Critic’s Notebook: Unpopular Causes, Part I
“In place of a hermeneutrics we need an erotics of art.” – “Against Interpretation” , Susan Sontag
Challenges and Non-Responses
The job of the critic is, by turns, tastemaker, evangelist, and champion. The best critics harness the powers of intellection and enthusiasm to inform his or her readership on a work’s merits. If a work receives more merits than demerits, than, in a roughly mathematical fashion, the creator obtains a “good review.” This reviewer finds works with “mixed reviews” or polarizing reactions (see Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones) most attractive, since “mixed reviews” are not sure things. A tiny element of surprise exists when encountering the work. It could be awful, but it could also be great.
The critic faces challenges when encountering works that are not contemporary or from a creator with a prestigious reputation. A book that has just been published offers a critic a tabula rasa. He or she can imprint first impressions and create a reaction that will be integrated into the cultural understanding of the work. There is critical reception, consumer (read: “popular”) reception, and overall sales. Hollywood has made millions on good remakes (Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven) and terrible remakes (Harald Zwart’s The Karate Kid). The balance between these three axes (critics, consumers, and sales receipts) will be the focus of this essay. Included are two works which I personally like, although both have been critically maligned, albeit not without good cause.
The challenges are myriad for any critic desiring to exhibit his or her worth to the critical community and the readership at large. If the critic has no taste, why bother reading the reviews? The subjectivities of taste can be intimidating, especially to two particularly annoying sub-species of readership.
The first sub-species are the Fanboys (and Fangirls). Critical taste evaporates and a hardcore evangelism permeates every reaction. Whether it involves CGI, the works of Ayn Rand, or Angelina Jolie raiding tombs, the works are transfigured from mere pop culture artifacts to quasi-religious relics. This is glaringly evident in champions of J.R.R. Tolkien. Only a philistine would dismiss Tolkien’s place as founding father of modern high fantasy. On the other hand, just because he was one of the first to write high fantasy, it does not mean Lord of the Rings is any good. I found the work an overlong tedious bore written in stilted language. Tolkien wrote in a style to emulate the cadence found in the King James Bible. One also sees manifestations of this fanaticism of reader reviews of Atlas Shrugged. The positive reviews are gushing. Many say it is the best novel ever written. To which any sensible critic would ask, “The best novel compared to what?” Rabid fanatical fandom is hard to deal with. Instead of Al-Qaeda strapping dynamite to their torsos, fanboys bomb discussion threads with bombastic rhetoric that veils an utter lack of critical sensibility.
The other sub-species are Egalitarians. Unafraid to offend anyone’s tastes, the Egalitarians short-circuit discussions with non-responses. These include, but are not limited to the following:
- “You believe what you want to believe. It’s your opinion.”
- “To each his own.”
- “Twilight may be badly written, but at least it encourages kids to read.”
It is enough to make people gnash their teeth and pull out their hair. Literary criticism is not about the First Amendment. That is a given. The right to an opinion involves having one in the first place! Otherwise, the person renders the entire enterprise pointless. While these two positions are not necessarily politically analogous, the Egalitarian position crops up in many subscribing to the pieties of the Left. (Full disclosure: This author finds pieties of the Right and the Left absolutely insufferable. Political pieties are a waste of time. What matters are concrete results.)
Concepts like multiculturalism and tolerance have invaded the confines of aesthetic criticism making everyone suffer in the process. People have become afraid of criticizing a work on its merits and then being accused of racism, sexism, and other epithets. Works should be included in the Canon based on merit, not on tradition (defenders of Dead White Males) or on representation (defenders of everyone excluded in the Traditional Western Canon™).
In the determination of a work’s merit, exclusions will have to be made, but a work should also be judged on its own merits. Troma films have their own bent brilliance, despite their tiny budgets, broad acting, and lunatic plots. One can champion just about any cultural product (film, book, TV show, album, etc.) with sound arguments and sincere affection.
Up next, Hipsters!