The pathos of critics—and don’t they know it—is that their particular opinions, and even their general systems of belief, are usually doomed to quick oblivion. They observe the canonical, but they publish in pages that wilt. They write from a position of developed taste, but they also have to turn around pieces on deadline.
The seductiveness of criticism is that this doesn’t necessarily matter. If critics are exceptional, and exceptionally lucky, their manner will endure as a personal style, a way of describing and feeling a historical situation, that is available to others for imitation. Lionel Trilling’s liberal ambivalences made self-doubt glamorous for a generation of undergraduates coming of age at the high noon of American empire. Susan Sontag’s cool high-modernist cosmopolitanism and Pauline Kael’s hot populist enthusiasms established a set of coordinates for making sense of culture in the age of mass media. From the art criticism of Walter Pater to the reviews by Eileen Myles, the particular tenets of taste—works reclaimed, schools or movements endorsed, new authors celebrated—finally matter less than the critic’s attitude, or what was once called “sensibility.” With criticism, it’s best to reverse D.H. Lawrence’s famous motto: Trust the teller, not the tale.
But where can one find a good enough teller these days? What venues can play host to a critical sensibility that is both distinctive and imitable? What institutions can afford to supply the cultural critic with a steady income and a stable intellectual home? These are embarrassing questions to ask. It is unlikely that such a figure would emerge today from print journalism, as the walls close in on the handful of venues that still bother with criticism at all. It is even less likely that the Internet, each corner of which is constantly undergoing mitosis, can nurture a voice with the necessary kind of consistency and economic stability. Least likely of all is the university, which is presently too engaged in a struggle for legitimacy to speak for a public. Suggest any one of these sites and you can hear the laughter in advance. Too commercial, too hurried, too rarefied—and all of it too partial: Any setting that might give the critic a connection to genuine, generalizable experience is virtually out of reach.
Or so it seems. But the fact is that, in one sense, criticism is doing better than ever, appearing with great frequency in the pages of high-circulation magazines like The New Yorker, online in publications like the Los Angeles Review of Books, and in the single columns of little magazines like n+1, The Baffler, and Dissent. Unlike in previous eras, however, criticism’s renewed vitality has come with a disturbing new register of anxiety and self-consciousness. Once, critics like Trilling, Sontag, and Kael commanded the attention of a large audience and were expected to shape and challenge a still roughly homogenous public opinion. Today, many critics struggle to find a unified culture to interpret and criticize and a public to address. As A.O. Scott insists, the critic’s role is “to disagree, to refuse to look at anything simply as what it is,” and yet in an age in which critics often are forced to set their sights on films like Avengers: Age of Ultron, it appears that the critic can be nothing other than “the vanguard of pointing out the obvious.”
Three new books of criticism—each in its own way a defense of the practice—offer some insight into this sensibility. Bashful and anxious yet overflowing with ideas, James Wood’s The Nearest Thing to Life, A.O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism, and Mark Greif’s Against Everything attempt to give renewed meaning and purpose to criticism. And yet there’s a common, perhaps even generational anxiety over the role that the critic can play. Born in the decade from 1965 to 1975, Wood, Scott, and Greif all began to write and think about culture in a period when the ideological conflicts of the Cold War no longer gave criticism its sense of urgency. While earlier generations of critics could speak with some confidence about their historical moments, all three spent much of their early years worrying about whether there was a clear public to address or a recognized authority that could license their right to speak. From this equivocal situation, it has been their fate to look back fondly at earlier critical models while taking up the tools of what they feared was a debased trade.
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Like Scott and Greif, who often turn to their biographies in their books, Wood centers part of his defense in The Nearest Thing to Life around his own personal history, in particular his initiation into the critical enterprise. Wood’s interest in criticism began at age 15, when, passing through London’s Waterloo Station, he came across Martin Seymour-Smith’s Novels and Novelists: A Guide to the World of Fiction at a table of remaindered books. Novels and Novelists is a compendium of biographical tidbits and rankings that pinned the word “great” on writers with the bluff dignity of a military ceremony. But for Wood, it seemed to open up a door. Not yet wised up to a more urbane world in which this kind of criticism is judged sophomoric or invidious, Wood found himself led by the book’s earnest, middlebrow assessment of fiction itself. Criticism, high or low, was Wood’s first lure—not novels, but their evaluation—and in some ways, perhaps, it’s remained his first love.
