PEN 2011: The Democratization and Degradation of Criticism

Day three of PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. Event number four for me, at a fourth location. One of the joys of this weeklong event is discovering new and unusual places. So far I’ve been in the sexy Standard Hotel, the very cool Chelsea Lighthouse, an old gymnasium in Little Italy, and now the charming Greenwich House Music School—all new to me. Looking ahead, I’m scheduled to cover six more events in six more locations. Variety is the spice of life, and of PEN World Voices!

On tap this evening: The Next Decade in Book Culture, moderated by the venerable Jane Ciabattari, and featuring Morris Dickstein, Carsten Jensen, and Hervé Le Tellier. Each event at PEN WVF has gotten better and better. The conversation between tonight’s panel was the most intellectually stimulating yet; if things keep at this pace, by the time the closing event comes around Wole Soyinka will be pondering the discrepancies in the duality foundations of M-theory.

Asterisk: The matter of the role of the critic is an important subject for me. I consider myself to be a young or emerging critical voice. How I can become better at the craft and share my ideas with a wider audience are issues of great concern. The role of the critic today—in a Web 2.0 world—is an intellectually fascinating discussion to have; I welcome the opportunity to engage my peers and those who have tread the path before me on this topic. However, in keeping with the self-imposed publishing deadlines for this festival as well as the theme of my blog (Quick & Dirty), I’ll keep this short… sort of.

“Proliferation” was the theme of the night. Ciabattari kicked the panel off by reciting a litany of options available to readers and writers today, thanks to advances in Web and related technology. One million books were published in 2009, she reported, an astounding two-thirds of which were self-published. The tail is long, she noted, but book reviewing has never been in better shape. How do you see the work of the critic today, she queried the panel.

Dickstein, Jensen, and Le Tellier followed Ciabattari with statements opinions on the state of literary criticism today, where today is understood to encapsulate the decline of print reviews and the proliferation of reviews available (in all guises, blogs, Amazon.com, etc.) in the digital realm.

Dickstein struck a decidedly more pessimistic note than Ciabattari, which provided space for a real conversation to take place. The drawbacks of cyberspace, he argues, outweigh the positives. “The democratization of reviewing is synonymous with the decay of reviewing,” he sounded, at which point I put down my pen and just listened. His opening remarks were so interesting and so chock-full of information that I couldn’t keep up! Dickstein provided a truly excellent overview of the predicament of the critic today.

Good news: Morris Dickstein sent me his opening remarks! (Thanks!) You can read the full text here.

*

Jensen, for his part, gave up the criticism racket years ago. While he proffered a couple of motives for ending his critical career, one reason struck me especially: After writing reviews for a while, he realized that the publishing industry was dictating his career. Rather than carving his own path, the intellectual tracts he found himself following were determined by the books he was assigned to review.

Such determination can force a downward spiral or reinforcing circle (take your pick) in one’s intellectual career. One gets trapped into a relativist situation where similar books and authors are consistently compared to one another. Take this as a loose example: I have just reviewed a new English translation of Ludvík Vaculík’s novel The Guinea Pigs. In the review, I refer to Milan Kundera and Franz Kafka (naturally). It was suggested to me that Vaculík’s work also resembles that of Swiss writer Robert Walser, whom I have not read. Imagine, then, if I were asked to review a new edition of Walser’s work. In this review of Walser, a natural move would be for me to nod back toward Kundera, Vaculík, and Kafka. And so the circle tightens…

Jensen suggested one solution to escape this critical literary whirlpool is to look to other sources for inspiration and knowledge (and, ultimately, for revelations about the self). We need to escape our own echo chambers, he suggested. But he was not explicit with his advice. Should I, for example, read criticism published in periodicals that hold opposite political views or cultural tastes? Or, should I read criticism of books of which I have zero interest in the hopes of stumbling across a blessed and rare aha! moment? Mr. Jensen, if you are reading this, what is your suggestion on escaping our own literary echo chambers?

*

Back to that idea of “proliferation.” Tossed out just as many times—if not more—than the p-word was the A-word… Amazon. As in Amazon.com, the giant online retail site where anybody can be a critic. Really, one cannot separate the discussion of the echo chamber and the democratization of criticism; Amazon represents the synthesis of both of these worrisome trends. First, the site is open to anyone who wants to review a book (democratization). Second: the site recommends books that are very similar in tone/subject/author (echo chamber).

But are these trends even worrisome? I am of two minds when it comes to these matters. On the one hand, I worry that the multitude of criticisms available on the Internet waters down the high standards and esteem to which critics were/are held. If anyone can fire off a foul-mouthed, ill-informed review and call it “criticism,” then the appeal of such a tract becomes very unappetizing.

On the other hand, who the hell do critics think they are? Isn’t it about time they came down from their high horses, pedestals, and ivory towers and embraced the voices of the masses? If my mother wants to write a review of Finnegans Wake, then so be it!

Let’s add a twist to this discussion. Here, again, I turn to Jensen, who remarked that the democratization of criticism can break down (versus enhance) the public sphere. How? By generating those very echo chambers he warns against. The Internet is a hall of mirrors, he says.

And so, if we are always looking at ourselves or simulacrums of ourselves, then what role does the public or independent critic play?

This is a fascinating debate, is it not?

*

The fact is: there is need for professional criticism. Critics who are well-versed in subjects, authors, genres, time-periods, country-specific, and any number of categories act as literary gatekeepers. With one million-plus books published each year, it is impossible for any lay person to keep tabs on everything that hits the shelves (or tablet or e-reader). Critics are sieves who sift the strong books from the weak, tipping readers off to authors with promise, and those who are banal. This is just one role of the critic. Other roles include author and publisher feedback and the rediscovering long lost or forgotten gems.

Also, we cannot dismiss the writing craft: writing well takes talent, and talent, unfortunately, is not distributed democratically.

So, how do critics maintain relevancy?

In the era of the Internet, it first begins with the critic. Much like I suggested in my write-up of The Public Intellectual event, the critic must gain and hold onto the mantle of authority. For, much like Dickstein says, the very lack of authority in critical voices leads to the degradation of thoughtful criticism. It is the very dismantling of authority that allows for the proliferation and elevation of mediocrity on places like Amazon.

But isn’t every voice authoritative, in some manner? Reviewers who publish on Amazon are not afraid to make their opinions known, so why are critics so timid when it comes to making the case for their craft and profession to the public? (Yes, that case has been made time and again, but how much of the “public” reads highfalutin journals like The New York Review of Books?)

Making the case for authority is no easy task, especially in this country where “authority” smacks of “intellectualism” or “elitism”—qualifiers that don’t go over so well in Peoria, IL. Still, the case must be made. If the professional critic must die, then at least let him die fighting!

I’ll end this here with the same sentence I ended my post on the public intellectual: The conversation must continue.

Shaun Randol founded The Mantle in 2009. Today he is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher. You can email him at shaun [at] themantle.net. Shaun is the co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing. He is also a member of the PEN American Center and serves on the boards of Nomadic Press, the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, and Africa Book Link.