Saturday, September 1, 2012
In Praise of Criticism - II (Contra Brody)
I’m dismayed by some of the things Richard Brody says in his “How To Be A Critic” (“The Front Row,” newyorker.com, August 22, 2012), e.g., “Criticism is a damned and doomed activity,” “Criticism is a parasitical operation.” I’ve never felt this way. For me, criticism, when it’s done well, is one of the most stimulating, satisfying, nourishing sources of reading pleasure – “done well” meaning brimming with analysis, description, quotation, argument, verve, cool, bliss, and fervor. Janet Malcolm’s deconstruction of Sylvia Plath biographies (The Silent Woman), Richard Ellmann’s tracing of the sources of Joyce’s “The Dead” (James Joyce), Helen Vendler’s analysis of the grammatical shifts in Seamus Heaney’s style (The Breaking of Style), Susan Sontag’s dissection of Leni Riefenstahl’s fascist aesthetics (Under the Sign of Saturn), Pauline Kael’s analysis of Orson Welles’s directorial style in Citizen Kane (The Citizen Kane Book), Arlene Croce’s detailed descriptions of Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dance numbers (The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book), Michael Fried’s analysis of the structures of Eakins’s The Gross Clinic (Realism, Writing, Disfiguration), Svetlana Alpers’s argument for the importance of the distinction between description and narration (The Art of Describing), Whitney Balliett’s descriptive analysis of Big Sid Catlett’s drumming technique (Collected Works), James Wood's exquisite definition of thisness (How Fiction Works), Alex Ross’s explication of Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” (Listen to This), B. J. Leggett’s study of intertexts in Philip Larkin’s jazz poems (Larkin’s Blues), Howard Moss's list of eighteen instances of Proust memory (The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust), Carol Zemel's comparative analysis of Van Gogh's thirty-eight self-portraits (Van Gogh's Progress) – I could go on and on. These books, and many others besides, are every bit as artful and creative as the great works they take as their subjects. They are literature. I value them immensely. Brody’s view of them as parasitical is abhorrent!
Credit: The above photo of Janet Malcolm is by Kevin Sturman.