From this view of criticism, Wood spins out a persuasive defense of the enterprise. His vision is disarmingly modest, even deliberately humble. He calls for a mode of criticism that is an act of “passionate redescription.” Good criticism helps us experience the work of art under consideration; it entices us with artful paraphrase and helps a larger audience see the work as the critic saw it. When we read it in its most heightened form, we should hear a critic’s performance of the work in question, much like a musician’s performance of a score.
Wood has himself mastered this form over the years. Passionate redescription seems to work best on individual books or authors in the form of strenuous advocacy, when the critic takes what might seem unpromising, unusual, or otherwise rebarbative material and demonstrates how it can be not only more deeply appreciated, but in fact savored. Although Wood might be best known for his early takedowns, it’s when he paraphrases the literary works he most ardently admires—as, in recent years, with Teju Cole, Ismail Kadare, and Karl Ove Knausgaard—that he comes closest to his ideals.
This style of criticism has a distinguished lineage and an attractively democratic ethos; Wood can persuasively adduce Thomas De Quincey and Virginia Woolf as forebears. But with Wood, this view of the critical enterprise is infused with an ambient nostalgia for bygone times. While he doesn’t say so explicitly, Wood seems to sense that this more organic relationship between artist, critic, and audience is perhaps no longer tenable. Thanks to the mass market, the critic no longer has a distinct audience to address; he or she must navigate the swirl of savvy maneuvering and publicity that pervades cultural production.
When Wood turns at the end of the book to his homesickness for the England of his youth—a gentler and less encompassing, but perhaps more perplexing form of exile—it’s hard not to read it as allegory. In an age of mass-market cultural expression, the contemporary critic is no longer quite at home. “Perhaps to be in between two places, to be at home in neither, is the inevitable fallen state,” Wood laments, “almost as natural as being at home in one place.”
In Better Living Through Criticism, Scott offers the reader a similar initiation story, recalling how he discovered the stirrings of the critical vocation while reading The Village Voice in the 1980s. The Voice at the time was in its late-heroic period, the paper of Stanley Crouch, Robert Christgau, Ellen Willis, Peter Schjeldahl, and above all Cynthia Carr, and it was in their criticism that Scott discovered a new way of engaging with culture. Marooned in the comparative provincial backwater of New England, he never traveled to New York to see the performances Carr described; rather, it was the “charisma of her voice” that entranced him. “I don’t say this to brag,” Scott insists. “On the contrary, it’s pretty embarrassing.” Embarrassing, that is, to prefer the secondhand of criticism to the primacy of art; but also, in the same spirit as Wood, embarrassing because the discovery of the critical enterprise was so sweetly naive. Scott entered into the critical vocation with the same innocent openness and curiosity that Wood had, and that any later sophistication would eventually stifle.
Unlike Wood’s deliberate modesty, Scott’s approach in Better Living Through Criticism is at once more diffident and more audacious. Paradoxes borrowed from Immanuel Kant and Oscar Wilde abound. Criticism, from Scott’s perspective, isn’t subordinate to art. Rather, it is wider in its techniques and goals than any particular artistic expression can be. It is not a parasitic latecomer, telling the reader what has already happened, but instead the origin of the creative impulse. The critic does not erase the aesthetic expression of the artist; he or she renders it generalizable and as a result less evanescent.
These arguments aren’t new, of course, but the style in which they’re delivered is distinctive and contemporary enough to slightly alter their import. Often deflationary and sensitive to the precarious position of the critic in relationship to his or her audience, Scott’s defense of criticism is articulated in a tone that veers from sincere and elevated to winsome and defeated. Arguing that a sense of cultural belatedness goes back to Hesiod, Scott writes: “Before anything had really gotten started, everything already sucked.”
