Major Soviet Writers Essays In Criticism
In the nineteen-seventies, when I was a teen-ager and had fantasies of growing up to be a writer, I didn’t dream of being a novelist or a poet. I wanted to be a critic. I thought criticism was exciting, and I found critics admirable. This was because I learned from them. Every week a copy of The New Yorker would arrive at our house on Long Island, wrapped in a brown wrapper upon which the (I thought) disingenuously modest label NEWSPAPER was printed, and I would hijack the issue before my dad came home from work in order to continue an education that was, then, more important to me than the one I was getting in school.
I learned. I learned about music, particularly opera, from the fantastically detailed reviews by Andrew Porter, the music critic—mini-essays so encyclopedic in their grasp of this or that composer’s oeuvre, so detailed in their descriptions of the libretto and score of the work in question, from Mozart to (a great favorite of his, I distinctly recall) Michael Tippett, that the review could be half over before he got around to talking about the performance under review. But this was the point: by the time he described what he’d seen on stage, you—the reader—had the background necessary to appreciate (or deprecate) the performance as he had described it. I learned about other things. Thanks to Helen Vendler, who in those days regularly contributed long and searching essays about contemporary poets and their work, I began to think about poetry, its aims and methods; and perceived, too, that good poetry ought to be able to withstand the kind of rigor that she brought to her discussion of it. (In those high-school days, we thought that poetry was pretty much anything about “feelings.”)
I was fascinated to see, too, that what I then thought of as less exalted forms of entertainment could be subject to the same erudite and penetrating discussions. Although there was only a tiny chance, in 1975, that I was going to spend an evening at the Algonquin or Carlyle, I always read Whitney Balliett’s review of cabaret performances—of people singing the kind of music my dad liked to listen to on the car radio as he drove me to my weekly guitar lessons, the red bar of the car radio display unwaveringly loyal to Jonathan Schwartz’s Frank Sinatra show. My parents’ music, the “Great American Songbook,” had no particular interest for me just then, but I was provoked, by Balliett’s quietly appreciative dissections of an evening of (say) Julie Wilson at the Algonquin, to think a bit harder than I had previously done about what a song was, how it was made, what was the difference between a good lyric and a sloppy lyric, how best that lyric might be brought across in performance, and, finally what effect it was supposed to have on you.
I would always save Pauline Kael for last, because I loved that she wrote the way most people talked; her now-famous second-personal-singular address made me feel included in her fierce and lengthy encomia or diatribes—and made me want to be smart enough to deserve that inclusion. And with Kael, too, I was startled and delighted to see that the kind of movies I saw with my friends (“Carrie,” say) could be the object of sustained, cantankerous, and searching critique.
In all the years I read these writers, as I went through high school and then college and grad school, it never occurred to me that they were trying to persuade me to actually see this or that performance, buy this or that volume, or take in this or that movie; nor did I imagine that I was being bullied or condescended to, or that I wasn’t allowed to disagree with them. I thought of these writers above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example that they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments. (The word critic, as I learned much later, comes from the Greek word for “judge.”)
That drama, that process, it seemed to me as I read those critics (and, in time, others: Arlene Croce in this magazine, when finally I began to appreciate dance; Arthur Danto on art in The Nation; some others) involved two crucial elements. The first was expertise. If Vendler was writing about the latest volume of poetry by, say, James Merrill, it was clear from her references that she’d read and thought about everything else Merrill had ever written; what you were getting in the review wasn’t just an opinion about the book under review, but a way of seeing that book against all of the poet’s other work. Ditto for the others. To read a review by Croce about this or that performance of a Balanchine ballet was to get a history of the work itself, a mini-tutorial in Balanchine technique, and a capsule history, for comparison’s sake, of other significant performances of the same work. (Here again, the review was not merely building a case for Croce’s final judgment, but was also giving you, the reader, the tools to evaluate the description of the performance at hand.) Even when you disagreed with them, their judgments had authority, because they were grounded in something more concrete, more available to other people, than “feelings” or “impressions.”
It wasn’t that these people were Ph.D.s, that the expertise and authority evident on every page of their writing derived from a diploma hanging on an office wall. I never knew, while reading Kael, whether she had a degree in Film Studies (even if I’d known such a thing existed back then), nor did I care; it never occurred to me that Whitney Balliett ought to have some kind of academic credential in order to pass judgments on Bobby Short singing “Just One of Those Things” at the Café Carlyle. If anything, you felt that their immense knowledge derived above all from their great love for the subject. I was raised by a scientist and a schoolteacher, and it was salutary for me to be reminded that authority could derive from passion, not pieces of paper.
