The Dead Critics Panel

Yesterday I got to moderate a panel on literary criticism featuring John Clute, Bill Congreve and James Bradley. I’m pretty pleased with how it went, in no small part because it could easily have been taken as a manifesto for Salon Futura.

The title of the panel was “Is Criticism Dead”, the assumption being that because critics are losing their positions as gatekeepers of literary taste they no longer have a role in the world. Of course us critics are actually undead (and want your braaains!), but hopefully we still have a role in providing entertainment for the public.

The substance of the panel turned on making a distinction between criticism and reviews (and thanks to Peter Nichols for making this clear from the audience). We had, on a couple of occasions, tried to define criticism, and failed. However, we came up with a number of things that it is not.

To start with, as Peter so eloquently put it, criticism is not like writing for Which? magazine. We are not trying to tell you which book you should read next. Reviewers may try to do that, though I think it is a pretty foolish enterprise.

James noted that, especially in today’s online world, critics should approach works with an attitude of humility. We are not there to hand down judgment from on high. We are there to give our impression of the work. Clute added that we may well get it wrong on first reading, and should not be afraid to re-visit works at a later date. I added that even if we get it right for ourselves, other people may approach the work in a very different way. As I said in the first issue of Salon Futura, there is no one correct way to read a book.

Clute also noted that criticism is not spoiler free. You can’t talk intelligently about a book if you have to tiptoe around everything that happens in it. Reviews can try to be spoiler free. Blurbs perhaps should be but rarely are. Criticism, however, has to engage with the work.

Bill made some very interesting points about the nature of reading on computer screens and why the supposed short attention span of the online reader is more a function of font choice, line length and screen clarity than a dumbing down of people’s reading ability. I’d like to know a lot more about that and will try to find Bill to get references. This is relevant, because many online venues are uncomfortable with articles that try to develop an argument, as opposed to simply making points. Criticism should not be simply stating an opinion.

The rough conclusion that we came to is that the role of the critic as a gatekeeper who hands down judgment on books from on high may well be dead, but the need for critics is as great as ever and the new freedoms provided by the Internet, in which magazines like Salon Futura can find a niche without being beholden to the publishing industry, create plenty of opportunities for criticism to flourish.

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4 Responses to The Dead Critics Panel

  1. Oz says:

    Please follow up, because yes, it’s ease of reading on screen and ability to adjust font size that matters to me. I’ll read an article from The Atlantic or The New York Times Magazine section or even one that was an in-depth report on the last US election if it’s laid out for ease of reading online. I like more depth, not less. I think abstracts and executive summaries are great. I think section breaks are great, complete with headers. And I whole-heartedly agree that you can’t just make points in criticism. Some of Clute’s articles online have been way too short. Yes, I want to read someone really engaging with the material, the way articles in NYRSF do.

    Oz

  2. Bob says:

    An potentially interesting reference on attention spans. One of the participants has a “new” book out about the subject which is being flogged here in the US at the moment.

    http://www.teleread.com/2010/02/11/do-we-not-read-as-much-anymore-because-the-internet-has-sapped-our-attention-spans/

  3. Val says:

    Hmm, I want The Portal to be a place of criticism as defined here, not a place of reviews as defined here. Maybe I want to modify my verbiage in blurbs and on the splat pages currently up, mission statement etc.

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