“Critics seem to find it necessary, at least once in a career, to write a statement defending criticism per se.” – Joanna Russ.
“By its function, [criticism] seems to be condemned to dispersion, dependency and pure heteronomy. . . . It only exists in relation to something other than itself.”- Michel Foucault
I wanted to preface my column with these two quotations because they frame the topic that I want to discuss quite well and because they also draw on the two basic traditions I am going to intermingle here. In the past few weeks there has been copious debate about writing reviews, about voicing negative opinions on books, and about examining literature critically (or not). The concern that all of these commentaries relate to is that of the role and deployment of criticism, whether literary or social (but still related to literature).
Criticism in everyday discourse usually has negative connotations, and the dictionary definition of the word reflects this. In common usage criticism is about fault-finding, about a perceptive meanness used against someone else. When applied to a more specific object or discourse, criticism becomes a judgment, often a privileged one, redefined as “critique,” that emerges from someone’s vantage point as “critic.” Both of these notions relate to the root of the word “critic,” which is from the Greek word krinein “to separate, decide.” To engage in criticism, at its core, is to practice a process of analysis (separating a subject into constituent components to understand how they fit together) in order to render a decision about the workings of those components. That is an idealized definition of the term, but also a more essential basis for examining it.
But it is not just a practice; it is a specific sort of activity. Criticism is, in large measure, an analytical simulation, a fantasia that unfolds in symbiotic relation to a text. Criticism is a general term that describes infinite specificities, an act of writing that draws explicitly from ideas external to the text and uses them to take apart and consider the workings of a text. As Foucault noted, it exists in a relationship with the thing that it criticizes; as Judith Butler noted in her examination of Foucault, it is a “constrained generality.” But it also exists in relation to two other things: the critic themselves, and the audience they believe is reading their critique. But this is not the same sort of shared imaginarium that a work of fiction is; it is a speculation intimately related to a present subject. Criticism does not make a new world, but attempts to create a bridge between (for our purposes) a literary text and an audience with the critic as both bridge-builder and toll-taker. Fiction attempts to displace the reader; criticism tries to make more obvious the process by which that takes place by giving readers (including the critic) a different position of entry into the narrative and the illusions it generates in the imagination.
Criticism is not a “reading” of a text; it is a specified reader’s explication of the text’s effects and meanings. This is why knowing the critic’s standpoint is part of how we value a critique, for better or worse. The difference between, say, John Clute, Joanna Russ, myself, and Bob of Bob’s Book Blog is not just in what each of us writes, but in who is doing the writing. Authority, perspective, experience, and social connections factor into criticism. How readers receive a text is conditioned by their conception of the critic and their locating of them within the literary field of production. This can be both positive and negative and is influenced by a reader’s identity and position as well.
I think it’s important to highlight this because a lot of the discussion of reviewing and criticizing has focused on social relations and notions of “being nice” and “aggression.” Criticism is never read objectively, nor should it be. A “mean” critic or a nice one is looked at differently, and this perspective is not often based on their actual critical exercises. Especially in the age of instant communication and constant interaction, a critic’s reputation is not created in their bounded critical writings, but in their discursive identity. And who a critic is associated with, or who associates with them, conditions others’ perceptions of them (just ask Cat Valente). The importance is this is in the reminder that criticism is not just a “practice” or any ‘analysis” but social action, often very pointed and detailed in its unpacking and consideration of a text or texts.
Critics comment in the breach created by a text in the field, praise and admonish in the aftermath of a text’s effects on the social web. Critics creates their own window on the text and present it to others to view. Very often we conflate criticism with reviewing, but while all criticisms contain an element of review, most reviews are not critical. That is to say, many reviews summarize a novel or story and then give the reviewer’s opinion of the work without much critical analysis behind the reviewer’s judgement. This is not to say that reviews are substandard, but that their goal is often different than that of criticism.
Criticism are a particular moment in the conversation about a text. Reviews usually promote or discredit a novel rather than analyze it; a critics attempts to communicate their understanding of how a text generates its effects. These are not opposed positions, but poles of a spectrum of discourse on literature and its meanings. The more the constrained generality emerges, the bridge of understanding is constructed, the more it becomes criticism, separating and deciding about the significance of parts and their relation to the whole.
Criticism is an inquiry into the essence of a work and how that essence is created, decorated, and promulgated by the text. When judgment overrides analysis, when we stop taking a text apart and start making summary determinations about its value, we dilute our critique’s power. At the same time, there is an irreducibly subjective element to criticism; in the end, it is about what one person sees with their eyes, what makes sense with their knowledge and standpoint as guides. Criticism asks questions and seeks the answers by disassembling a text and finding out what we learn when we put it back together in front of an audience.
This method works in tension (perhaps friction) with that constrained generality from earlier. Critics often use theories and analytical tools with wider application in the process of undoing a text, but those external ideas must often be modulated or become changed in the process of critique. Criticism thus becomes a fantasia, a combination of formal inquiry and improvisation. Even the most structurally-consistent critical theory must alter in relation to a text, or all it does is force that text to be a reflection of the theory, thus draining any analytical power from it. Good criticism is not nice, it does not conform to expectations, and it ideally should not be about the author, but about the text as an author’s production. If we want to produce more worthwhile discussions about the literature we love, we need to be more critical, which means becoming more open to what the text does and what is creates for us, and sharing how we see that happening. It means engaging each other criticisms and not trying to defend positions. It means embracing the fantasia and continuously inquiring about how texts work, what they can tell us, and what we can give back to them.