Knowledge, then—however you got it—was clearly the crucial foundation of the judgment to come. The second crucial component in the drama of criticism, the reagent that got you from the knowledge to the judgment, was taste, or sensibility—whatever it was in the critic’s temperament or intellect or personality that the work in question worked on. From this, as much as from anything else, I learned a great deal. For one thing, it was clear that taste itself could be a mystery: I tried and failed for years to love Michael Tippett’s operas, and could never quite follow Kael to the altar of Brian De Palma.
More largely, and ultimately more importantly, the glimpses these writers gave you of their tastes and passions revealed what art and culture are supposed to do for a person. I still remember a review that Porter wrote of a production of Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”—this must have been in the late nineteen-seventies or early eighties—in which he said the expression on the face of the soprano Elisabeth Söderström, during the banquet scene in the second act, had made him weep—because it suggested, economically but with tremendous impact, the darkness that lies at the heart of that, and all, comedy. I recall being a little shocked as I read the piece that a grown man could admit in public to being moved to tears by a performance of an old opera.
I remember, too, something that Vendler wrote, years later, in a piece about a volume of Merrill’s work that was published after the poet’s death, at the relatively early age of sixty-eight—about how, now that Merrill was gone, he wouldn’t be around to show her how to grow old. I read this with astonishment. So this was what poetry was for: to show you how to live. As for Kael, the sheer extremity of her enthusiasms, the ornery stylistic over-seasoning, the grandiose swooping pronouncements, made it clear that there was something enormous at stake when you went to the local movie theatre. That, too, opened my eyes a bit wider.
By dramatizing their own thinking on the page, by revealing the basis of their judgments and letting you glimpse the mechanisms by which they exercised their (individual, personal, quirky) taste, all these critics were, necessarily, implying that you could arrive at your own, quite different judgments—that a given work could operate on your own sensibility in a different way. What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically—which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period.
For all criticism is based on that equation: KNOWLEDGE+TASTE=MEANINGFUL JUDGMENT. The key word here is meaningful. People who have strong reactions to a work—and most of us do—but don’t possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics. (This is why a great deal of online reviewing by readers isn’t criticism proper.) Nor are those who have tremendous erudition but lack the taste or temperament that could give their judgment authority in the eyes of other people, people who are not experts. (This is why so many academic scholars are no good at reviewing for mainstream audiences.) Like any other kind of writing, criticism is a genre that one has to have a knack for, and the people who have a knack for it are those whose knowledge intersects interestingly and persuasively with their taste. In the end, the critic is someone who, when his knowledge, operated on by his taste in the presence of some new example of the genre he’s interested in—a new TV series, a movie, an opera or ballet or book—hungers to make sense of that new thing, to analyze it, interpret it, make it mean something.
And so I dreamed of becoming a critic. I always grin when someone who’s interviewing me will ask if my criticism is some kind of day job (as opposed to my books, which, they imply, are “real” writing). To me, it’s the main event.
The above considerations seemed to me worth going through because there has been very little mention of what I see as the crucial role of the critic and the crucial function of criticism in some heated discussions about these questions that have appeared lately in print and online. The publication, a few weeks ago, in the Times Book Review, of two flamboyantly negative reviews of works with serious literary aspirations—one, by William Giraldi, of two volumes of fiction by Alix Ohlin; the other, by Ron Powers, of the most recent novel by Dale Peck (a writer who gained considerable notoriety for his own “hatchet jobs” of other people’s work)—triggered a storm of protests, congratulations, and general commentary about the place of critics and criticism in popular literary culture. The storm is a good thing: at no point since the invention of the printing press, perhaps, has the nature of literary culture, and the activities of its practitioners—authors, critics, publishers—been in such a state of flux. The flux is both fascinating and destabilizing, for those of us who grew up in the waning days of “old” literary culture, and the changes resulting from are it likely to be permanent and far-ranging.
Two phenomena related to the advent of the Internet have transformed our thinking about reviewing and criticism in particular. First, there has been the explosion of criticism and reviews by ordinary readers, in forums ranging from the simple rating (by means of stars, or whatever) of books on sites such as Amazon.com to serious longform review-essays by deeply committed lit bloggers. For the first time, ordinary readers (or ballet fans or architecture aficionados) have been able to express their opinions about books (or ballet, or architecture) publicly. This development inevitably raises questions about the role of the traditional critic. (“Why should we listen to X, when we can say what we think?”) Second, and more recently, the advent of social media—Facebook, for instance, with the possibility it offers of “liking” but not “disliking”; Twitter, which lends itself so easily to vacuous promotional exchanges of likes, links, and “favorites”—has created an environment of what the journalist Jacob Silverman, in an article for Slate called “Against Enthusiasm” (one cloudburst in the recent storm) has called “solicitous communalism,” an atmosphere not conducive to serious critique.
