Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Counting words & criticizing critics

Two good reads over at Slate this week:

Sheidlower, editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary, once wrote a great book called The F Word, a very entertaining dissection of our favorite four-letter expletive. It's out of print now but it's worth digging up a used copy; Sheidlower dissects the etymology, usage and social stigma associated with the word and comes up with more than a few surprising factoids. The Slate article is similar in approach, and is just as enlightening a read.
Everyone's favorite cranky literary critic gets some of her own medicine. Yagoda's piece is mostly even-handed in its dissection of the pros and cons of Kakutani's black-or-white critical approach, and makes a lot of sharp points about the nature of criticism along the way:
As a student at Oxford, the future drama critic Kenneth Tynan got back a paper with this comment: "Keep a strict eye on eulogistic & dyslogistic adjectives—They shd diagnose (not merely blame) & distinguish (not merely praise.)" Tynan's tutor, who happened to be C.S. Lewis, was offering a lesson Kakutani could have benefited from. "Utterly devoid … wonderfully acute observations … debut novel … savvy social and psychological insights … cringe-making … embarrassing new low": Virtually every word or phrase is a cliché, or at best shopworn and lifeless, and evidence of Kakutani's solid tin ear. ...That's what can happen to a writer when she merely praises and merely blames. Kakutani appears incapable of engaging with language, either playfully or seriously, which puts her at a painful disadvantage when she is supposed to be evaluating writers who can and do. Here, she tries to energize the prose with lapel-grabbing intensifiers like "utterly" and "wonderfully" and "superfluous" adjectives like "savvy" and "embarrassing," but they just make her look like she's protesting too much.
The biggest problem with Kakutani's criticism, it seems to me, is that she approaches it as a job, and not as something that can be a form of art in and of itself. It should be said that being a full-time critic is a punishing job, and nowhere near as fulfilling as you might think; imagine a stack of thirty to forty books or CDs or DVDs or whatever else staring you in the face every morning. You look at it and know without even sampling anything that one might be pretty good, a few others might show promise and the rest is likely garbage. One of the easiest pitfalls to fall into when writing criticism is having an opinion before you even begin, and counting the words as you write it, just so you can make your quota and go home. So much criticism ends up being about summarizing and insulting the work, rather than exploring its pros and cons, and it's usually because the very nature of the job is a serious test of your love of the form, and your interest in it. I look at Yagoda's list of "label-grabbing intensifiers" and all I can do is wince with recognition. Criticism has its own unique demands, and it's the bad critics that sully its reputation. But you could say that about so many other things...

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