Why Literary Criticism Matters

Sam Anderson on the role of the contemporary book critic

Sam Anderson argues the importance of literary criticism in an ever-changing cultural landscape:
If we want criticism to matter today, we have to treat it with more respect. This means abandoning the notion that it’s just hack work or service journalism or literary bookkeeping, or a sad little purgatory for people who haven’t managed to succeed as novelists. Book criticism, done well, is an art of its own, with its own noble canon and creative challenges and satisfactions. In fact, it’s one of the essential literary arts, a singular genre in which a lot of great writers have done their best work.

Martin Amis, one of my reviewing heroes, made an apt comment once about the special nature of book criticism: he said that art critics, when they review art shows, don’t paint pictures about those shows, film critics don’t review movies by making movies about them and music critics don’t review concerts by composing symphonies. “But,” he said, “when you review a prose-narrative, then you write a prose-narrative about that prose-narrative.” This is the magic, and the opportunity, of the form. In reviewing a book, we respond artfully to a work of art in its own medium. We write words about words — and then, as the conversation progresses, we write words about words about words about words. Our work is a kind of ground zero of textuality, in which one text converges on another text to create a third, hybrid, ultratext. This self-reflexiveness doesn’t make critical writing secondary or parasitic, as critics of the critics have said for centuries: it makes it complex and fascinating and exponentially exciting. It reminds me of Aristotle’s description of the mind of God, an apparatus so divinely perfect it can think only of itself: “Its thinking is a thinking on thinking.”

As book critics, our writing is a writing on writing. We respond to an author’s metaphors with countermetaphors; we criticize or praise a story by telling a story about it. My favorite work is always that which allows itself to imaginatively intermingle with its source text — to somehow match or channel or negate the energy of the text that inspired it. It can be imitative, competitive or collaborative; it can mimic or mock or scramble or counterbalance the tone of the source. It can be subtle or overt. But it will always have this doubled-over, creative quality: one memorable writer responding, in memorable writing, to another.[Read more]

Also at A Piece of Monologue