Friday, February 15, 2013

An ever-ready faculty of enthusiasm

To George Sand who, in her letter to Flaubert, had predicted that Sainte-Beuve would be 'the last of the critics' -- the 'others' being 'either artists or idiots' -- Flaubert wrote on 2 February 1869:

You spoke of criticism in your last letter, saying it will soon disappear. I think, on the contrary, that it's only beginning. The trend is the opposite of what it used to be, that's all. (In the days of La Harpe, critics were grammarians; in the days of Sainte-Beuve and Taine they're historians.) When will they be artists, only artists, but real artists? Where have you ever seen a piece of criticism that is concerned, intensely concerned, with the work in itself? The setting in which was produced and the circumstances that occasioned it are very closely analyzed. But the inner poetics that brought it into being? Its composition? Its style? The author's point of view? Never.

Such criticism as that would require great imagination and great goodwill. I mean an ever-ready faculty of enthusiasm. And then taste -- a quality rare even among the best, so very rare that it is no longer even mentioned.

What infuriates me daily is to see a masterpiece and a disgrace put on the same level. They put down the mighty, and exalt those of low degree. Nothing could be more stupid or immoral.
He might have been writing only yesterday.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Something of a throwback to the eighteenth century literary salon

I move now from the very tangible livre de poche of the wonderfully weird to a soon-to-be expansive virtual literary salon for all minds that have grown irritated with meek or sycophantic reviewing -- or indeed the ubiquity of satiny promotional shots of writers positioned against bookcases that the biographical piece, which passes for a review, only uses as a visual metonym for assumed writerly credentials (unless an image of a wharf and a turbulent, lived-through sky can do it instead): I refer to the new countering energy of Sydney Review of Books.

One of the most important nooks in this salon is Critic Watch. Here, after a fascinating discussion of the recent reactions to the problem of faint-hearted reviewing, both in Australia and elsewhere, Ben Etherington analyses the puzzling silences and concurrences of 'the Anna Funder phenomenon' in his provocatively titled piece 'The Brain Feign'. He then goes on to respond to what he calls the 'tautology of public and critical opinion', where 'the critics are right because the public are buying the book, the public are right because the critics are recommending it', with a rallying cry that is not so much aimed at the critics themselves but at those of us with a sharp observation about them we might want to share:

What is to be done? The decline polemic is supposed to end with a witty but rousing call for unyieldingly rigorous, critical criticism. In Faint Praise, Gaile Poole suggests that the decline polemic might just be another part of the game:

The venom. The scorn. That asymptotic decline! The charges are so excessive, so extravagant, they rest so shakily on the myth of a Golden Age of reviewing that clearly never existed that it’s tempting to dismiss them as typical publishing fare.

Anyway, another kick up the bum seems pointless when the problem appears to be structural, particularly at the juncture of print’s decline and the self-promotion attending so much activity online.

The other solution has been to establish a new forum for the kind of criticism that the critical critic would like to see. Hardwick’s venom helped to beget the New York Review of Books, which would in turn beget the London Review of Books during a journalists’ strike. Perhaps. But these periodicals draw on an international cosmopolitan elite fanning out from those two most cosmopolitan of cities, both with a plethora of super-elite universities nearby. Such models seem an unlikely panacea for the Australian field.

I would like to make a different suggestion, and one that does not rely on a spontaneous eruption of critical rigour, nor on creating a Golden Forum. And the model is a local one: the ABC’s Media Watch. It is a wonderful mechanism, not just because it has an unyielding sense of journalistic standards and ethics, and pursues corruption to its inevitable source in journalism’s ever-intensifying commodity character. One just as often tunes in to find out what has been in the news, because it can be more informative, and certainly cathartic, to see somebody filtering the sewage than to plunge in oneself. (Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show plays a somewhat similar role for the 24-hour news cycle in the United States.) What is needed, then, is ‘Critic Watch’. The tasks and ethics of watching criticism would be somewhat different, though. Certainly the ‘invidious backscratching’ would need to be exposed – it seems there is a lot of it around. Its essential function, however, would be to interrogate judgements of taste and the way such conspicuous acts of discrimination shape the literary field. ‘Critic Watch’ would read criticism against its critical object, and consider the plausibility of the judgements being made. It would be something of a throwback to the eighteenth century literary salon and the practice of aesthetic disputation. Not only would critics need to defend their professional integrity, they would need to defend their taste.

Read slowly to avoid complications

As publishers keep pressing on us taller, fatter and wider editions of books that might once have fit in our bookcases but now have to be shoved in side-on so that the bubble-wrap feel-it-for-yourself cover of Michel Houellebecq's latest novel can only been known as Territory -- and that visible only because its neighbours happen to be older and smaller upright volumes -- it is a wonderful thing to come across a magazine of weird literature, as the editors call it, which could be tucked in on any part of your person or your house or flat, no matter how small. It is a marvel, too, because nearly every page in this tiny tome has something that you might want to tear out and affix to the cover of a notebook or the wall beside your desk. Since most of the pieces of 'words', 'flash', art, 'illiterature' and more -- the term 'poetry' is eschewed -- could roll into the pit of your palm, they tempt the light-fingered and those whose art or word-making relies on springing from something lively. A 'Disclaimer' near the beginning of theNewerYork reads: '[Read slowly to avoid complications. You won't like some of this work.]' and then some erasures. I won't try to reproduce the erasures.