Showing posts with label Cranky friends. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cranky friends. Show all posts

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Death of the Critic

A buddy had just finished a book I'd lent him, The Death of the Critic by Ronan McDonald, and was convinced that the theorists needed a severe pounding. His language was such that I had to put the phone down and answer the door for the pizza delivery man. When I got back and picked the phone up again, he was still ranting, unaware, it seems, that I was gone for a couple of minutes. He's a high school pal, someone who likes no matter the contrasts in cultural preference, and he likes a critic to perform the service of being a consumer guide. He likes mysteries, Clive Cussler, and actual crime books, and all he wants is a synopsis and brief evaluations on whether he'll get his money's worth. I have no idea why he wanted to read the book. Still, he was fired up enough to be convinced that the Usual Suspects McDonald lays out for literary criticism's demise--French theorists, multi-culturists, feminism, variations on the postmodernist riff--had conspired to irritate him. One might understand the response, as in any of those times, one volunteers a statement, heartfelt but visceral, not cerebral, about a book they read and enjoyed that might have happened to be the subject of conversation. Once you make your remarks, add your few pennies worth, some intelligent ass chimes in with caterpillar-length words and odd ideas from two or three different disciplines, and leaves you there, lost and humiliated.

That happened to me when I was younger, much younger, mouthing off my platitudes about arts and politics, but rather than getting angry and nurturing a resentment, I was determined to become one of those smart asses, or at least sound as though I belonged to the club. My friend, though, craved his resentments and continued variations of his anti-intellectual beef over the last forty-some years. I assume most of us have friends like that. It was an exasperating conversation. Finally, I got him off the phone and made a mental note to not lend him any more books related to literary theory or the history of ideas. Instead, I'll offer him some Elmore Leonard. There is a writer we can probably talk about.

On the book's topic, it's not that the literary critics are dying as much as people have pretty much ignored them, preferring the pseudoscience of theory, which likes to wallow in choking, jargon-clogged solipsism writing that actually engages a book. It's style, the author's intentions, and the successes or failures contained therein. At some point, a generation of young academics hitched their fortunes on the diffusing forces of continental philosophy because they found a method through which they could abnegate their charge to aid readers to sharpen their skills. Literature, by whatever definition we use, is a body of writing intended to deal with more complex storytelling to produce a response that can be articulated in a way that's as nuanced as the preparatory work, the factors that make for the "literary" we expect cannot be reducible to a single supposition.

Use is a valuable defining factor, but the use of literature varies wildly reader-to-reader, group-to-group, culture-to-culture, and what it is within the work that resonates loudly as the extraordinary center that furnishes ultimate worth, varies wildly too; some things instigate this use, and they aren't one determinant, but several, I suspect. Ultimately, the goal of literary criticism is not to create the terms that define greatness but to examine and understand what's already there and devise a practical, flexible framework for discussion. Ultimately, the interest invalid criticism is in how and why a body of work succeeds or fails in its operation, not establishing conditions that would exist before a book is written.

Some of us who toyed with deconstruction and the like, when we found that language in general and literary writing, in particular, couldn't address the world as is, remember the sweetly tricky issue of inter-textuality. Promoted by Derrida and deMan, if memory serves me (and it often doesn't), this was the fancy footwork that while books fail to address the nature things and make them fixed, unchanging situations, texts (meaning books) referred only to other readers, and the coherent systems writers seemed to uncover or create about how things are were in practice drawn from a limitless archive of each text that came before the one you might have in your hand and considering its fidelity to your experience.

We find a futile concern since everything has already been written, everything has already been said. If this were true, we asked, how can it be that some theorists are using language to precisely describe what language cannot do, i.e., precisely describe things? I never read a response that made sense, as the answers seemed even more steaming heaps of jargon that made the unanchored theory before even more impassable. It is a pity since science writers and even literary researchers could explain, in more straightforward terminology, the purpose, technique, and consequence of the minute and verifiable data science was accruing.