Yet Another Crisis

You really have to have more imagination than to go to a crotchety old dude like Eliot Weinberger if you want to know what the state of literary criticism in the U.S. is. I don’t mean to dig Weinberger—he’s an awesome translator and was a great critic—but most available evidence suggests that he’s at the “everything once good has turned bad” point in his career.

The United States does not have the kinds of literary supplements that are common in Spain and many other countries. It has only one important frequent periodical of criticism—The New York Review of Books. There are no longer powerful American critics, as there were until the 1960s, writing in a prose that was intelligible to anyone, and inserting literature into the political, social, and moral issues of the day. So-called “serious” criticism has largely become the domain of academics, who write in a specialized jargon, under the bizarre belief that complex thought can only be presented in impenetrable sentences… Criticism, in the United States, has been reduced to “recommendations,” which come via reviews, blogs, and Twitter. Prizes have become the standard validation of literary merit- especially among those who are unaware how prizes are chosen. I can’t think of a single American critic to whom one now turns for ideas…

Except for insulting Internet culture, this reads like something that was probably in-date at some point in the 1980s. Academia has long been Bastilled, there are plenty of “powerful” critics writing for a popular audience (Tim Parks, Ruth Franklin, Daniel Mendelsohn, Adam Kirsch, Adam Thirlwell, James Wood, Geoff Dyer, etc.), and of course there are other “frequent periodicals of criticism” much more interesting than the NYRB.

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Thanks, Scott! But I was describing the situation, not complaining about it. (And these sentences are excerpted from a longer statement.)

This was written for El País in Spain. European and Latin American countries have lots of serious weekly/biweekly cultural/literary supplements and magazines. The USA has only one that is similar– the NYRB– regardless of what one thinks about it. (The NYTBR hardly qualifies as serious; magazines like The Nation and the New Republic are, of course, not devoted largely to culture.)

I wrote “American” critics. More than half of those you name are Brits (though often appearing in US publications). Whatever their worth, none of them have the kind of “power” once held by Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, Lionel Trilling, et al., and none of them are discussing literature in a larger social/political context. Whether this is good or bad is another topic– again, I was merely describing.

Far from “insulting internet culture,” I have, from the beginning, promoted the internet as a vehicle for literature, especially poetry. In 1994, I was more or less laughed off the stage of the “Revolution” conference at St. Mark’s Church for saying that, in the future, the internet was going to be a tremendously powerful political force.

In literary matters, it is completely untrue that I believe that “everything once good has turned bad.” In the world outside of literature, it seems safe to say that everything once bad has turned worse.

Scott-
I’m interested in your comment that “and of course there are other “frequent periodicals of criticism” much more interesting than the NYRB.” Would you mind providing a list? I am always looking for additional book criticism recommendations.

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