That note—a concession to how pompous his defiant argument might sound, while remaining defiant nonetheless—is Scott’s writing at its most sensitive. By toying with flippancy, he demonstrates that one can have an eclectic, open, even self-critical intelligence, whether one is writing about Hannah Arendt, Robert Altman, or Avengers: Age of Ultron. But his tone also reveals an underlying anxiety concerning the role the critic can play in public life. It is the sound of someone who is worried that no one else might be listening.
One reason for this anxiety is that critics like Wood and Scott find themselves caught between the worlds of the magazine and the academy. Secure though they are as critics writing for large general audiences in The New Yorker and The New York Times, they have an unsteady, off-and-on relationship with the academy. This gives their writing the thrill of different registers colliding, but being caught between professional guilds also comes at a cost. To be neither properly a Trilling nor a Sontag or Kael gives their work the quality of the curious gadfly. In an economy and an intellectual culture that often demands of its citizens identity papers but empties those credentials of value, criticism often finds that it has nowhere to call home.
But it is not institutional ambiguity alone that makes it hard to speak to—or for— a public. Wood and Scott also face the looming threat of aggregation: not just the hum of social media, or the algorithms that define our taste horizons on Amazon or Netflix, but the melancholy sense that our judgments have already been spoken for by demographics and sociology.
Here is Scott in a moment of self-address:
And it takes no effort at all to peg you, my friend, as a Gen-X baby in the throes of middle age, flailing between the Kubler-Ross stages of denial and acceptance as you mourn your lost youth…. Your life is college radio, literary snobbery, a conspiracy of the high and the low against the middlebrow; HBO and Adult Swim and the Criterion Collection; graphic novels and alt-country and Seinfeld—the narcissism of small differences elevated to an aesthetic principle.
After such knowledge, what self-respect?
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This was certainly the question that animated the founding of n+1 in 2004. Starting a new small magazine of literary and cultural criticism as other media outlets floundered, consolidated, or disappeared was quixotic, no doubt, but also prescient. The magazine’s founders—Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, Chad Harbach, Benjamin Kunkel, Allison Lorentzen, and Marco Roth—saw from the start that the erosion of criticism’s institutional strongholds, particularly the university, had made it difficult to take the critical project seriously. But instead of fleeing from a culture where the critic no longer had a clear role, the n+1 founders embraced their precarious position. If you were prepared to write criticism in an unaffiliated and noninstitutional context, it was a savvy bit of branding to make the embarrassment and uncertainty that comes with it your house style.
With its hortatory tone, its tendency to pick fights with bigger antagonists (The New Republic, The Believer), its old-fashioned range of reference (Whitman, Dostoyevsky, Edmund Wilson), and its willingness to handle academic theory roughly, n+1’s early forays into criticism aggressively courted embarrassment. The agreement seemed to be that each writer would say what embarrassment might ordinarily prevent them from admitting in print—particularly any embarrassment about one’s own erudition or moral unease—in the hope that an audience would convene to see what followed. When this mode of criticism worked, it was spectacularly memorable and helped to build a new audience for this style of sheepish erudition.
Mark Greif, whose new book Against Everything collects many of his early efforts, is particularly deft at it. As a critic, he largely leaves traditional art forms alone. His subjects range widely and are often so widespread and seemingly artless that at first glance they appear banal. Greif writes on exercise, reality TV, pop lyrics, YouTube videos, the prurient sexualization of children, and the symbiotic embrace of the dieter and the foodie.
If his targets, at times, seem indiscriminate, the method is consistent. Underlying his promiscuous tastes and interests is something of a common experiment: By examining cultural phenomena that we often take for granted or ignore, Greif attempts to lift the lid on the underlying pathologies that go unnoticed.
Greif’s essays often begin with a moment of defamiliarization, muddying our sense of time and place and contrasting the high and low, the ancient and modern. The American soldier in his body armor is compared with the promachoi of the Iliad; the sensibilities of the modern foodie are read as an obsession with bare life. These gestures are less genealogical in nature than imaginative, seeking to replace passively acquired connotations with fresher perceptions. To elucidate reality TV, Greif turns to Rousseau; when thinking about the contemporary gym, he goes back to the Athenian gymnasion. Like Wood and Scott, who make nostalgic turns to explain the function and limits of criticism in our moment, Greif often juxtaposes our immediate present against a distant and unfamiliar past. His hope is that the oddity of these contrasts will shake us from our lazy familiarity and force us to call into question the cultural practices of our modern world.
