A matter of taste: revivifying CanLit criticism

July 5, 2010 by · 8 Comments 

Let’s begin with a premise that presumably we can all agree upon: literary criticism in Canada is struggling. Book review sections in our national press grow ever thinner, or disappear altogether; reviews get ever shorter, as a baleful capitulation to our attention-deficit culture; insult and invective stand in for reasoned argument; and the intellectual wattage of our critical discourse becomes dimmer and dimmer. The Internet allows anyone with an opinion on literary works – no matter how ill informed or poorly elucidated that opinion might be – the means by which to disseminate it. Book chat gets elevated to the status of critical thought. And enthusiastic amateurs are lauded while educated connoisseurs are pilloried as anti-democratic elitists. In short, Canadian literary criticism is withering on the vine.

This should be very bad news for anyone who takes literary culture at all seriously. Not because writers depend on literary critics to do their job; if critics were to vanish from the face of the earth tomorrow (as any number of writers doubtless wish they would) literature would not disappear along with them. On the contrary: writers would continue to write, books would continue to get published, and readers would continue to read them. However, an integral part of the literary ecology would have been lost. Critical dialogue is essential if a literary culture is to remain vibrant, for it is precisely this dialogue that emboldens innovation and progress, challenges complacency, and helps situate individual works in the context of literary tradition and history. Literary culture thrives alongside an incisive and provocative critical culture. The lack of a thriving critical culture in this country is arguably one reason why so much CanLit appears sclerotic and uninspired compared to the literature of other countries – notably Britain and America – that have more vigorous critical communities.

What factors might account for our current state of affairs?

In his influential 1968 volume Image Music Text Roland Barthes famously declared the death of the author. The author, Barthes insisted, had no claim to privilege over a text, and asserting authorial intention was an error that impinged upon the multiplicity of implications inherent in language itself. The death of the author, Barthes argued, allowed for the birth of the reader. In this sense, Barthes prefigured the democratization of critical response that the Internet unleashed. But as Rónán McDonald points out, what gets lost in the transaction is the authority to speak from a position of knowledge and expertise. The death of the author is coeval with the death of the critic, and the resultant flattening of literary discourse has a (perhaps counterintuitive) deleterious effect on the reader:

For all the supposed emancipation implicit in the pronouncement “we’re all critics now,” the loss of critical authority, of knowledgeable arbiters with some influence on public attention, actually diminishes the agency of choice of the reader. It plays into the hands of the monopolies who pedal [sic] fewer and fewer choices and whose primary interest is always the bottom line. What could be better suited to a ravenous consumer society, thriving on depthless and instant gratifications, than an ethos where judgements of cultural quality are down to everyone’s individual tastes and opinions? Like those phone-in polls so beloved of television and radio, this supposed “people power” decks out banality and uniformity in the guise of democracy and improvement.

The “wisdom of crowds” that is so valorized online is a mechanism for the promotion of herd instinct that undermines the critical impulse rather than encouraging it. As authoritative critical voices disappear, they are replaced by a populist mentality that cleaves in an unthinking way to trends and to what is being sold as the new big thing. Such a mentality is anti-intellectual and anti-critical at its core. McDonald points out that the word critic derives from the Greek word kritos, meaning “a judge.” The implication, McDonald argues, is that for criticism to have a broad public value, it must be evaluative. But on what should evaluative criticism be based? Surely not “everyone’s individual tastes and opinions”?

To say that a critic must be possessed of good taste is a highly contentious statement, for the obvious question arises: Who determines what qualifies as “good taste”? Is one person’s taste not as valid as anyone else’s? To answer in the negative is to invite accusations of elitism, but it is difficult to ignore the irrefutable truth that a lifetime devoted to reading deeply and widely, to studying the history of literature and literary theory, will have the effect of refining a person’s taste. No one who has been properly exposed to the sublimity of Henry James’s finely turned sentences can possibly read the plodding and clanging prose of James Patterson and consider them literary equals. Or, as Philip Marchand put it, “someone who reads Tolstoy and doesn’t recognize the presence of a towering genius is deficient in taste, period.”

Marchand’s comment is held up for castigation by novelist André Alexis in an article titled “The Long Decline,” which appears in this month’s issue of The Walrus magazine. Alexis complains that “Marchand’s statement is about himself, his belief in War and Peace‘s greatness. He offers no defence of his opinion, believing that none is required. And so, we have come to the point where the mere fact of an opinion is more important than the basis for it.”* Alexis decontextualizes Marchand’s remark and forces it to stand for an entire critical methodology. He uses this as an example of what he elsewhere refers to as “the written equivalent of pointing and saying, ‘There, you see?'”

But Alexis is being disingenuous. The quip about Tolstoy comes from an essay entitled “Confessions of a Book Columnist.” A few pages on in his essay, Marchand extrapolates what he means by literary taste in an extended analysis of two passages from Canadian fiction:

Let us be more specific about the tastes of the writer before you who presumes to criticize literature. The following are two paragraphs from two recently published Canadian novels, both of which have received a great deal of praise. One paragraph I loved, the other I hated.

