"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Has the role of the professional critic become obsolete in an age of book clubs, celebrity endorsements and blogs? A new book, “The Death of the Critic,” says no, and argues that there are still reasons to regard some opinions as better than others. We asked Salon’s own book reviewers, Louis Bayard and Laura Miller, to consider its case.
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Louis Bayard: The signs are ominous, Laura. Book reviews are closing shop or drastically scaling back inventory. Film critics at newspapers all over America are getting tossed on their ears. TV reviewers are heard no more in the land. All the indicators suggest that America’s critics are becoming an increasingly endangered species.
Or maybe something a little more than endangered, judging from the title that’s just come across our desks: “The Death of the Critic.” Ronan McDonald, the author, is a lecturer in English and American studies at Britain’s University of Reading, and he’s particularly exercised by what he sees as the loss of the “public critic,” someone with “the authority to shape public taste.” It’s only in the final chapter that the mystery behind the critic’s disappearance is solved. The culprit is none other than … cultural studies! (With a healthy assist from poststructuralism.) By treating literature as an impersonal text from which any manner of political meaning can be wrung, cultural studies professors have robbed criticism of its proper evaluative function — the right to say this is good, this isn’t, and here’s why.
So, Laura, it seems that, if we aren’t quite dead, we critics are on something like life support.
Laura Miller: I suppose it’s only natural that McDonald, being an academic himself, would blame the academy. He believes that substantive scholarly criticism acts as a foundation for serious non-scholarly criticism — such as reviews and essays in newspapers and magazines — lending credibility to the idea that criticism (specifically, literary criticism) is a job for trained experts. When academia falls down on the job of, as you put it, saying what’s good and what’s not, then all criticism starts to look arbitrary and dispensable. We don’t have celebrated “public critics” now because critics don’t care about the public, not because the public doesn’t care about critics. What do you think: Is criticism responsible for its own demise?
Bayard: I think critics are just the canary in this particular coal mine. It’s no accident that McDonald locates the “Golden Age” of criticism at the midpoint of the 20th century, which was also the apogee of the modern novel, particularly the American novel. Novels — and novelists — mattered then in a way they simply don’t today. (William Styron’s posthumous essay collection is a potent reminder. The man got invited to the Kennedy White House on the strength of one novel!) Even if you think critics are parasites, you have to acknowledge they can only survive when their host organisms thrive. In this regard, I think McDonald is right: If we want to bring the critic back to life, we first have to resuscitate the novelist.
Miller: I agree that it’s hard to argue for the centrality of literary criticism when literature itself has become marginal. Most people in publishing chalk this up to the availability of too many other entertainment options. What brings people back to books tends to be the belief that they offer something especially meaningful, and it’s true that academic criticism has busied itself with undermining that belief for the past 50 years. However, even the criticism that McDonald admires for its reach — the New Criticism of the 1950s — may have contributed to the public’s lack of interest. Thanks to McDonald’s really excellent historical overview, I was reminded of how crucial critics were to modernism — all those difficult, even gnomic poems and novels needed to be explained to readers who were used to conventional narrative, meter and rhyme. The idea that to be worthy of serious attention, a literary work has to tear down or revolutionize the forms of the past — well, that makes literature exciting and criticism galvanizing and oh so Important for a while, but at a certain point there’s nothing left to dismantle. And meanwhile, the readers wandered off to read Stephen King or watch TV. Having gotten the “fuck you” message loud and clear they just stop listening to intellectuals.
Bayard: I think McDonald argues convincingly that the complete trashing of the traditional canon — of the very idea of a canon — has created a kind of inverse reaction: People are now hungering to be told what’s good. So maybe there’s hope for criticism after all? And as for the “fuck you” aspect of modernism, I agree with you as far as poetry goes. But when you think back to the great novelists of the mid-to-late 20th century, they were working largely in the naturalist vein. Even Philip Roth, for all his postmodern games, grounds much of his work in the closely observed realm of Jewish Newark. And James Wood, who most nearly approximates McDonald’s ideal of “the public critic,” is a standard-bearer for classical realism, as conservative in his way as Matthew Arnold.
Miller: Despite what the critics who championed modernism claimed about the obsolescence of the traditional novel, that’s more or less still what people want to write and read; fiction didn’t, for the most part, follow the example of “Ulysses.” And poststructuralism doesn’t have much to say about this one way or the other; the radicalism it promoted is political rather than artistic, a matter of whose voice gets heard and whose story gets told. In cultural studies, whether or not a work by a member of a previously silenced group is “good” or not is the wrong question: “Good” is understood to be a suspect term based on the self-interested values of those in power.
