Aug 012011

Photo credit: Kate O’Rourke

Here’s a timely (always timely) essay (exhortation) on the art of reviewing from Michael Bryson who has already contributed mightily to these pages (see his stories “Niagara” and “My Life in Television“). Taking Pauline Kael (the late, great New Yorker movie critic) and Susan Sontag (the late, great novelist, memoirist and critic) as his models, he makes a case for articulate, argumentative, critical criticism, the cut and thrust of literary debate, and the healthy expression of superior literary taste (READ: criticism as demolition) as a corrective to the marketplace. For several years Michael edited the magazine The Danforth Review, a lively, inventive online short story journal that went into mothballs in 2009. He is restarting the magazine this fall, getting ready to take submissions (see full bio and details below the post).



Sontag & Kael: Criticism is demolition?

By Michael Bryson

For years I’ve wanted to write an essay about criticism: what is good criticism, what is poor criticism, what frustrates me about criticism, what makes me go, yes, yes, yes.

Increasingly I suspect this essay will never get written.

My mind is unsettled. Sometimes I want critics to be harsher: stop waffling! Sometimes I want critics to be more judicious: stop rushing towards unfounded conclusions! Sometimes I abhor mis-readings; sometimes I’m pleased to be shown an unexpected side of a work. Sometimes I’m keen to read a gender-based analysis; sometimes I just can’t take any more; enough already.

Yes, I’m finicky. I’m not the ideal, consistent reader. I don’t have a still point upon which to ground direction to others about how criticism ought to be done.

As I’ve said before, I write reviews. In my reviews I engage the work; I try to provide evidence-based analysis; I try to recognize that interpretation is dialogic (it’s part of a larger give-and-take process). Reviews need to be able to stand alone, be a unit of communication, transmitting meaning.

But I don’t believe in still point truths, or monologues. But, then, sometimes I do. Every once in a blue moon I enjoy a good polemic blasting.

Craig Seligman’s Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me (Counterpoint, 2004), a brilliant compare-and-contrast essay on the work of Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael, has returned me to my unsettled thoughts about criticism.

T.S. Eliot said: “Between the real and the ideal falls the shadow.”

Seligman could be paraphrased: Between provocation and judiciousness lies the graveyard of failed criticism.

Okay, the parallelism is rough. Here’s some real Seligman:

You can’t be a great critic–you can’t even be an interesting critic– without a talent for provocation. An imp of the perverse perches on the shoulder of the critic as she formulates her sentences, a still, small voice will warn her, “Caution! A statement like that is bound to land you in hot water!” And if she’s a genuine critic, her imp will throttle that voice. The aim is to make people think; the means is, much of the time, to make them mad. Judiciousness may be central to all criticism, but judiciousness without provocation of some kind is like nutrition without flavour. Who cares if a boiled turnip is good for you? Through angry responses to something you’ve written can be unpleasant, they’re not nearly so demoralizing as no response. At least they’re evidence–sometimes the only evidence–that the audience has listened (95-6).

Argument is how we learn; argument is how we think (166).

Ninety percent of everything, as Theodore Sturgeon observed, is shit; in criticism, the percentage must be ninety-nine (167).

[Adler] just can’t stand [Kael]. And that’s where criticism begins. Call it sensibility or call it taste, we embrace what we love and trash what we loathe; but the response–the recoil–comes first. In articulating her loathing, Adler gives me a better handle on my love. That makes her a real critic (168).

[Kael] and Sontag were magnificently uncompromised, but their work isn’t bursting with “sympathy and understanding.” Those who can have a moral obligation toward those who can’t, the obligation that Henry James articulated so beautifully when he counseled, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” But criticism–unfortunately for the criticized–isn’t human life. Notwithstanding their many enthusiasms and their palpable delight in praising, Sontag and Kael don’t deserve any rewards for kindness. And that’s as it should be. Niceness, in criticism, is a form of bad faith (186-7).

We’ve all read hatchet jobs by critics who are scandalously inferior to the artists they’re judging. … I’m talking about geniuses, though, not nitwits, and geniuses, almost necessarily, are monsters. There’s something monstrous in the titanic will it takes to produce a world-class oeuvre, not to mention the coldness it takes to pronounce somebody else’s work wanting (187).

Demolition is probably the primary critical task; to be the bad conscience of one’s time, as Nietzsche charged the philosopher, has now become the critic’s responsibility. In any age, and especially in an age driven by hype and wholly given over to, in Sontag’s phrase, “mercantile values,” somebody has to say no (188).

It’s a measure of [Kael’s and Sontag’s] greatness that what we take away from their work isn’t the no but the yes. They fret, they recoil, they prophesy–but their enthusiasms sweep them away. No one can write great criticism without bringing so much passion to the task that she risks making a fool of herself (189).

Passion. Provocation. Demolition. Titanic wills and monstrous somethings. Argument is how we learn, how we think. The bottom line: how to be a great critic.

