Critical Mass

Guest Post by Reamy Jansen: “A High-Sounding but Bogus Entity”

By Reamy Jansen

NBCC member Reamy Jansen recently had these observations about the New York Times Book Review's “Why Criticism Matters” special section.

Some weeks ago (Jan 2, 2011) the New York Times Book Review offered up a not-inconsiderable four, full pages on the subject of “Why Criticism Matters” as a means of marking the fiftieth anniversary of Alfred Kazin’s “The Function of Criticism Today” (1960). The Times’s cover was wittily illustrated by Leonardo Sonnoll, who slightly decentered repetitions of the phrase “Words About Words About Words,” somewhat in the fashion of Jenny Holzer (e.g., “Protect Me From What I Want”).

Two sections were on display: “Why Criticism Matters” (pp. 9–11) and, at back of the book, “Masters of the Form,” although I kept hearing, “Masters of the Universe.”

For the first part “The Editors” posed one question to six critics, which was then linked to a related task. The chosen critics—the editors reminded us that they were “serious” ones: Stephen Burn, who sets the stage nicely for the others: Katie Roiphe, Pankaj Mishra, Sam Anderson, and Elif Batuman. The question posed: Where is the place for the critic “interested in the larger implications—aesthetic, cultural, and moral?” Next, like something out of America’s Next Top Chef, the six were to open their baskets and were asked “to undertake the assignment in the spirit Alfred Kazin did half a century ago in his ambitious statement of purpose in ‘The Function of Criticism Today.’” Kazin’s complete statement, and the full essays by the critics, however, must be chased down on Think of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch. Consequently what one gets on the printed page is a part of something larger. No one seemed particularly interested in defining what a “text” might be––not surprising given the limited field for the critic’s attention: books and nothing else.

Being “serious” crickets (pace Gulley Jimson), most adjusted the register of their prose to “Pompitous.” The result was a mixed bag of responses to what admittedly was a difficult enterprise in abstraction, and Burn, Anderson, and Batuman get high marks. (All, however, took delight in a range of individual titles.)

As for part two, “The Masters of the Form,” well, we’ve left the United Colors of Benetton and have entered an area of activity that Toni Morrison dubbed “Dancing in the Dark.” Here, one was greeted by quotes from Caucasian Males No Longer with Us: Kazin, T.S. Eliot, Randall Jarrell; Matthew Arnold, Walt Whitman, Lionel Trilling, and, finally, Oscar Wilde. (I’m assuming you’re not holding your breath for the follow-up, “Mistresses of the Form.”) Jennifer B. McDonald, who writes a lively culture blog, Paper Cuts, gives a nice overview of sorts while throwing in yet another man, Edmund Wilson, and, although she concludes with a dazzling selection from Mary McCarthy’s review of Nabokov’s Lolita, McCarthy is identified as “Wilson’s third wife, as it happens.”

So, now that it’s raining men, we’re stuck with just the quotes. Figure out the context on your own.

For starters, there’s one from Eliot’s “The Function of Criticism,” stressing a critic’s need for a “highly developed sense of fact,” whose “complete development means perhaps the very pinnacle of civilization.” Craig Raine, in Chapter 6, “The Criticism,” of his finely tuned 2007 study of Eliot’s work, demonstrates the poet’s abilities as a critic that include “his instinct for definition,” although this doesn’t rule out, says Raine, the Eliot’s occasional preference for “a high-sounding but bogus entity.” NB: Facts have never been, well, “facts.” Check Hard Times, the OED, and Mary Poovey’s A History of the Modern Fact (Chicago, 1998. And notice how discreetly I’ve left “pinnacle” alone.).

Matthew Arnold’s quote is taken from sixth paragraph of the lecture “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” which later becomes the introduction of his volume Essays in Criticism. The essay itself begins with a somewhat defensive account of “a proposition … I ventured to put forth: a proposition about criticism, and its importance at the present day.” In his edition of The Poetry and Criticism of Matthew Arnold, A. Dwight Culler characterizes Arnold’s essay as an “apologia vita nuova … his apology for his new life as a critic,” marking a time when Arnold turns away from his vocation of poet. The context adds no small touch of the weariness, regret, and sadness that often fills Arnold’s work. Like it or not, the selection of isolated quotes is a quick slide back into New Criticism, for good or for ill.

Contradictory-me then asks, would it have killed anyone to include Proust after Wilde, with one of any number of things from the pieces that constitute Against Sainte Beuve, a work written largely over 1908 and 1909, although it only first appears in French in volume form in 1954 and then in English in its proper scale in 1971 (I have a 1988 Penguin Classic)? Proust is always Proust, here delightful and exacting: “His syntax [Flaubert’s], is as great perhaps as that of Kant shifting the center of our cognition of the world into the soul. In his great sentences objects exist not as accessories to a story, but in the reality of their appearing; generally they are the subject of the sentence, for the character takes no part but submits to the sight of them: ‘A village appeared, poplar trees formed a line,’ etc. And even when the object represented is human, because it is experienced as an object, what appears of it is described as appearing and not as produced by the will.” (”To Be Added to Flaubert,” 1910).

Here endeth the lesson. Beat that.


In the end, the major disappointment coming from this proffered feature may stem from a limited institutional and editorial vision and the lack of a sense of play.

More and more when confronted with yet another week of the Book Review, I experience the sort of tiredness I feel when entering a mall, where the air is recirculated and recycled. “Why Criticism Matters,” sadly, is no exception.

Reamy Jansen is Contributing Editor of The Bloomsbury Review of Books and Nonfiction Editor of The Hamilton Stone Review. His recent book is a memoir, Available Light, Recollections and Reflections of a Son. His essays and poetry have appeared in a variety of journals. He is Professor of English and Humanities at SUNY Rockland and taught Arts Journalism for many years at Fordham University’s College at Lincoln Center.