So the only critics left to evaluate most contemporary fiction are journalists, ranging in seriousness from someone like Wood to your average newspaper freelancer who mostly delivers plot summary. There are no critical movements evident today. James Wood has a well-formed, if rather austere aesthetic but he seems to be the only one who actually adheres in it. Of all the people I’ve met who admire Wood’s criticism I’ve yet to encounter anyone who actually subscribes to his fairly restrictive standards or taste. They like his writing and seem to feel braced by his rigor, but at the end of the day, they go home with Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith instead.
Bayard: I like that phrase “go home with” because, when I think about the critics I love the most, they’re not necessarily the ones I agree with, they’re the ones I’d like to date. I argue with them, but when they’re gone, their music is still bopping around in my brain. Many years ago, Susan Sontag, in “Against Interpretation,” argued for “an erotics of art.” Is it time now for an erotics of criticism? Instead of bemoaning the decline of literature, should we be doing a better job of showing people what they’re missing: the excitement of unexpected insights, the thrill of new voices, the sex of ideas? That sounds like a lot more fun than figuring out which fiefdom we’re going to defend in the Theory Wars. (I’ve a hunch Ronan McDonald would be on our side.)
Miller: You’re right! Why pillory theory, when even the people who used to espouse it are saying it’s dead? Let’s talk about what makes for a good critic. I often think that there are two kinds: the ones whose taste I find simpatico — the ones I come to for recommendations on what to read — and the ones who are themselves terrific writers, irrespective of what they recommend. Sometimes there’s an overlap, but not often.
There are critics, like Wood, that I go out of my way to read, although I have no intention of ever opening the books they tout. That’s indicative of an additional aspect to criticism besides evaluation (which McDonald wants to bring back to academic criticism) and interpretation (that is, elucidating the work and its many meanings, which we could use more of in journalistic criticism). It’s the literary worth of the criticism in and of itself, and the chance to see a sophisticated reader at work. McDonald was enthusiastic enough about William Hazlitt to make me pull an old collection of Hazlitt’s essays from my shelf and put it on my bedside table and get reacquainted with that beautiful mind. What’s your notion of a great critic, Louis?
Bayard: I find I’m drawn to critics for the same reason I’m drawn to any writer: the quality of their prose. They can misinterpret and misevaluate to their heart’s delight as long as they make the words dance. Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom may be preeminent in their respective fields, but I read their prose only under duress. Whereas, no matter how wrongheaded she is, I’ll read anything by Pauline Kael. Or Anthony Lane or Clive James or, yes, James Wood.
And thanks to McDonald’s book, I now want to read more of Northrop Frye, who fired this sterling round of grapeshot at T.S. Eliot for fiddling with the canon of great writers: “…all the literary chit-chat which makes the reputations of poets boom and crash in an imaginary stock-exchange. The wealthy investor, Mr. Eliot, after dumping Milton on the market, is now buying him again; Donne has probably reached his peak and will begin to taper off; Tennyson may be in for a slight flutter but the Shelley stocks are still bearish. This sort of thing cannot be part of any systematic study, for a systematic study can only progress: whatever dithers or vacillates or reacts is merely leisure-class gossip.” Of course, I take Frye’s thematic point — the vagaries of taste are a fickle criterion for evaluation — but I’m more impressed by the dazzling execution of that stock-market metaphor and that ever-so-subtle colon in the last sentence. Anyone who wants to write about writing should be able to write.
Miller: Oddly enough, I read Frye’s “Anatomy of Criticism” just last year. Not all of it, alas, is quite so witty as the line you quote (underlined in my copy!), but I still found it illuminating, however unfashionable Frye may be these days. That man was well-read; one of the more lamentable casualties of the theory boom was that it produced thousands of English majors who can speak Lacan but who’ve never read, say, Philip Sidney.
Which brings to mind McDonald’s complaints about the “democratizing” of criticism, the idea that anyone can and should do it and that no one opinion has more weight than any other. The blogosphere, as he sees it, is only the most visible manifestation of this broader, anti-authoritarian trend. Because academic critics have abandoned evaluation, the popular critics charged with saying whether a book is good or not have gotten “slack,” in McDonald’s eyes — deficient in rigor and scholarship. If anyone can do it, then surely it’s a skill that requires no expertise or cultivation. It’s true that anyone can dispense quickie, depthless, thumb’s-up/down judgments, but that doesn’t really enrich your experience and understanding of literature as a whole. And of course, that might be contributing to the impression that literature doesn’t offer anything special.
