On the Role of the Critic

Statler and Waldorf
The great critics Statler and Waldorf

By Your Salonniere

In the wake of the “Ipocalypse” as Sam Anderson puts it in his “Translating the Code into Everyday Language,” The New York Times has serviced itself in the name of servicing us with coverage on “Why Criticism Matters” published January 1, 2011. Five accomplished literary critics, Katie Roiphe, Sam Anderson, Adam Kirsch, Elif Bautman, Pankaj Mishra, and Steven Burns each weigh in, arguing why we read, what we should read, how we should read and most importantly how essential critics are to our literary experience. The Times also includes an audio conversation from three of the writers, and, either by happy accident or design, The Guardian also recently posted John Sutherland’s top ten books on books, which includes titles from Aristotle to Susan Sontag.

Critics helps “create the audience” as Roiphe explains, which is a half truth. The critics bemoan Amazon reviews, blogs, tweets, Facebook, calling it “noise,” yet there’s no admission that never before has there been so much shared fervor over the written word. Whether pressed in ink or typed into pixels, there is a public readership who cares enough to post their responses, which is something in and of itself. The professional critic may lead the conversation but they don’t own it–they never did. The conversation rests solely with the reader who gives a damn.

So everyone can be a critic? Not necessarily. What does it take to be a good critic, aside from years of scholarship and professional readership? Here’s some principles gleaned and inspired from the NY Times’ special:

  1. Write well. Readers need to give a damn, and critics need to explain why with laser-like precision.
  2. Stay attuned to the pulse of the times, keep entrenched in our shared histories, and trek the current landscape of the times, stopping every now and again to survey the trail. A critic needs to be able to scramble to vista points. This requires agility, open and acute perspective, as well as balance, a keen sense of equilibrium so as not to fall susceptible to vertigo, which is a danger when dealing with Literature, Humanity, Politics, Society, Art, Culture, War, and the list goes on…
  3. Make it personal and relevant.
  4. Understand that the compulsion to create poetry, to tell stories, to write essays, and to read literary works is borne from what Sam Andersen calls a “healthy sense of urgency.” Many writers have literally killed themselves to create their work. Many readers have sacrificed time and a part of their lives to experience the work. This is no idle passion we share. Our lives depend on reading and writing, so we should read and write as such.
  5. Facilitate and fuel informed and engaged discussion.

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