A. “The traffic began to stagger forward in five-yard increments. Ted’s breakfast moved around in him.”

B. “Her life with others no longer interests him. He wants only her stalking beauty, her theatre of expressions. He wants the minute and secret reflection between them, the depth of field minimal, their foreignness intimate like two pages of a closed book.”

Paragraph A is from Russell Smith’s How Insensitive, a satiric look at Toronto’s cultural life. Paragraph B is from Michael Ondaatje’s … The English Patient.

The two sentences from Russell Smith, which describe the progress of a badly hung-over hero in a taxi on Highway 401, contain not a single adjective, unless you count the word “five.” In the first sentence, the emphasis is on the verb “stagger” and the noun “increments,” both of which strike me as inspired choices. “Stagger,” for example, combines the suggestions of jerkiness and stupefaction – two qualities inseparable from anyone’s experience of rush hour traffic. “Increments” reminds the reader that the five yards are supposed to add up to something – to a journey, in this case, of several miles.

The last sentence of the Ondaatje paragraph contains five adjectives. You don’t have to be Ernest Hemingway to consider that rather a lot for a sentence of no great length. What is more to the point is the abstractness of the adjectives, their inability to focus vision. As they say in creative writing classes, this kind of writing is telling, not showing. Moreover, the figures of speech contained in the excerpt hardly stand up to scrutiny. Calling the relationship of pages in a closed book “intimate” has a kind of studied inappropriateness that many readers find vaguely foreign in flavour and therefore highly sophisticated, but it is tiresome, foreign-flavoured or not. “Stalking beauty” is another figure of speech that seems to resonate with terribly profound implications, like some of the bad metaphors in Shelley. It’s the kind of verbal embroidery that is called “beautiful prose” by people who like gobs of marmalade on their toast.

Say what you like about Marchand’s assessments here, they are the very antithesis of “pointing and saying, ‘There, you see?'” They are, instead, an explication of one critic’s reactions to a pair of texts based on a literary sensibility that has been shaped not by market forces, but by wide reading and careful comparisons of traditions, authors, and texts. They are assessments based on a refined and clearly delineated literary taste.

What separates Marchand from the hundreds of Internet bloggers chattering incessantly about their favourite books of the moment is his adherence to an aesthetic that is explicable and forged out of a reasonable and logical approach to literature based on certain principles and standards. Distilled, this is what Coleridge meant when he wrote:

The ultimate end of criticism is much more to establish the principles of writing, than to furnish rules how to pass judgement on what has been written by others; if indeed it were possible that the two could be separated. But if it be asked, by what principles the poet is to regulate his own style, if he do not adhere closely to the sort and order of words which he hears in the market, wake, high-road, or plough-field? I reply; by principles, the ignorance or neglect of which would convict him of being no poet, but a silly or presumptuous usurper of the name! By the principles of grammar, logic, psychology! In one word by such a knowledge of the facts, material and spiritual, that most appertain to his art, as, if it have been governed and applied by good sense, and rendered instinctive by habit, becomes the representative and reward of our past conscious reasonings, insights, and conclusions, and acquires the name of TASTE.

Critical taste, according to Coleridge, is forged out of an understanding that literary standards can and do exist: that it is possible to objectively assert that book X is better than book Y based on literary principles (“grammar, logic, psychology”) and “knowledge of the facts, material and spiritual, that most appertain to” the work of art under consideration.

Alexis argues that James Wood, perhaps the most widely recognized literary critic writing today, was in his early work “exemplary of the worst of criticism” because he dared to render judgment over the works he was considering. In his 2008 study, How Fiction Works, “Wood has begun to move away from judgment and toward the contemplation of ideas,” which Alexis sees as a victory for criticism.

What Alexis would appear to advocate is what Rebecca West derided in a 1914 essay titled “The Duty of Harsh Criticism”: critics who “combine the gentleness of early Christians with a promiscuous polytheism,” who “reject not even the most barbarous or most fatuous gods.” Stating that there was at the time “no criticism in England,” but “merely a chorus of weak cheers … a mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger,” West called for the establishment of “a new and abusive school of criticism.” Her call to arms, made just under one century ago, is today echoed by Jeet Heer, who, in his own response to Alexis’s article, published on The Afterword blog, writes, “A strong argument could be made that Canadian reviewers are too forgiving of bad writing and our literary culture is corrupted less by rampant snark than by habitual back-scratching and tireless log-rolling.”

Indeed, Heer points out that Northrop Frye, who Alexis calls “a good practical critic” whose “respect for the literary work was … inspiring,” himself adhered to high literary standards in his criticism:

It’s worth remembering that Frye explicitly stated that he would never apply the same high standards he used to judge world literature to evaluating the fiction and poetry of Canada. Frye described himself as a “paternal critic” and believed that it was his job to nurture Canadian writers by describing and categorizing their work rather than evaluating its merit (or lack thereof). The task of evaluation, Frye once wrote, would only be “a huge debunking project, leaving Canadian literature a poor naked alouette plucked of every feather of decency and dignity.”

Frye certainly could not be considered deficient in taste. When Alexis argues that Canada could benefit from more critics of Frye’s calibre, he is right, although not for the reasons he espouses.

*Marchand did not mention War and Peace in his comment; that was Alexis’s inference. But, we’ll let that one go for the moment.