For a critic, niceness is beside the point

Los Angeles Times book critic

The most compelling assertion in Daniel Mendelsohn’s lengthy consideration of criticismon the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog this week is the very first one: “I didn’t dream of being a novelist or a poet,” he tells us. “I wanted to be a critic.”

It’s not that I feel the same way, exactly — for me, criticism is, as it has always been, an important component of my writing life but hardly the only one — and yet with that simple admission, Mendelsohn highlights something that has been largely absent from the sound and fury provoked earlier this month by Jacob Silverman’s Slate piece on “the epidemic of niceness in online book culture,” and compounded by Wiliam Giraldi’s New York Times Book Review takedown of Alix Ohlin.

What Mendelsohn is getting at is the central faith of anyone who takes criticism seriously: that it is an art. And, like all arts, it comes with its own aesthetics, its own challenges and considerations, which all of us who write it have to keep in mind. Of these, the most important is that criticism is subjective, that, as in any creative enterprise, we can only write from our perspectives, which we must honor and, as Mendelsohn points out, constantly question, as well.


Yet even more essential is the assurance that criticism matters — not because of how many people read it, or whether they agree or disagree with it, but because it is a way of engaging with literature. Mendelsohn makes the point explicit late in his post, when he writes that “[t]he 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.”

Mendelsohn goes on: “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.”

Yes, I want to say, that’s it precisely — which is, of course, why the whole question of niceness becomes moot. For the serious critic, who is really just a heightened version of the serious reader, it is the passion that engages us; we are writing first and foremost out of love.

This is not to say that critics are, or should be, softies; as anyone who has ever been in a long-term relationship can tell you, love is not for the weak. It encompasses everything from wonder to disappointment, from elation to (potentially) despair.

Books can stir this range of emotions also, which is why the act of criticism can be so hard. It’s not just about opinion but engagement, the sense of hope, of anticipation with which we come to a book, and the ideas, the feelings, with which we walk away from it, even, or especially, if they are not what we expect.

For me, this is how I know I’m doing my job: not by whether I like a book or don’t (whatever that means), but by what I learn. When I’m reading and writing well, books open up before me; often, they turn my preconceptions around. They make me think — not just about the flow of this text, but also about the flow of all texts: the different texts by this particular author, the different texts that I have read. I have, in other words, to confront myself, to figure out what I think, and then like all writers, to follow that line to its logical conclusion, for good or for ill.

A week or two ago, I was asked if the fact that I now write books had made me a kinder critic, which is a notion I reject. Yes, the act of writing books has taught me just how hard it is to write even a bad book, but this doesn’t mean bad books are anything to which we should aspire.

Rather, the fact that we respect the intention, the day-in, day-out labor of it, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t critique the work. As Mendelsohn points out (and I agree with him), “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.”


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