The Impoverishment Of Critics

I have been a freelance book reviewer for twenty years, which means that several times a week, the postal carrier delivers packages of books—some that I requested, some that I didn’t know I wanted, and some that I won’t ever want. A year and a half ago I received in this manner a book that I did want, Darryl Pinckney’s Come Back in September, about his friendship and apprenticeship with the critic and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick. The front cover features a photo of Hardwick looking prim and elegant on the low steps outside 15 West Sixty-Seventh Street in Manhattan, where she lived in a top-floor duplex from 1961 until her death in 2007. On the back cover are two photographs of her dramatic two-story living room.

I often think about this room. Its ceilings appear to be twenty feet high. Next to the built-in bookshelves and requisite rolling ladder, swag curtains frame an enormous window, giving a the­atrical effect. A Juliet balcony gently interrupts one wall. Floating in the middle of the room is a writing desk, really a library table, from which a ceramic bust of a young man rises, like a gravestone, between two lamps. I showed the pictures to my husband once. “Oh,” he said. “She lived in the Morgan Library.”

My own desk is wedged into one corner of the bedroom I share with my husband, behind the children’s trampoline, between a hulking armoire and an ugly IKEA thing exploding with file boxes and rolls of scribbled-on paper that I really ought to throw away. Cairns of books are at my feet. If I turn my head just so I can glimpse a cluster of grocery bags brimming with toys and still more books, which I plan, someday, to sell or give away. Sometimes I pile the bags on top of each other to reduce their footprint, and when they threaten to topple, spread them out again.

What interests me about the photographs of Hardwick’s living room is that they provide evidence of the environment in which a brilliant and original mind worked. The couch on which she sat when she thought about Donne or Melville expressed a sensibility, but it also incubated one. On my way to my own desk, I catch a glimpse of the bags filled with crap. Whether or not I acknowledge it, the crap is always buried in the piece. Sometimes it rises right to the top.

criticism is an act of autobiography. The work of making an argu­ment, coming to a judgment, or simply choosing which books or objects to give time and attention to is inevitably, helplessly, an expression of values—and an expression of self. Our tastes tell on us as much as our syntax and tone; that mysterious compound called sensibility is formed by some strange alchemy of innate tendencies, life experiences, and material circumstances. In the pursuit of explicating a text, observing its patterns and structure, how it works, what it means, I also explicate myself—revealing what catches my interest, where my attention lingers. I might do this more, or less, intentionally, but I always do it.

Whatever is going on in the life of the critic is going to show up in her reading; it can’t not. Reading, writing, and thinking have experiential texture. The place and context in which I do those activities shapes them. Whether we are informed by political events or everyday life, it is not always possible, or desirable, to block out the noise of the world. When I write criticism, then, I try to use this fact of myself in some way. I might openly acknowledge why I am so invested in some aspect of a work. I might try to think through myself, pushing to arrive at a point at the very far edge of what I can see. I am a passionate adherent of close reading, the practice of being carefully attentive to words that are not our own. But close reading always involves the critic layering her own point of view over or next to the text’s, even as she observes, explains, interprets, evaluates. What I should not do is pretend that my reading is definitive, neutral, objective, or somehow free of myself and my environment. I write criticism to encounter an object, and I read criticism to encounter another person encountering an object. If I wanted a randomized controlled trial, I would be in the sciences.

Of course, the money one is paid to write a piece is one of the material constraints that shapes the work of criticism. Word rates have not increased in decades, while the cost of living goes up every year. According to Cathy Curtis’s A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick, beginning in the late 1990s Hardwick was paid about $4,000 per New York Review of Books essay—an amount com­parable to what writers are paid to write long book reviews today at a marquee publication like NYRB or The New Yorker. (Small publications pay much less.) Newspaper book reviews have been contracting for decades, and while magazines like The Nation and The Atlantic cover books, the hourly rate on a piece, once you do the calculation, is dismal. “Little” magazines and online reviews are wonderful for the culture, but no one could pay the rent writ­ing for those outlets alone. If you have a secure academic job and write reviews on the side, it’s nice work. For the freelancer—I am one—it’s a foolish undertaking. As Russell Jacoby noted nearly forty years ago, one reason there are not more full-time freelance writers is that most take staff writer positions or university jobs or quit writing altogether. It is impossible to know what ideas never came into the world because someone couldn’t or wouldn’t accept an hourly rate that barely covers the babysitter.

if the criticism I write is always limited by the fact that it is I who am writing it, bounded as I am by material constraints, it is also true that within that limit a profound freedom of thought persists. Sometimes when I read, I do have the sensation of blocking out the immediate physical world, journeying to an entirely different place, losing the sense of my body. It’s not just leaving myself behind that is freeing; it’s discovering myself. Writing a review is the best, maybe the only, way I can discover what I think. I don’t come to reviewing with my ideas already formed; I have to build them, sentence by sentence. For me, writing a review is a way of getting closer to an object, taking it apart to understand how it works. I get closer to and farther away from myself in the process, even as I know that I will inevitably ask questions that betray myself and my interests. The question I am most aware of asking has to do with point of view: I want to understand an object’s way of looking at the world. What would I have to believe about the world in order for this book to be true? This is the kind of question I get most excited about asking.

Criticism is a relationship with an object, and as such it involves all of the regular psychic drama—idealization and fantasy; avoid­ance, hostility, and disappointment; the desire to know and a fas­cination with what is unknown; displacement from our own life onto the object. The person writing criticism has to always be on guard that the irritations and frustrations of writing do not get taken out on the object under review. Even pieces that begin in love and admiration can end in resentment and hate. I have noticed that after writing a review, I often lose interest in the author or resist reading their next book. If reviewing is a way to know something deeply, it’s also a way to say goodbye.

in the popular imagination, the critic is usually evil, sneering, vicious, or frustrated at their own thwarted artistic dreams. But the truth is, people who do this quite insane and marginal thing of writing criticism do it because they have a passionate attachment to literature. There’s little money or power in it, and no fame. Writing book reviews today is a vocation, not a career. It’s for people who still believe, against all practicality, that a life organized around lit­erature is worth more than a life organized around money. “Making a living is nothing,” Hardwick once wrote. “The great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words.”

I always say that I write for myself, to find out what I think or what I can do. But it’s also true that the main reason I write reviews is because people ask me to. Writing a novel that might end up in the drawer makes sense to me; writing a review that might end up there does not. Criticism is a conversation—with oneself but also with one’s editors, with readers, and with other reviewers. There is something hopeful about writing a review. It’s like putting a mes­sage in a bottle or sending up a flare. I’m at my little desk, trying not to look at the bags on the floor. Who knows where the person who will read the piece is sitting?

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top