Should Critics Aim to Be Open-Minded or to Pass Judgment?

So do informed and spirited approvals. The phrase “everyone’s a critic,” once the complaining sigh of the creator, is today closer to being a literal truth. Criticism was always (and certainly in Arnold’s time) vulnerable to careerism and hackery, but amid the pingings of Twitter and along the web pages of Goodreads and LibraryThing and Amazon, the fast one-star slash and the instant five-star burble are now given the same algorithmic weight as the lengthy and well-considered three- or four-star comment. There are, one should note, many of the latter, but they always seem about to drown in the shrill orthographical chaos surrounding them, complaints often written by those who look forward to the demise of critics — and editors — with a populist glee.

Far removed from all this, and from most reality, we have academic literary criticism, now reducing literature to fodder for pseudoscientific cultural studies, taking its first duty to be the discovery of ways in which books can cause crushing personal offense. Students are fed literary theory before they’ve read an appreciable number of literary texts to which those theories might be applied. It’s all telescopes and no stars. Looking back on his own long critical career, in a lecture called “To Criticize the Critic” (1961), T.S. Eliot took note of the theoretical concepts he had developed (“dissociation of sensibility,” “objective correlative”), but declared that “my own theorizing has been epiphenomenal of my tastes, and . . . in so far as it is valid, it springs from direct experience of those authors who have profoundly influenced my own writing.” Theories, like standards, should arise inductively; the critic has to remind himself that he exists because of the author and in service to the reader. The simplest prescription for better criticism of all kinds — electronic, journalistic, academic — remains: read more; think longer; write less.

Thomas Mallon’s nine novels include “Finale,” “Henry and Clara,” “Fellow Travelers” and “Watergate,” a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He has also published nonfiction about plagiarism (“Stolen Words”), diaries (“A Book of One’s Own”), letters (“Yours Ever”) and the Kennedy assassination (“Mrs. Paine’s Garage”), as well as two books of essays. His work appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and other publications. A recipient of the Vursell prize of the American Academy of…

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