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March 11, 2009

The thoroughly unregulated state of Criticism

In what will be my last mention of Canada Reads (for this year), let me say that I’m glad that The Book of Negroes won. Though I don’t think it was a great novel– in fact, it was the most failed of the lot, I think, in those elusive “novelistic terms”– but it is a good book, one I enjoyed reading. I don’t know that it’s the novel all of Canada should read, but it’s one I think most people will like reading, which is certainly something. Though I would definitely be interested in the future to see a panel less composed of books that Canada has read already.

How wonderful though, the sound of readers reading. Ordinary-ish readers talking about books the way that people do, provoking similar conversations that must have continued out in waves. Some of the panelists more astute at literary discussion than others, but the mix was interesting. A spotlight, perhaps, on the kinds of bookish conversations going on all the time in this country amongst people who read. Showing people who might talk books less how to do so, opening up new avenues for readers who might be inclined to just look at books one way (though I think the panel actually could have done a lot more of this. Too many questions were stock.)

I was interested to read a commenter on one blog questioning the use value of this kind of discourse though, wondering why Canada Reads didn’t use “trained critics” instead of celebrities. And the “trained critic” thing really caught my attention, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard it put that way before. How do you become one of those? What is the system of accreditation? As much as free reign of the common reader in the blogosphere is terrifying, what should we make of the thoroughly unregulated state of Criticism?

Though they have editors, of course, but often these people have no formal accreditation either. Often the critics become critics because the editors are their friends, which makes the whole thing about as formal as a blogroll. Academic background might be considered a requirement, but I’m sure there’s a whole league of critics without one who think such a lack is a kind of merit. That you can’t really understand a book until you’ve worked for a while in a logging camp. Maybe no one’s a critic until they’ve read Northrop Frye (which I haven’t done, except for The Educated Imagination, which was quite short). Point being, there is a certain self-appointedness inherent in literary criticism, a lack of a foundation to the trade, and if I were a literary critic, I’d always be terrified of somebody lurking around every corner demanding to see my papers.

Because for all talk of the problems of democratization, I find the fallibility of criticism no less troubling. Common readers on the internet, at least, (should) lay no claim to authority, but critics do, and they are just as often wrong. I’m thinking about William Arthur Deacon’s limited vantage ground, and the writer who has just realized that an older critic was probably right years ago to infuriatingly tell him he was just too young to “get” Anita Brookner. And what about Henry James’ assessment that Middlemarch “sets a limit to the development of the old-fashioned English novel”?

I just know that I was feeling terribly sick last October, and every single book I encountered was tainted as a result, and I hated most of them desperately. Unfairly too, and mightn’t critics have months like that, or at least days? And wouldn’t it be a lot of pressure for one to have to pretend one is convinced one is always right? When, I wonder, does the doubt creep in. Because it should. Critics are only human.

I write all this not to undermine literary criticism, and not as a blogger’s rant about who owns the books really. I actually am an accredited admirer of literary criticism in that I have a Masters degree, in addition to subscriptions to Canadian Notes and Queries AND The London Review of Books, so there. But the idea of the “trained critic” did frame the whole “online literary discourse is in the hands of the masses” hysteria in a brand new way for me, which is one that I think is worth a ponder.

3 thoughts on “The thoroughly unregulated state of Criticism”

  1. Britt Gullick says:

    I sometimes find it hard to get my head around the fact that most of Canada hasn’t read these books… in fact, a large number of Canadians haven’t picked up a book in a long time. In fact, a large number of Canadians don’t even listen to CBC radio! Amazing, no? So if I were to summarise the spirit of Canada Reads, it is that a group of book lovers decide on the one book that all those people – especially the ones who haven’t picked up a novel all year – should pick up.

  2. Kerry says:

    “a large number of Canadians don’t even listen to CBC radio!” What?? But everyone in my incredibly undiverse circle of friends does. What are you on about??

  3. NigelBeale says:

    Interesting post! I don’t think a good critic can necessarily be ‘trained.’ Rather there needs to be an innate interest in analysis; enough reading to sufficiently compare works, and an ability to argue rationally, in entertaining prose (which usually requires a well considered bias).

    Also, an understanding that great works are uncommon. And that most, therefore, as you point out, fail.

    Training shouldn’t count for much. Reading and the ability to argue a postion should. The critic, I think, should be judged by how well she presents her case.

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