Bayard: Yeah, the blogosphere is the elephant in the room that McDonald never really gets round to discussing, but to my mind, it’s a far more pressing issue for criticism than theory is. Why pay a professional critic to evaluate something when you have a gazillion volunteer evaluators ready to fire off at any given moment? As McDonald says, criticism “is the only mode of literary writing that you can be confident most people will have tried in their lives.” We’ve all written critical essays at school. We’re all critics, or at least we fancy ourselves to be.
The problem with arguing for cultural gatekeepers is that, if you’re a professional critic, you inevitably look self-serving — “Hey, that’s my job!” — and yes, elitist — “Don’t try this at home, guys.” I myself don’t have any particular training or qualifications to be a reviewer, other than my own experience as a reader and writer, so I feel silly arguing that someone else isn’t qualified to deliver an opinion. And believe it or not, I’ve learned things from Amazon reviews, from letters pages, from literary blogs, from all sorts of non-traditional outlets. The quality of writing is certainly variable, but then so is the quality of traditional journalism.
Miller: I don’t think there’s a real causal connection between the blogosphere and the withering away of newspaper criticism, actually. It has more to do with the economics of newspaper publishing and management and editors feeling that criticism is disposable because it’s not reporting, which they see as a newspaper’s core product.
I think of blogs not as alternatives to reviews or essays, but as a forum for short items, news and remarks, as well as links and responses to longer pieces posted on the sites that commission them. I could be wrong, though, as I’m not really a reader of blogs. I have a hard enough time keeping up with the book review sections of the New York and Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, Bookforum, the Atlantic, Harper’s, TLS, the New Republic, etc., as well as the British newspapers like the Guardian and Independent, which I read online. Yet even in those publications I often find that the pieces I’m excited to be reading are the exception rather than the rule. I’m all for cultural gatekeepers because there’s way more out there than I have time to read and it’s not always easy to find the best of it.
As for qualifications, what qualifies Doris Lessing to be a celebrated novelist? Only the novels she’s written. If you and I agree that it’s good writing that makes a good critic, rather than simply the delivery of information and an opinion, then really good critics are as common as really good novelists — that is, not very. Talent is neither equitably nor widely distributed.
Bayard: For sure, talent is inequitably distributed in all art forms. I actually believe great critics are even rarer than great novelists or poets, and I wonder if that’s because criticism itself is held in such low esteem. (Brendan Behan once compared critics to harem eunuchs, which is relatively nice as the analogies go.) McDonald mentions that one of academia’s last havens for evaluative criticism has been the creative-writing class, and he suggests that universities should offer more in the way of “creative criticism” classes, teaching the craft of interpreting other people’s works. All the same, I’m skeptical this would reverse the current state of affairs. People will only value literary criticism to the extent they value literature. Unless we can arrest the decline of reading — and even Harry Potter hasn’t managed that wizard’s trick — then criticism will be swept away in the same mud slide.
Maybe McDonald’s next book should be “The Death of the Reader”?
Miller: It may indeed be a vicious circle: The less critics are valued, the fewer talented and original people apply themselves to the profession and the more it starts to seem like a job that anyone can do. During this conversation, I’ve come around to McDonald’s point about the need for academia to lend what’s left of its credibility to criticism as a whole: “Creative criticism” is, after all, exactly what English professors were once chiefly known for.
One thing academics don’t seem to grasp, however, is the overall decline in reading that you’ve cited. It hardly matters whether or not an English professor actually likes to read novels and poetry, does it? Books are the salt mine, and the academics are the miners. If anything, literary enthusiasm can be a detriment if your job is to prosecute books for their ideological crimes. When even English professors won’t stand up for literature, is it any wonder it’s failing? I hate to end on the same note we began on — blaming cultural studies — but unfortunately, McDonald is a bit stronger on diagnosis than cure, isn’t he?
As far as the death of the reader goes, I hope that the critic (who is, after all, just as much a reader as a writer) really isn’t the canary in the coal mine on this one, but I fear that you may be right about that.
Bayard: Well, it’s been a while since I was in college, but I do remember professors who loved English literature every bit as much as I do, so I don’t want to tar the whole profession out of hand. And I don’t want to end on too sour a note. There are still — there will always be — people who love to read. Maybe we begin simply by celebrating and rewarding that wherever we find it, and then we do the same with good books. Life’s too short to dwell on the dross.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)