Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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Pacifist Viking

This may surprise you: there's little you've written here that I would disagree with.

Certainly we read literature because culture, society, and history have provided us with "literature" and taught us what might be done with it. But then, little we do isn't in some way culturally, socially, historically constructed. Going for a walk by myself is an individual activity, even if I didn't invent the concept of the solitary walk for pleasure.

In some ways, it is literary criticism's effort toward an objective valuation of literature that encourages me to celebrate the subjective. No one objective criterion has ever won out; no one objective criterion will ever win out (if it appears to, it is that which is in fashion, and it will give way). I could choose to accept a particular objective criterion to evaluate (becoming a "partisan" of a particular approach)--or I could recognize my subjectivity, taking the best of everybody else's ideas on objective valuation for my own purposes.

And so I don't entirely disparage the effort toward objective valuation; it is meaningful for the reasons you describe. If I react against anything, it is the tendency to universalize particular taste. Of course, there are works that give me pleasure that you would not enjoy, and there are works that give you pleasure that I would not enjoy. Rather than clinging to our particular "objective" criteria, calling each other "wrong" (How can we say "You're wrong for enjoying that book"? I suppose "You're wrong for thinking that book is good" has some purpose, but even that claim will eventually be reduced to competing arguments that can't really prove each other wrong), we could recognize, even celebrate, the subjectivity of tastes, the multiplicity of approaches. I see literary criticism better served that way: a diversity of approaches, a multiplicity of uses, and all these being shared, discussed, argued.

Perhaps this is a matter of emphasis. I have written elsewhere that "We are not alone as readers. We can share, discuss, argue, teach, learn." For many of the reasons you state, reading is a collective activity. But as you suggest, the reading EXPERIENCE itself is something different. In some sense it is of course a "relationship" between author and reader (in the Reader-response text), but when I read, I'm going away from social interaction, away from human contact, and sitting with a book alone, engaging with the text without anybody else with me. Afterward, I will engage others in discussion of the text (if I thought reading was a 100% individual activity, I would not blog about it). But it is ultimately my decision what I choose to read, whether or not I find it good (in the sense of subjective pleasure or according to whatever objective evaluation standard that I must still as an individual "choose"), what I might do with the work, or how I might "use" the text in my life (for I do "use" literature in my lived life).

So my ongoing discussion of literature's "multiple uses" fits into the idea of reading as a collective activity--different people provide new angles and approaches to the collective activity. And it also celebrates that which makes reading an individual activity--each individual has a willful choice about what to read and how to read.


While an expansive knowledge of the literary canon is required of any writer who hopes to break new ground, I think there is a real chauvinism in the notion that reading works in relation to the canon is the truest way of appreciating art. This disincludes the perspectives of a lot of people who haven't had access to the formal education or cultural capital required to make these sorts of comparisons. Not only that, but it makes all of us deferent to these vastly oversimplified narratives of artistic progress and experimentation - and leaves us all scrounging to explain the way our taste doesn't (because it couldn't possibly) fit into these restrictive narratives with silly terms like "guilty pleasures."

That said, I tend to agree with PV (and Dan) - that the only thing worse than the fallacy of one correct objective approach to art is the idea of a world in which people have given up trying to find it...

Maybe I just wish people would be a little less mean-spirited when discussing art. Among the literary avant-garde, the compulsion to impugn the intelligence or - worse - moral character of people who don't care for this or that style seems kind of rampant (see, e.g., the otherwise spectacular work of Carole Maso or Debra di Blasi). I love William Gass's literary criticism because he sincerely engages (even if he also mocks) people who disagree with him; I like this blog for the same reason.

Jonathan  Mayhew

A less well-educated person will still be reading literature in relation to institutional ideas of literature and some sort of canon. It won't be an individual act in the sense that Dan was describing. The difference might lie in feeling less empowered to make judgments, less confident of one's entitlements, not in the individual vs. institutional nature of the reading. Within this system knowing less makes you less powerful, more, not less, dependent, on received ideas from your High School teacher or the NYTBR.

The stage of deferring to Clement Greenberg-style narratives of artistic progess is something that many of us go through. To be enslaved by a narrow construal that narrative is itself a sign of cultural anxiety. But to pass through that stage is empowering.


Hi Jonathan,

I agree. Certainly, I would never argue against people reading more... a lot more! And maybe if I make it through the "cultural-anxiety" phase alive, the Clement Greenberg-style narratives won't seem so frustrating to me anymore. :)

Nigel Beale

I recently set out a proposed list of criteria by which the Booker Prize could be judged, and can attest to the mean spiritedness that Carolyn refers to.

I'd value any constructive feedback on this list, which can be found here:


Perhaps I'm revealing how behind I am, but this weekend I read Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love, and it attempts to explore some of the questions raised here a couple weeks ago. Wilson even has a couple paragraphs on Clement Greenberg - not to mention a chapter on Pierre Bourdieu, whose ideas I was, perhaps clumsily, drawing from in my initial comment.

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