Critical Mass

Cynthia Ozick on the State of Literary Criticism Today

By Cynthia Ozick

In her 2006 essay collection The Din in the Head,  Cynthia Ozick writes of 'this persistent internal hum” that is set off “by the individual's solitary engagement with an intimate text.” She also writes that “it is still possible to separate high from low, the enduring from the ephemeral; even to aver that intellect itself (and the ethical life as well) requires the making of distinctions- sorting out, acknowledging that one thing is not another thing, facing down blur and fusion and the moral and aesthetic confusion of false equivalence, and, in the name of appetite for life, false worth.”  Here are her remarks on the state of book reviewing, from the National Book Critics Circle conversation at PEN World Voices 2011. Later this week: Commentary from Morris Dickstein and Carsten Jensen from the same event.


Our subject is “the state of literary criticism today.” But before we can begin to approach this tangled theme, it may be a good idea to ask two perhaps useful questions. First, who are the committed readers? And second, what has become of the kind of authority that used to characterize criticism?

I want to make the case — I think it’s a disheartening case — that the most committed American readers are the Amazon customer reviewers. Not only are they willing to buy books consistently, not as a now-and-then event; they also are intent on evaluating them in a public way, and they devote time and effort to fashioning a response. In short, they are serious about the meaning and effect of books, exactly what we would call a literary point of view. But, always with some exceptions, there are two threads, or call them principles, that these so-called customer reviewers emphatically hold in common. First, a book, whether non-fiction or fiction, must supply “uplift.” Who wants to spend hours on a downer? And even more demandingly, the characters in a novel must be likable. Uplift and pleasantness: is this an acceptable definition of what we mean by literature? If so, then King Lear and Hamlet aren’t literature, Sister Carrie isn’t literature, Middlemarch isn’t literature, nearly everything by Chekhov isn’t literature, and on and on and on.

It used to be said that one purpose of criticism was to educate taste. The famous Matthew Arnold dictum, which is not much quoted anymore except in derision, was to urge readers toward “the best that has been thought and said.” It was understood that criticism implied authority. And setting aside former titans like Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century and the godlike T. S. Eliot in the early twentieth, within living memory there have been formidably influential critics who shaped not simply taste and preference, but the very nature of literature, including often enough its moral or tragic nature — that is, how one must read in order to comprehend as deeply as possible. Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe come quickly to mind.

Yet nowadays, with the proliferation of all manner of reading devices, and with every reader an instant writer by virtue of these devices, all that elevated influence and the deference it induced is not merely dying; it is plainly dead. Adam Kirsch, James Wood, and Morris Dickstein may strive to reproduce what once was; but they are overwhelmed by a sea of writerly blogs, some shoddy and amateurish, many others brainy and skilled. “Authority,” being everywhere, is nowhere. We may celebrate it as “the democratization of criticism,” but one path it has taken is the shallow ubiquity of the customer reviewer.

Cynthia Ozick is a highly acclaimed short story writer, novelist, and essayist. She was shortlisted for the 2005 Man Booker International Prize. In 2008, she was awarded the PEN/Malamud award for excellence in the short story. Her book of essays, "Quarrel & Quandary," won the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism. She also has been a multiple finalist for NBCC awards in fiction and criticism. Her sixth novel,"Foreign Bodies," is a reframing of Henry James's "The Ambassadors."