The best work of Alfred Kazin, George Orwell, Lionel Trilling, Pauline Kael and Dwight Macdonald (to name just a few of the past century’s most perceptive critics) is more valuable — and more stimulating — than all but the most first-rate novels. That Brooklyn lacks an Alfred Kazin statue is almost enough to make a bookish type want to move to Oxford, England — or at least to Oxford, Miss.
One case against critics was made, plaintively and memorably, by Dave Eggers, in a 2000 interview in The Harvard Advocate. Here’s a bit of what he said:
Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic, and I wish I could take it all back, because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a [expletive] of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, this is what matters. What matters is saying yes.
I’m a terrific admirer of Eggers’s (who several years ago, I should note, contributed the introduction to a short book of mine), and part of me loves this speech. It’s rousing. It’s like something from the end of a version of “Rudy,” set in an indie bookstore. I can imagine it on a T-shirt.
At risk of ambushing him for something he said more than a decade ago, however, most of me deplores it. Eggers is arguing in uplifting tones for mass intellectual suicide. When awork of art makes you feel or think things, he suggests, keep those things to yourself. He is proposing a zombie nation, where wit and disputation go to die. A place no thinking person above the age of 7 would want to spend an afternoon. Everyone would, on the up side, get a gelato.
The sad truth about the book world is that it doesn’t need more yes-saying novelists and certainly no more yes-saying critics. We are drowning in them. What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.
The novelist Reynolds Price, who died last year, paused to note the sorry status of book sections in his 2009 memoir, “Ardent Spirits.” When he was starting out in the 1950s, he wrote, a first novel in America received about 90 individual reviews; now a decent first novel is lucky to get 20. Most of those will be amiable squirts of plot description topped, like a lemon slice on a Diet Coke, with the dread weasel-word “compelling.”
(artiklens afslutning: Until you work up the nerve to say what you think and stand behind it, young critics and fellow amiable tweeters, there’s always the advice the critic George Seldes gave in the title of his 1953 memoir: “Tell the Truth and Run.”)
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