But just what is “serious critique”? One of the main points of the controversy that has arisen since the two Times Book Review reviews has been, indeed, about the relative merits of positive and negative reviewing. Silverman, along with the Times daily book critic Dwight Garner, have argued for the vivifying role of negative reviews, which, as Silverman put it, make for a “vibrant, useful literary culture.” Against them have been ranged an array of prominent journalists and critics. One amusing response was that of Jane Hu, in The Awl, which took the form of a brief history of the “criticism-used-to-be-much-tougher-and-more-incisive” trope in contemporary literary debate—a line, as she slyly shows, that is at least as old as the “golden age” of feisty book reviewing about which writers like Silverman and Garner are so nostalgic.
Others opposed to negative reviewing including Laura Miller (a close friend of mine), at Salon, whose argument arises from her conviction that ordinary readers don’t really care about literary culture—that there’s no longer a cultural context in which a negative review could really matter. “Since the average new book is invisible to the average reader,” she writes, “critics who have a choice usually prefer to call attention to books they find praiseworthy.” She contrasts with this a negative review of a popular TV series, which, she argues, can mean something in the wider world. Another (and another friend) is Richard Brody, a New Yorker film critic and biographer of Jean-Luc Godard, who takes a high Romantic vision of authors and auteurs as promethean heroes of creativity, against whom critics are seen as mere “parasites” whose work “depends not only on the activity of others … but on the greater activity of others” [italics mine]—vultures whose gnawing at the entrails comes “not in the spirit of” but “at the expense of art.” Lev Grossman, the Time magazine book critic, cited—facetiously, you can only hope—his reluctance to run into victims of bad reviews at parties as a reason he has been avoiding negative criticism.
These critics are motivated by lively and serious concerns, some of them abstract, some practical: Garner’s and Silverman’s desire for lively literary debate, Miller’s commitment to publishing criticism that people will actually read, and Brody’s passionate worry that glib negativity can have destructive effects on the career of serious artists. But some of these concerns—not least, the dilemma of how to steer between the Scylla of vapid negativity and the Charybdis of vacuous cheerleading—become moot when you think back to the impulse that lies behind serious criticism: the impulse to analyze, to explain, to teach, to judge meaningfully.
The serious critic cannot be a monomaniacal controversialist. Hatchet jobs, especially when directed at over-hyped and unworthy objects, can be both entertaining and useful. Particularly in a culture that is awash in hype and promotion (both professional and, as Garner and Silverman pointed out, amateur—the culture of reflexive boosterism), a vital function of the critic is to peel away the swoony publisher’s hype, the self-congratulation of an author’s Twitter feed, and to reorient the conversation to where it belongs: the work and its merits and flaws, as judged against genuine knowledge and disinterested taste. That said, if hatchet jobs are all you write, your audience will soon perceive that the writing is somehow about you—your enjoyment of ridicule or nasty flamboyance or snark—and not about the work. There is usually something to like in even the weakest work—just as there is nearly always some weakness in the strongest work; most reviews, if anything, should be somewhat mixed. (It may be a sign of how harmful the culture of reflexive “liking” has become that what are, in fact, mixed reviews are denounced as if they were take-downs.) The serious critic, as Richard Brody rightly pointed out, should first of all self-criticize: he should begin by examining his own reactions, when they are negative, and determine that they are legitimate—which is to say, should avoid writing about things or artists for whom he has a distaste that is not motivated by aesthetic considerations.
(The serious editor, I should add, will not assign a review to a writer when there is reason to suspect personal animus. Many readers who are ignorant of the mechanics of journalism are unaware of the extent to which editors are responsible for the assignment of reviews; unaware, too, that reviewers have no say in the timing of publication. What often look like calculated “takedowns” of popular and critically lauded works—negative reviews published long after the positive ones have come in—were written months in advance, just like the positive ones.)
The serious critic can’t merely be an ecstatic initiate either, however—someone whose worship of Art and artistes can threaten to devolve into flaccid cheerleading. The negative review, after all, is also a form of enthusiasm; enthusiasm and passion for the genre which, in this particular instance, the reviewer feels has been let down by the work in question. The intelligent negative review, indeed, does its own kind of honor to artists: serious artists, in my experience, want only to be reviewed intelligently, rather than showered with vacuous raves—not least, because serious artists learn from serious reviews. (The best advice I ever got, right before the publication of my first book, was from a publishing mentor who told me, “The only thing worse than a stupid bad review is a stupid good review.” And he was right.) For this reason, any call to eliminate negative reviewing is to infringe catastrophically on the larger project of criticism: if a critic takes seriously his obligation to pass judgments—which, merely statistically, are likely to have to be negative as well as positive—his sense of responsibility to those judgments and their significance has to outweigh all other considerations. People who want to go to lots of parties without provoking awkward literary encounters should be caterers, not critics.
