What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

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,”, 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 Rosss explication of Bob DylanNot Dark Yet (Listen to This), B. J. Leggetts study of intertexts in Philip Larkins 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.

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