Seligman doesn’t waffle. He’s not finicky.

He clearly loves his two subjects, but he rages frequently at Sontag and finds numerous occasions to wish Kael had written something different, something better.

Here’s more Seligman:

I hope you don’t think that because I’m crazy about her writing I bought all of her opinions. “Infallible taste is inconceivable,” she wrote; “what could it be measured against?” If Sontag’s taste seems less controversial, surely that’s because she’s allotted most of her criticism to Olympian work. This determination to play the admirer is what, in her view, justifies her claiming she’s not a critic: “I really do think an important job of the critic is to savage this, to say this is garbage, this is terrible, this is pernicious.” So do I, but her distaste for that side of the job doesn’t free her from the mantle of criticism; it just makes her a critic who doesn’t do half her job. … For a critic to address only what she loves is as skewed as it is for her to confront only what she hates (187-8).

I savoured this book. I didn’t want it to end. I wish I could say one of my well-read friends recommended it to me, but the truth is, I picked it up off a used book table at a sale my employer was having to raise funds for charity.

Chance, in other words, introduced me to Seligman (and a Google search has pointed me–grateful–to more of his work). Kael and Sontag, of course, I was somewhat familiar with. My bookshelf includes Kael’s collected movie columns, For Keeps: Thirty Years at the Movies (1996), and Sontag’s canonical Against Interpretation (1966) and Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (2008).

Here’s part of the entry of December 19, 1948, the year Sontag turned 15:

There are so many books and plays and stories I have to read–Here are just a few:

The Counterfeiters – Gide
The Immortalist – Gide
Laccadio’s Adventures – Gide
Corydon – Gide
Tar – Sherwood Anderson
The Island Within – Ludwig Lewisohn
Sanctuary – William Faulkner
Ester Waters – George Moore
Diary of a Writer – Dostoyevsky
Against the Gran – Huysmans
The Disciple – Paul Bourget
Sanin – Mikhail Artsybashev
Johnny Got His Gun – Dalton Trombo
The Forsyte Saga – Galsworthy
The Egoist – George Meredith
Diana of the Crossways – George Meridith
The Ordeal of Richard Feverel – George Meridith

poems of Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, Tibullus, Heinie, Pushkin, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Apollinaire plays of Synge, O’Neill, Calderon, Shaw, Hellman… [This list goes on for another five pages, and more than a hundred titles are mentioned.]

… Poetry must be: exact, intense, concrete, significant, rhythmical, formal, complex

… Art, then, is thus always striving to be independent of the mere intelligence …

… Language is not only an instrument but an end in itself …

Kael is not so easily quoted. Let’s just note that her selected/collected weighs in at 1291 pages.

Both of these women, Seligman notes, were lightning rods for adversaries. Both also became major critics before the late-1960s expansion of feminism.

Titanic wills? Here’s the quotation chosen for the back cover of Reborn: “I intend to do everything… to have one way of evaluating experience–does it cause me pleasure or pain, and I shall be very cautious about rejecting the painful–I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere! I shall involve myself wholly…everything matters!”

Nothing was going to hold Sontag back, and nothing did. What Seligman finds in her criticism, however, are swells of contradiction and intense sophistication to both hide and reveal herself. She was gay, but for a long time didn’t say so. She identified with the North Vietnamese, but then broke with the ideological left in the 1980s.

On February 6, 1982, Sontag gave a speech at a Town Hall in Manhattan at what was supposed to be an evening of left-wing solidarity. She said:

Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who ready only The Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?

Over boos and catcalls, she neared the end of her speech:

Communism is fascism–successful fascism, if you will. … I repeat: not only is fascism (and overt military rule) the probable destiny of all Communist societies–especially when their populations are moved to revolt–but Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of fascism. Fascism with a human face.

Uproar. Accusations of betrayal. Surprise from Sontag that the reaction was so vocal.

Seligman uses the example to reinforce that this is what great critics do; they get our attention and make us think. He asks:

Would Sontag’s detractors have been happier if she’d gazed with fiery eyes into the crowd of the Town Hall and declared, ‘Communism resembles fascism’? Oh, God, some of them probably would have. But Sontag has too much pride in her craft to let her language turn into mush (95).

A similar example from Kael, from a 1992 interview with The Oxford American:

OA: I’ve heard a few people say that they have stopped reading you because you have made them feel stupid at times for liking something they shouldn’t. Have you ever–

Kael: Tough (140).

Yes, tough. Good answer. But what I didn’t find in Seligman was a way to separate the geniuses from the nitwits.

If the geniuses are “monstrous,” what are the nitwits? Evil?

If 99% of criticism is shit, what are 99% of critics? Pigs?

And what of the process of reviewing, criticizing, and dialoguing? What of give-and-take? What of that thing superficially called the literary community?

If demolition is “probably the primary critical task,” what of community building? And how much weight should be give that “probably”?

