above is no
doubt too idealistic—and some would say imposes too heavy a burden of erudition and
responsibility on the critic—but since when were manifestos written without a healthy
dose of utopianism? I would actually argue that the scale of the notions presented here
is rather modest.
The critic cannot emerge into her full-blown mature shape after a short period of
study or brief apprenticeship; rather, she will have to yoke herself to a lifelong project
of increasingly deeper and broader investigations of the whole cultural field. I am propounding,
for one thing, the extinction of the entity known as the literary critic, for she
will not limit herself to literature alone. She will range in speculation across all branches
of knowledge, from the sciences to the humanities, making books and their authors
and her own authority question marks for readers, signposts illuminating the enormous
scale of knowledge that all of us will miss in our lifetimes because there simply isn’t time
The critic as I conceive her militates against mortality—all writing should have this
ultimate goal in mind, or it isn’t true writing—by setting up impossible standards for readers
to uphold. Modern reader-reception theory is rather a tame affair, leaving the reader
the option of responding to the text at her given level of understanding; this is valid to a
point, but readers are forever changing into their ideal selves, just as writers are, and only
the critic can mediate in this interaction to the benefit of both.
The present moment is truly a crossroads, as not only literature but all art lies in ruins,
annihilated by the seductive temptations of mass media, rejected by elites and ordinary
readers alike, at odds with the various styles of faux democracy being propagated from
the bully pulpits of the media masterminds. At the same time, it is precisely at the moment
of absolute devastation that the greatest rejuvenations can occur, and the unprecedentedly
global nature of emerging political developments holds the greatest hope for a truly
cosmopolitan, metanationalist art of the future, one that will fundamentally alter the selfperceptions
of cultural agents.
Theory in the academy, just like creative writing in its institutionalized form, will persist
for the foreseeable future; but criticism should have nothing to do with either of them.
It should be an independent activity, rooted in the firmest of beliefs—or disbeliefs—toward
the author-critic, whose only allegiance should be to his own sense of reality. Reality itself
will be replenished if anything close to the model I am advocating takes hold in the new
knowledge-ideas-socialization public sphere, bending it in the direction current authorities
in academia and media fear.
In my vision for criticism, imaginative writing is no longer exploited to score political
or sociological points, and the work of art is judged above all else for its artistic qualities.
My assumption of an encyclopedic, expansive, egalitarian criticism raises these questions
with great urgency: What are the new descriptive norms? What is the new public sphere?
If liberalism’s shared mores no longer prevail, what constitutes “humanism?” The critic’s
very definition of these questions—as was true in a different context in the constitution
of the public sphere in England, France, and Germany in the early eighteenth century—
should help bring about a new subjectivity. The extension of the global public sphere is
a fundamental prerequisite for the kind of criticism I am proposing. I would like to see
culture elevated over politics as the indispensable arena of playful risk-taking; my feelings
on the embrace of risk in the new global arena are more akin to Ulrich Beck’s openness
than Habermas’s caution. I fully accept the emergence of the post-industrial subject in the
West, and would like to see criticism push toward universal tolerance based on the extension
of that identity in the rest of the world. Eliot’s Tory New Criticism was founded on
the conservative values of hierarchy, order, and maturity, and it accorded very well with
the inception of creative-writing workshop orthodoxy in the 1930s; post-structuralism
went on to fight New Criticism values that were misplaced to begin with. In other words,
there was a titanic clash between the two leading forces in criticism, unfortunately taking
place on the wrong foundations. The ground looks clearer now.