The serious critic ultimately loves his subject more than he loves his reader—a consideration that brings you to the question of what ought to be reviewed in the first place. When you write criticism about literature or any other subject, you’re writing for literature or that subject, even more than you’re writing for your reader: you’re adding to the accumulated sum of things that have been said about your subject over the years. If the subject is an interesting one, that’s a worthy project. Because the serious literary critic (or dance critic, or music critic) loves his subject above anything else, he will review, either negatively or positively, those works of literature or dance or music—high and low, rarefied and popular, celebrated and neglected—that he finds worthy of examination, analysis, and interpretation. To set interesting works before intelligent audiences does honor to the subject. If you only write about what you think people are interested in, you fail your subject—and fail your reader, too, who may in the end find himself happy to encounter something he wouldn’t have chosen for himself. I dread to think of the things I would have missed, when I was a teen-ager, if the editors of certain magazines and newspapers, back in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, had agreed with my friend Laura Miller.
The role of the critic, I repeat, is to mediate intelligently and stylishly between a work and its audience; to educate and edify in an engaging and, preferably, entertaining way. (Critics, more than any other kind of writer, should have a sense of humor.) For this reason I can’t accept my friend Richard Brody’s dismissive characterization of critics as harmful parasites—a characterization that unhappily contributes to a widespread misconception (of the equally specious “those-who-can’t-do, teach” variety) that critics are motivated by “rage and envy” of those “greater” writers—poets, novelists—on whose work they prey because they themselves are incapable of producing real “creative” work. This is how a (youthful, to be fair) Dave Eggers put it in a 2000 interview in the Harvard Advocate—a piece quoted by Dwight Garner in his recent Times article in favor of negative criticism. Eggers went on, “Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one.”
This superficially appealing notion is one you often encounter when people disagree with professional critics—as if expertise, authority, and taste were available only to practitioners of a given genre. But to tell a critic he has no right to review a novel because he’s never written one is a dangerous notion, because it strikes at the heart of the idea of expertise (and scholarship, and judgment) itself—it’s like telling a doctor that he can’t diagnose a disease because he’s never had it, or a judge that he can’t hand down a sentence because he’s never murdered anyone himself. The fact is that criticism is its own genre, a legitimate and (yes) creative enterprise for which, in fact, very few people are suited—because very few people have the rare combination of qualities that make a good critic, just as very few people have the combination of qualities that make a good novelist or poet.
And so the fact is that (to invoke the popular saying) everyone is not a critic. This, in the end, may be the crux of the problem, and may help explain the unusual degree of violence in the reaction to the stridently negative reviews that appeared in the Times Book Review earlier this summer, triggering the heated debate about critics. In an essay about phony memoirs that I wrote a few years ago, I argued that great anger expressed against authors and publishers when traditionally published memoirs turn out to be phony was a kind of cultural displacement: what has made us all anxious about truth and accuracy in personal narrative is not so much the published memoirs that turn out to be false or exaggerated, which has often been the case, historically, but rather the unprecedented explosion of personal writing (and inaccuracy and falsehood) online, in Web sites and blogs and anonymous commentary—forums where there are no editors and fact-checkers and publishers to point an accusing finger at.
Similarly, I wonder whether the recent storm of discussion about criticism, the flurry of anxiety and debate about the proper place of positive and negative reviewing in the literary world, isn’t a by-product of the fact that criticism, in a way unimaginable even twenty years ago, has been taken out of the hands of the people who should be practicing it: true critics, people who, on the whole, know precisely how to wield a deadly zinger, and to what uses it is properly put. When, after hearing about them, I first read the reviews of Peck’s and Ohlin’s works, I had to laugh. Even the worst of the disparagements wielded by the reviewers in question paled in comparison to the groundless vituperation and ad hominem abuse you regularly encounter in Amazon.com reviews or the “comments” sections of literary publications. Yes, we’re all a bit sensitive to negative reviewing these days; but if you’re going to sit in judgment on anyone, it shouldn’t be the critics.
Daniel Mendelsohn is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker. His second collection of reviews and essays, “Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays From the Classics to Pop Culture,” will be published in October.
Illustration by Filip Pagowski.
