Critical Mass



The National Book Critics Circle regularly posts a list of five books a critic believes reviewers should have in their libraries. We recently heard from writer and critic Richard B. Woodward. Here is what Rick pointed out as worth keeping in your library at all times.

Running down the many lists submitted by estimable contributors to this blog, I concur with any syllabus for book critics that includes Aristotle, Hazlitt, Coleridge, Wittgenstein, James, Eliot, Wilson, Orwell, Updike, Vidal, Davenport, Kenner, Kael, Farber, and Bangs.  The suggestions below are meant not as replacements. I nominate these five only because they have, to various degrees and for various reasons, goaded me to do better.

Literary Essays of Ezra Pound
, edited with an introduction by T.S. Eliot (1968)

The first job of any critic is identifying talent and convincing readers why someone or something new, old, or underrated is worthy of respect or adulation. Like handicappers, critics should be judged in part by how often they pick winners from a herd of promising thoroughbreds. Pauline Kael was only one of many unorthodox stylists in her heyday. But she was the shrewdest judge of horseflesh in movie history, foreseeing greatness in dozens of figures, from Spielberg to DeNiro, when they were mere colts.

Ezra Pound was her equal as a tout during the early twentieth century when he lived in London and Paris. The reputations of Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Frost, Williams, Moore, H.D., Hemingway, and many others benefited in ways large and small from his advocacy.  The pedagogic sections here on “The Art of Poetry” and “The Tradition” are not the reasons I still take nourishment from Pound. I read him for the vigor of his opinions on individuals (there are fine essays on late Yeats and on Henry James) and for his fearlessness. When he invokes the names of the sacred shades, dead poets and philosophers from ancient China, classical Greece and Rome, medieval France, and Renaissance Italy, he treats them as his contemporaries.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature and Lectures on Russian Literature
, edited by Fredson Bowers (1980)

Nabokov is a dangerous writer to emulate. In college I revered his books and sought to imitate his casual majesty until I realized his linguistic or formal brilliance was beyond my reach. As a result, I abandoned any hope of trying to be a novelist myself.  His critical standards toward literature can be no less inhibiting. Periodically I have to banish him from my mind as an icy, out-of-touch aristocrat in order to enjoy in good conscience Dostoevsky, Mann, Faulkner, and others crushed beneath his weighty judgments. Then, someone will quote him in a review and, remembering the glinting precision of his intelligence, I am forced to bring him back from exile.

These two volumes collect his college lectures from the 1950s on seven works of fiction––Mansfield Park, Bleak House, Madame Bovary, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Walk by Swann’s Place, The Metamorphosis, and Ulysses––and on a select group of Russian writers, not necessarily his favorites. (Dostoevsky and Gorky are included.)  Nabokov’s analytic vocabulary can sound musty as he discusses “themes” and “symbols.” He was unpardonably chauvinistic toward women writers. But his zeal for literature is contagious. Above all he wanted his students to appreciate the array of special effects novelists keep in their bag of tricks. He was unafraid to throw around the word genius, being one himself.

Those who regard themselves as attentive readers should take two of his sample exams. When I totaled my humiliating score, I realized how much of a novel’s detail I ordinarily miss in my haste to finish and arrive at an opinion. In an essay here titled “The Art of Literature and Commonsense,” he attacks mundane realism and argues that “a seemingly incongruous detail” always trumps “a seemingly dominant generalization.” Or as he puts it in a more Nabokovian fashion: “I take my hat off to the hero who dashes into a burning house and saves his neighbor’s child, but I shake his hand if he has risked squandering a precious five seconds to find and save, together with the child, its favorite toy.”

Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture (1962)

Warshow’s slender collection has been celebrated for so many decades by now that it perhaps needs no more proselytizing. I doubt any essay on the movies has been anthologized as often as “The Gangster as Tragic Hero.”  When this collection first appeared in 1962, it was crowned with a laudatory introduction from Lionel Trilling, and Warshow’s standing has benefited from his affiliation with, as well as his distance from, the Partisan Review crowd. He was certainly not the first serious critic of so-called popular culture but he may have been the first to make writing about comics and genre films respectable.

Some of his oft-quoted verdicts (“The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it”) need revision. But others (“so much of ‘official’ American culture has been cheaply optimistic that we are likely almost by reflex to take pessimism as a measure of seriousness”) are no less true today than when first published.  He died in 1955 and continues to exercise a quiet authority. His attitude was unstuffy but level-headed toward subjects once seen as marginal ephemera for the masses. The same cannot be said of his countless academic and journalistic progeny.

Selected Essays of R.P. Blackmur, edited with an introduction by Denis Donoghue (1986)

Blackmur’s sidling approach to the writers he admires means that he often takes a maddeningly long time to make his points, a quality he likely picked up from reading too much Henry James. For many years ensconced in the Princeton English department and linked with the exegetical rigor of the New Critics, he didn’t really have any method except, as Donoghue notes, that of “being very intelligent.”

The pulse of amateur criticism is generally much racier today than when Blackmur wrote for literary journals; and his aversion to theory (the autodidact didn’t even have a B.A.) is suspect when criticism in academia is devoted to exposing everyone’s hidden agenda. For both these reasons, Blackmur has been buried in the unread shelves of the library.  That’s too bad because, when I’m in a dawdling mood, I still find that he delivers. He writes splendidly about the critical prefaces by James and the “repetitious fragmentariness” of Emily Dickinson and about the different kinds of obscurity the reader confronts in the poems of Yeats, Pound,
Eliot, and Stevens.  His essays elucidate difficult texts without distorting the original and with sufficient care and élan that the writing in both remains a pleasure you want to reexperience.

Looking at Photographs by John Szarkowski (1974)

John Szarkowski, who died last year, was not only the finest writer on photography ever. He was also among the most consequential critics of anything in American history.  Director of the Department of Photographs at the Museum of Modern Art from 1962-91, he had unrivaled sway over the medium when that institution was pretty much the only game in town for photographers with ambition.  Diane Arbus and William Eggleston are only two of many who owe their reputations to his sponsorship.

But it was his writing in books such as The Photographer’s Eye and this cogent set of notations on photographs from the museum’s collection, both famous and anonymous, that allowed his influence to flourish. Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin are more commonly cited and read. That’s a travesty. Those dilettantes, so often misguided in their oracular musings about photography, can’t match the lucidity, wisdom, humor, and grasp of history found in a single Szarkowski paragraph.  He can profitably be read by anyone who cares about visual culture.