Literary criticism is not good for you.
A few years back, still in college, at the beginning of what some call—perhaps ironically—my « literary career », I got into the habit of jotting down the best examples of the worst literary criticism I stumbled upon. I flagged phrases like « the tension exerted on the insufficiency of the word » or « the textual contraction associated with an image », a certain « immersion of the reader in the poetic genesis at work », something called « the contestation of the image of the world and the world of the image » (which stands in conflict with the « search for protective evasion, for pleasurable and placental repartee »). My favorite was a certain critic’s « sound soup »: the « palpitating subject » of the story he was analyzing confronted the « impassive, transparent, empty grammatical subject in order to mobilize it, aphantasmize it, diversify it, lower it, return it to the somatic base. »
Naturally, I had no idea what this « aphantasmization » consisted of, what a « textual contraction » was, and how the « insufficiency of the word » would manifest itself precisely in a written text. But I said to myself that perhaps it would be useful to gather a catalog, halfway between denunciation and warning, that would bring order to a world not unlike the present one, in which the shrinking space devoted to literary criticism—as well as some indecision about what literary criticism even is and what it is good for—lead us to problems not entirely minor in relation to why we read, and what, and what it all says about who we are and the kind of society we live in.
Søren Kierkegaard compared reading reviews of his books to « the long martyrdom of being trampled to death by geese. » John Steinbeck’s advice, « unless a reviewer has the courage to give you unqualified praise », was to « ignore the bastard. » The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, when it came to critics, noted that « no statue has ever been erected in honor of any of them. » Noël Coward maintained that critics never bothered him, except when they were right, but that, he said, « does not happen very often. » Such a tradition has created the illusion that between writers and critics a combat is waged. (And not only critics: George Bernard Shaw, for example, called Ulysses « a disgusting record of a disgusting phase of civilization », and Virginia Woolf saw in Joyce’s novel « the effort of a filthy student popping his pimples ») But my project—Flaubertian, I must admit—of accumulating useless and erroneous nuggets was not borne of hostility toward any critic, past or present: it was an effort to reach a certain perspective on the critical landscape, and to see whether another kind of criticism was possible and, if so, which one.
« Writers die twice, first their bodies, then their works, but they produce book after book, like peacocks spreading their tails, a gorgeous flare of color soon schlepped through the dust, » wrote Leonard Michaels. In order not to eat the dust, and to avoid the book’s second death, that wished-for literary criticism would question the reader’s prejudices and the ease with which they’re manipulated by a publishing industry increasingly focused on fatuous and digestible sentimentalities. That criticism would work against the naïve reading of fiction, inculcated in schools, by which the writer speaks to the reader « of what he knows » or, even worse, « of what happened to him », reducing literature to bad journalism. It would establish a clear distinction between « author » and « narrator », between the content and form. (As Ezra Pound wrote, « You can spot the bad critic when he starts by discussing the poet and not the poem ».) It would not limit itself to « intentions », but put them to the test and speculate on what they say about the idea of the author, about books as repositories of possible—even utopian—forms of life. It would not limit its function to pointing out the internal congruence or incongruence of certain works but also, and above all, their coherence within the value system of an essentially unequal and unjust society like ours. It would hold back, as a dike holds back water, the onslaught of paranoid thinking, of new and old forms of totalitarianism. It would work toward an inclusive, non-sexist, diverse, horizontal, vigorous literary scene. I am imagining, idealistically, literary criticism as a Trojan horse, smuggled into the manipulative spheres of political opinion and ideology, a transformative practice honed against the monopoly of language held by the State and the market.
Of course when I started rummaging, it was not easy to write about these matters without sounding slightly doctrinaire. It is not any easier now. But as the young German critic Michael Hasin wrote in 2015, « to write criticism you need faith, not in God, but in literature. Critics have to believe that this is good not only for themselves but also for others. They have to be fundamentalists, they have to proselytize. » Our lives as readers, but also the fragile democracies of our countries—which need citizens to understand certain ideas expressed in writing and, of course, to put themselves in others’ shoes—seem to depend to a large extent on it.
The French influencer Maddy Burciaga—2.7 million followers on Instagram, 151.000 subscribers on YouTube, 61.100 on Twitter—made headlines in January of 2021 for advertising luxury faux book boxes at 19,99 euros for two units; her fake books have no pages and are as good for decorating a room as any of the library-like wallpapers available on Amazon these days: for under 70 euros, the customer can boast the possession of numerous, very respectable books without having to buy them, acquire bookshelves or, of course, read them.
An easy target, a fish in a barrel—and yet Burciaga’s fake books are part of a broader and potentially pernicious phenomenon—bookishness, or « book addiction »—which the literature scholar Jessica Pressman defines as the « creative acts that engage the physicality of the book within a digital
At best, Pressman argues, such displays show the non-obsolescence of literature in a digital culture. The publishing industry’s interest in Instagram, YouTube and TikTok—and the new world of BookTubers and BookTokers—reflects a continued effort to promote reading among young people. But bookishness may be the product, above all, of the desertion of literary criticism: It prizes books for their decorative potential, as symbolic capital for those not in the habit of reading to give to those who are. All the posters, the T-shirts (Haruki Murakami collaborates with the label Uniqlo), the mugs, the socks, are, in this account, the wreckage of a literature that was once not only decoration.