The further I get from the book, the more my finickiness returns.

Yes, demolition is a legitimate PART of the critical process, but the primary task? Isn’t the primary task to know thyself and to be aware of your own biases? And to present a strong (not mushy!) argument (evience-based) that acknowledges the biases? And always, I’ll say it again, to acknowledge that argument is dialogic? That no single argument can dominate and end the debate?

In December 2010, the New York Times ran a series on “Why Criticism Matters.”

The Times introduced the series as follows:

We live in the age of opinion — offered instantly, effusively and in increasingly strident tones. Much of it goes by the name of criticism, and in the most superficial sense this is accurate. We do not lack for contentious assertion — of “love it” or “hate it,” of “wet kisses” and “takedowns,” of flattery versus snark, and assorted other verbal equivalents of the thumb held up or pointed down. This “conversation” is often lively. Sometimes it is fun. Occasionally it is informed by genuine understanding as opposed to ideological presumption.

 But where does it leave the serious critic, one not interested, say, in tabulating the number of “Brooklyn novelists” who receive attention each year in publications like this one (data possibly more useful to real estate agents and sociologists than to readers)? Where does it leave the critic interested in larger implications — aesthetic, cultural, moral?

At the time, I started to make notes to provide my own response to this series, but I couldn’t complete it. My wife, then, was in the middle of four months of chemotherapy to treat her breast cancer. While thinking through questions about literature is part of what sustains me (I have my own titanic will and youthful journals, though they’re nowhere near as intense as Sontag’s), my life-energy was needed elsewhere.

Life/art: it’s a separation rife with unintended consequences.

Anger, Seligman notes, can be a source of great criticism. I distrust my anger. I have written out of anger and later regretted it, though even in reflection I usually think my impulse was true. And the result, pace Seligman, if often more interesting.

I was angry at the Times series. It didn’t go deep enough, I thought. It didn’t provide me with what I felt I needed out of it. Which was what, exactly? I can’t recreate that now. I was in a unique situation then, one what swelled with fear and an intense need to live simply one day at a time.

The situation reinforced my natural impatience for stupidity.

I wanted to write an essay: “Why I hate social media.” But I don’t hate social media. I hate that people post banalities. I don’t care that you’ve just crossed the street, brushed your teeth, or are meeting your friends at the art gallery.

I’m okay with receiving links to YouTube videos, sharing one of your favourite songs from the 1990s, but, please, not twenty times a day.

What I wish more people did, is write reviews, write commentary, write analysis. Don’t just send witticisms about Toronto’s Ford brothers (yes, you’re clever; and Atwood may well make a good mayor), provide argument.

Argument, as Seligman says, is how we learn. Argument is thought.

Go deeper. Compare and contrast. Risk being wrong. Risk contradicting yourself. Risk offending someone.

Risk alienating your friends.

It will make you more interesting.

Please. Please. Pretty please.

Thank you.

—Michael Bryson


Michael Bryson has been reviewing books for twenty years and publishing short stories almost as long. His latest publication is an e-version of his novella Only A Lower Paradise: A Story About Fallen Angels and Confusion on Planet Earth. It’s a book about, well, angels and shit. His other books are Thirteen Shades of Black and White (1999), The Lizard (2009) and How Many Girlfriends (2010). In 1999, he founded the online literary magazine, The Danforth Review and published 26 issues of fiction, etcetera, before taking a break in 2009. In fall, 2011 TDR will once again be accepting fiction submissions. He blogs at the Underground Book Club. He has new fiction forthcoming in The New Quarterly (Fall 2011) and new fiction (“The Places You’ll Go”) recently online at Urban Graffiti. He co-parents a daughter and a son. His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer 11 months ago. She has survived the disease, the treatment, and a lot else besides.

  3 Responses to “Sontag & Kael: Criticism is demolition? — Michael Bryson”

  1. Wonderful, informative essay Michael. I agree, a good critic and a good critique should always provoke — not only further thought but opposition, too. A lot of the criticism and reviews I have read of Canadian writers, especially online, is oddly repetitive in tone and critique. It is as if Canadian critics, or reviewers, are fearful of stepping out of line of acceptable interpretations, lest they offend potential future contacts. So, reviews become carbon copies of one another. The kind of brave, courageous critics you speak of exist in Canada, however, their opinions are almost never published because not enough Canadian magazines — particularly those of the printed variety — really do not have the nerve to allow such a dialogue to continue unrestrained.

  2. Great essay. I’ve always loved both of them, despite the occasional sense of my own inadequacies that they inspire. I particularly remember Kael’s review of “A Clockwork Orange”. She hated the film and made me feel dim-witted for liking it, then attacked the book, too. Wholesale destruction. Exhilarating! But when you loved the same movie — “Citizen Kane” or “The Godfather” or “Last Tango in Paris”, there was no greater ally.

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