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The nostalgic timbre in Greif’s juxtapositions is stylistic as well as analytical. His prose is limpid and plainspoken, though with a connoisseur’s affection for slightly antiquated Americanisms. Of Octomom, the media sensation of 2009, he writes: “I don’t mean to suggest that Nadya Suleman isn’t a loon, or a wrongdoer. She clearly belongs to the tradition of the great American wrecks.” Loon, wrongdoer: It’s an outdated vocabulary to describe a very 21st-century medical phenomenon, and a deliberate act, on Greif’s part, to mark a certain strangeness to our current moment.
Nostalgia, of course, is usually a stigma for a writer with progressive intentions. But Greif courts the stigma so frequently that he’s clearly up to something more interesting. Each of the essays in Against Everything contains a moment in which the reader is invited to remember an earlier state before a specific corrosion of public life began. If the memory is sharp enough, something recalcitrant stirs, even a momentary sense of resistance to our contemporary lives. “At its best,” Greif writes in one of his better-known essays, on Radiohead, the band’s “music reactivates the moods in which you once noticed you ought to refuse.”
This emphasis shares some emotional terrain with Wood and Scott. In Greif, too, there are memories of childhood susceptibility, affectionate recollections of ignorance now outlived. But there is one significant difference: In Against Everything, references to the past are not just the result of a residual nostalgia for an earlier era of cultural criticism; they are also used as an analytical tool.
What nostalgia does for Greif is pierce our complacent assumptions about the world. By contrasting current cultural practices against those of the past, he helps defamiliarize our present moment and points us toward alternate ways of living. While Greif and many of his contemporaries came of age in an era in which liberals and conservatives insisted that there was no alternative to global capitalism, Greif demonstrates how the past can be used as a cudgel to remind us that at least “this is not the future we wanted.”
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What we wanted—should have wanted, do want, and don’t have—is a genuine question for us to ask, but for Greif, Wood, and Scott’s generation, its importance resides, in part, in the difficulty involved in asking it in the first place.
Did we ever want a future different from the present we have now, and what gives us the right to think so? To have begun reading and writing criticism in the late 1980s and early ’90s meant coming of age in liberal capitalism’s belle epoque. It also meant learning how to inhabit a world that proclaimed itself completed. Faced with such diminished prospects, a certain kind of thinker might well find, in memory and the past, an alternative to surrender. If there is a signature sensibility in this generation’s criticism, it is this: not the “moral realism” of Trilling or the alertness to erotic surfaces of Sontag, but the importance of remembering how different our present is from our past. Locating a more generous, open, and undecided past can even be a source of resistance.
Strains of this kind of thinking are audible in Wood and Scott, who both attempt to rescue a notion of the critic as more than just a culture-market analyst, and who look to a long line of distinguished antecedents. But Greif, for his part, wields the forgotten past like a scalpel, cutting away diseased growths to find still-living flesh. In his essays, he seems to ask: Can we find ways of recovering dissent by looking in the least likely places? Can we uncover a buried past of critical opposition?
Greif doesn’t seem entirely certain that we can, but he does conclude Against Everything with the suggestion that we might at least be moving in the right direction. The final essay in the book was written in 2012, and finds Greif attending the trials of the last defenders of Occupy Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park encampment. What he discovers surprises him: The defendants wear no court-appropriate clothes and give no sign of trying to accommodate the system they’re confronting. Greif catches himself worrying about their strategic error—how little they’re even pretending to have any remorse!—and then feels ashamed. Something new is in the air, he realizes, something that no longer needs the resources of memory to find strength for resisting the present. A new generation of unabashedly political young people has emerged, one that is no longer as self-conscious about its place in public life. “We are slow learners,” Greif writes at the end of his book. Who “we” are isn’t necessarily clear, but in ending this way, one suspects that Greif may be ruefully summarizing his generation’s intellectual biography.