Better even than reading Nabokov on the Russians is to read the Russians. Or reread them, since their books so often strike us as more beautiful and meaningful each time we return to them; they seem to age and change along with us, to surprise us much as we are surprised to meet a dear friend, grown older. If I were to tell someone where to start, I’d advise beginning with Gogol’s “The Overcoat”; or Turgenev’s “First Love”; or Chekhov’s “The Black Monk” or “Ward No. 6,” “The Bishop” or “The Duel”; or that greatest of all page-turners, Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” I’d say read Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” which is perhaps my favorite novel, or his “The Three Hermits,” which is to my mind the best story ever written about the limits of pedagogy. I’d say read them all, discover your own favorites, and when you reach the last sentence of the last book on your shelf, start over and read them again.
Francine Prose is the author of 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, among them the novel “Blue Angel,” a National Book Award nominee, and the guide “Reading Like a Writer,” a New York Times best seller. Her new novel is “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.” Currently a distinguished visiting writer at Bard College, she is the recipient of numerous grants and awards; a contributing editor at Harper’s, Saveur and Bomb; a former president of the PEN American Center; and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
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By Benjamin Moser
Dostoyevsky depicted humans as beings whose lunacy and lust and terror were held in check by only the gauziest of veils.
An odd characteristic of Russian literature is that the first novel to appear in the vernacular was not an original work but a translation from the French — and not until the 18th century. This was at least 200 years after the rest of Europe had shelved their churchy tongues: Dante praised the “eloquence of the vernacular” at the beginning of the 14th century; Du Bellay offered a “Defense and Illustration of the French Language” in the 16th; and languages with far fewer speakers — Dutch, Portuguese, Polish — had broad and distinguished literatures when all the Russians had were a scattering of medieval epics and devotional works written in the ecclesiastical language, Church Slavonic.
Even at the end of the 19th century, Russian, as readers of Tolstoy know, still reeked of bog and tundra. Classy people spoke French, and the relation of French to Russian in the 19th-century Russian novel offers an uncomfortable metaphor for the society as a whole: an elegant foreign language stretched like a glistening membrane atop the “real” language of the people. As the classical colonnades of St. Petersburg never quite hid the destitute swamp upon which they were built, the language of Descartes never supplanted the hallucinated utopias that populated the dreams of the Slavonic saints.
French was civilization; Russian, its discontents. A generation before Freud, Dostoyevsky — a favorite of Freud’s — depicted humans as beings whose lunacy and lust and terror were held in check by only the gauziest of veils. The village idiot admonishes the magnificent czar; the pretty princess, back from Baden-Baden, brushes gigglingly past the soothsaying hag. In a land that knew no Renaissance, the superstitious medieval village, with its thunderclaps and forebodings, inevitably swamps the Gallic palace. The Russia of Dostoyevsky and Pushkin lurks in the alleyway behind the mansion, a materialization of the id.
The experiences of the Russian writers echoed their particular national history, but there is nothing particularly national about the volcanic passions that threaten to burst through the carefully maintained surfaces of every human life. That they explored the depths did not mean that the great Russians neglected their brilliant surfaces, whose Fabergé luster makes them irresistibly romantic, and makes us feel the pathos of their destruction.
When that destruction came, the surface — the heritage of Cartesian formalism — would keep the demons at bay. If, a century before, French seemed like a froufrou frill, the vision of humane culture of which it was a symbol now offered consolation, however meager. Amid the Stalinist terror, nothing is more self-consciously classical than the poems of Akhmatova, who wrote sonnets in besieged Leningrad; of Tsvetayeva, who looked longingly, insistently, to Greece; or of Mandelstam, who, in an instance unique in literary history, committed suicide by ode. If Dostoyevsky insisted on the enduring reality of the irrational, the 20th-century poets described — but refused to reflect — the chaos swallowing them, and clung to form as to a vital lie.
Joseph Brodsky wrote that Russia combined “the complexes of a superior nation” with “the great inferiority complex of a small country.” In a nation so tardily arrived at the banquet of European civilization, its mentality makes the world’s biggest country strangely provincial. But its smallness and its bigness offer an obvious metaphor for the extremes of the human psyche. “I can be led only by contrast,” Tsvetayeva wrote. In the eight time zones sprawling between the galleries of the Hermitage and the frozen pits of Magadan, there is contrast enough. Awareness of this unbridgeable distance makes Russian books, at their greatest, reflections of all human life — and suggests that the old cliché, the “Russian soul,” could lose the adjective.
Benjamin Moser is the author of “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector,” a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and the general editor of the new translations of Clarice Lispector at New Directions. A former New Books columnist at Harper’s Magazine, he is currently writing the authorized biography of Susan Sontag. He lives in the Netherlands.Continue reading the main story