Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Where have all the critics gone?

The excellent Arts & Letters Daily recently linked to an artcle by Scott Timberg in the Los Angeles Times titled Critical condition. Key paragraph:
... many newspaper and magazine critics pine for a golden age when giants walked the Earth: When the imposing Clement Greenberg was shaping modernism in painting, the biting H.L. Mencken was exhuming the reputation of Theodore Dreiser, and the impious Leslie Fiedler found unsettling Freudian meanings in the novels of Mark Twain.
I'm not sure we're any worse off for the lack of a dominant arbiter of taste. A good part of the 20th century was for a while called the Age of Eliot. I like Eliot's poetry. I like his criticism less. I can do without F.R. Leavis pretty much altogether. Criticism that lasts is a form of memoir. We meet the person through what he tells us of his likes and dislikes. The actual judgments are more or less beside the point -- unless they happen to be especially cogent, which they often aren't. I suspect that there will emerge eventually from the blogosphere a number a strong personalities who will exert a powerful influence on contemporary taste. I just hope the number is large enough to allow for some variety. What is not needed is a single domineering voice.


  1. Given the amazing number of outlets available just from blogs alone, I can't imagine seeing only one voice dominate.

    The difficulty lies in the rapid news cycle, the voracious demand for copy and the incredible number of books out there, all contributing to a diffusion of opinions. A writer who wants to specialize in just mysteries, for example, would have to wade through a hundred books a month, assuming that he would get access to that many. As it stands, only critics in the large media outlets would get a chance to pick and choose. In the blogosphere, you have to build your own connections with publicists.

  2. Bill:
    Everything you say is true. And I see all of it as being to the good. More voices, more books, more viewpoints. And I have faith, perhaps naive -- only time will tell -- that a certain self-organizing principle governs the blogosphere and that all of this will fall eventually into place in a harmonious and efficient manner.

    1. Anonymous9:47 PM

      - more more and more mediocrity ...

  3. This also appears in the article:

    "You gets arts journalists together these days," says Doug McLennan, editor of Arts and a longtime Seattle music writer, "and it's what they talk about: their declining influence. They say Frank Rich was the last critic who could close a show."

    It sounds like these unnamed arts journalists lament not being able to close down a show themselves. For myself, I would hate for any subjective reaction of mine to a piece of art to have that kind of power. You'd have to be a very confident individual to be comfortable with being a tastemaker on that order.

  4. Hi Debra:
    I remember thinking much the same thing when I read that paragraph myself. And what you say makes me think further that maybe this all has less to do with literary quality than with personal power.

  5. I agree that one dominant, overpowering critic (or group) would be really bad. Unless, of course, it was YOU, Frank, who was the Master and Commander of the Book Review. That would be a benevolent dictatorship! *LOL*

  6. Hi Frank:
    The problem with benevolent dictatorships is that the benevolence tends to get lost in the dictactorship. No, when it comes to criticism, we don't need solo acts. We need ensembles with good soloists.

  7. David Brooks' column in today's NY Times -- besides being excellent in itself -- throws some historical perspective on the critic situation. We can argue forever over the reasons, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that we live in a benighted, dumbed-down age.
    Willis Wayde

  8. And here is that David Brooks column Willis refers us to.