Perhaps in the age of lockdown-exhaustion and screen-confinement, bookishness is the only option. Many booksellers have told me that many customers, bound to « home office », have asked them for books by the meter or by color, in paperback or with a more formal look, depending on the image they want to project. One Spanish « independent » publisher complained in private that a significant number of the orders she received were not for the titles she publishes—most of them excellent—but for the posters and postcards she created to promote them. Zoom offers several virtual backgrounds that represent a bookshelf full of books. Big publishers, meanwhile, play along, betting on the kitsch of « book addiction », cause and consequence of a creeping devaluation of literature.
There are other engines of devaluation, alas. Georg Friedrich Nicolai, as recalled by Marcel Reich-Ranicki in his On Literary Criticism
Elevation to « moral superiority » can itself be a kind of devaluation—a different kind of bookishness that’s even harder to escape. Dozens of literary careers are interrupted, in fact, by an excess of enthusiasm on the part of the critic—a phenomenon especially visible in the contemporary literary scene in Spanish—by the kind of laxity that overwhelms writers the moment they have overcome their first reticences and begun to build their literary cenotaphs, one book at the time.
In an essay published by Otra Parte magazine in September 2019, Argentine researcher Leandro Donozo wrote that criticism could be « a tool of artistic and social construction », standing « halfway between journalism [...] and literature, but with a weight of its own, » contributing something comparable to a new book itself. But the rhetorical inflation of a literary criticism that is, after all, failing to do the thing that criticism should do, will prevent Donozo’s goal from materializing. Instead, the result is—and it could not be otherwise—a book criticism tethered to book promotion.
The French writer and critic Julien Gracq observed as early as 1950 a notable loss of quality in French criticism, and foresaw its transformation into yet one more, albeit minor, aspect of book-promotion. Criticism, he wrote,
« Literature thus ratifies its condition of bluff »
suddenly capitulated before the blinding idea of a distance henceforth sideral, insurmountable, between what reaches the eye and the how of a phenomenon, suddenly abdicated its last powers to check and control and got over it, resigned already to live in the grayish and daily fable in which a domestic animal lives, to humbly take whatever is put in its hand without looking for reasons for it.
Literature thus ratifies its condition of bluff.
Gracq, for his part, imagined a wholly different kind of exchange. He extolled books that « burn our hands, and that we sow as if by magic; we have bought them back half a dozen times and we are always glad that they are not returned to us ».
Who or what is literary criticism for? The public? The consumer? The author? Itself? Is it supposed to be nice?
Goethe distinguished between « destructive » criticism and « constructive » criticism in 1821, extolling a criticism that would « be of real assistance to the author in his later works, for even in his first attempts he has undoubtedly taken certain preliminary steps which approach the level of our criticism. » For Reich-Ranicki, on the contrary, the value of literary criticism would not be what it says to the author but what it says to the public: Reich-Ranicki himself made this statement a dogma of
12 September 2011 - Bilbao, Spain
In spite of the confusion, some writers—myself included—do read reviews of their own and others’ work, and do so not always in the pursuit of the « unqualified praise » that Steinbeck demanded, but with the expectation that their work—in particular the darker corners of it, of which the author was only half aware, or completely unaware—will be returned to them illuminated and enhanced by the lucidity of a different, personal, articulated gaze.
In fact—let us say it now—literary criticism is an act of love, if not for the book being criticized, then for an idea of what that book could have been and of what its incorporation into the literary repertoire demands of it, of its author, of its readers. And in that sense, criticism constitutes a service that the critic renders to the author, a form of collaboration without which the world, but also work, would be poorer.
In the ditch of social disinterest in which we currently lie, we have reasons to smile, in spite of everything: literary criticism currently proposes (of course with many exceptions), a magnificent example of the kind of direction it would do well not to follow. That is already an advance. At least we know what not to do, and why.
Gracq’s essay La Littérature à l’estomac (1950) is a lucid diatribe against literary commercialism that still sounds contemporary. It is the kind of uncommon pamphlet that dignifies pamphlet literature with the forcefulness of its assertions:
When I say that ‘literature has for some years now been the victim of a gigantic manoeuvre of intimidation by the more aggressive non-literary’, I only wish to remind that an irrevocable commitment of thought to form gives breath to literature day by day: in the realm of the sensible, this commitment is the very condition of poetry; in the realm of ideas, it is called tone: there is as little doubt that [Friedrich] Nietzsche belongs to the world of literature as there is that [Immanuel] Kant does not.
Virtually every page yields a remarkable paragraph, and each of its paragraphs is a lesson in how literary criticism should be exercised.
Born Louis Poirier in 1910, Gracq taught history and geography at high school, but then wrote novels, a play and poetry. Gracq joined the Communist Party in 1936 but broke with it after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. During the Second World War he was taken prisoner by the Germans and took the occasion to write a novel, a book of poems and his play. In 1932 he had read André Breton’s Nadia (1928), and it had made such a strong and decisive impression on him that he added to the elegance of his style a worldview that was dreamlike and strange, as well as extremely cold. Gracq’s was an individualism somewhere between aristocratic and libertarian. He refused the Goncourt Prize in 1951 for his novel Le Rivage des Syrtes (The Opposing Shore), gave very few interviews, and presided over the French literature of his time with rigor and independence. He died in 2007.
Jessica Pressman, Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age (Columbia University Press, 2021).
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Sobre la crítica literaria, translated by Juan de Sola (Barcelona: Elba, 2014).
Born in Włocławek, Poland, in 1920, Reich-Ranicki, who came to be known as the « pope of German literature », promoted that literature first with his support of Gruppe 47, later from his position as editor of the literary pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and finally on the—very popular—television program Das Literarische Quartett. He died in Frankfurt am Main in 2013.