Literary criticism ruins books. It tears them apart and glues them together again with the critic’s pet theory. It reduces character to symbol and narrative to trope. It increases cynicism and decreases enjoyment. It makes every book about something else. It creates a divide between “critical readers” and ordinary ones and dismisses the latter as naive and therefore worthless. It overanalyzes and deconstructs until there’s nothing left. You would expect literary critics to like literature. But they don’t seem to. They seem to hate it so much that they destroy it and put their theoretical/political agenda in its place.
Clearly I’m not a literary critic. I love literature, and the goal of all of my writing is to encourage people to read more, watch more, understand more, and enjoy more. This doesn’t mean I encourage reading without discretion, but you can read discerningly without reading cynically. I do like understanding, but sometimes I wonder if Claude Monet doesn’t have a point: “People discuss my art and pretend to understand, when it’s simply necessary to love.”
My film criticism hero is Andrew Sarris, who championed the auteur theory in American in the 1960s, getting into a much-publicized critical war with more populist film critic Pauline Kael. He still writes for the Observer, I believe, though he’s no longer the vanguard of film criticism. In 1990, there was a less-publicized critical spat in Film Comment between Richard Corliss (now of Time) and Roger Ebert (of the Chicago Sun-Times and Ebert and Roeper), in which Corliss denounced the reduction of film criticism to thumbs up-thumbs down and watered down reviews and Ebert largely agreed with him, but denied that film criticism was in as bad a state as Corliss thought, or that his television program (then Siskel and Ebert) was such a huge part of the problem. (Interestingly, the same general debate about the state of film criticism is still going on now.) Both Corliss and Ebert mentioned the halcyon days of the film criticism in the 1960s, when the Sarris-Kael debate was Important in a way that neither Corliss nor Ebert saw film criticism being important in the 1990s. So Sarris jumped into the fray in his well-mannered and thoughtful way. That’s all probably unimportant background for the quote I’m about to give, which applies directly to film criticism, but more broadly to criticism in general. (All of this can be found in Alone in the Dark, a collection of Ebert’s writings–he includes the Corliss and Sarris portions of the debate as well as his own.)
The fact that I have always been too much of a journalist for the academics, and too much of an academic for the journalists, makes me especially sensitive to the deplorable noncommunication among various critical camps now on the scene. In this context, Kael and I at our most contentious at least spoke the same language. Nowadays many film departments dominated by semioticians have virtually excommunicated all mainstream film critics from the sacraments of ‘discourses’ and ‘texts.’
What I want to be is a 1960s film critic, straddling academia and journalism…bringing a knowledge of film/literary history and technique to a discipline which is largely meant to inform ordinary people, not other academic people. You can read Sarris and understand him without knowing a lot of technical language–and you’ll appreciate the films you’re watching more if you do. I don’t know if this form of criticism exists anymore, or if anyone wants to either do it or read it except for me. I don’t fit into the world of theoretically-based criticism (even if I do enjoy learning about the history of theory, which I do), because I ultimately care more about the story than about a work’s endorsement or subversion of gender roles. Or racial identity. Or whatever. I ultimately care more about trying to get more people to read literature than about dissecting literature under a microscope. I accept that other people may feel differently, and may enjoy the dissection process. But I hate that my preferred way of approaching literature is considered naive, and that naive is considered lowly and unworthy. Because I refuse to believe that it is. The goal of criticism for me is to promote reading and appreciation, not to advance an agenda, which is what I see so much criticism doing.
This rant has been brought to you by a frustrating day of trying to read the relevant criticism on Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee before writing on it myself and being unable to get away from readings which depend entirely on the critic’s race-and-gender-centric agenda. (And I’m not talking fringe critics here, I’m talking the ones who are considered must-read authorities on Hurston’s work.) Literary critics are trying their damnedest to make me hate literature, and today, they’re doing an exceptional job of it. It has prompted several pages of writing in my notebook, but they’re pretty much all about how I hate criticism rather than actual productive work on the paper. (Disclaimer – I am frustrated right now, and I do believe pretty much everything I’ve said in this post, but I know that it’s reactionary and extremist. I don’t hate all criticism, and I think that theory does sometimes serve a useful purpose. It’s just not serving one for me at this moment.)