To me, the most memorable scene in the film Pollock is of Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock, in a stairwell, falling down drunk and shouting, “Fuck Picasso.”
That scene neatly summarizes the creative struggle. The anxiety of influence, the difficulty of making it fresh, the struggle to break through and create something new. How do you break through the influence of a Picasso? How do you find the next thing?
The answer to a bad book, it’s often said, is to write a better book. The response to worn out tropes is to move beyond them. Problem is, this is hard. You can struggle for a lifetime and never get there. In fact, you probably will never get there; probably, your efforts will amount to nothing more than another shovel-load on the heap of mediocrity, that muddy middle of art. You will also, in all likelihood, spend some time drunk in a stairwell.
This is why we have criticism. Doing the next thing is hard, but it’s relatively easy to point out that the people doing the next thing aren’t actually doing it at all.
(You may deduce that I’m skeptical of the claim that a healthy literature cannot exist without vigorous criticism. Congratulations, Holmes. Vigorous criticism is a good thing, but it doesn’t get the writing done.)
Of course, most criticism is not vigorous, and this leads to our quarterly lament on the state of criticism. This iteration was kicked off by Andre Alexis, writing in The Walrus, who bemoaned the supposed nastiness of Canadian book reviews, blamed it all on John Metcalf, and suggested a more communal criticism is needed. He didn’t bother to explain what that would look like.
So, now we’ve had the criticism of the criticism. It’s time for the criticism of the criticism of the criticism.
What’s wrong with Canadian criticism? I’ll tell ya what’s wrong with Canadian criticism: more ink is spilled in bemoaning the state of Canadian criticism than in bemoaning the state of the literature itself.
We debate what’s wrong with book reviewing, instead of debating books. We debate general ideas about criticism instead of the specifics of a critique and the text it examines. Instead of (for example) taking John Metcalf to task over his assessment of, say, Morley Callaghan, his opponents complain in general terms about the tone of his assessment of, say, Morley Callaghan.
Where are the specifics? Why all this generalized moaning about the state of criticism?
This is not criticism, and it is not serious discussion of criticism. It is idle book chatter.
The only recent book I can think of that spawned any kind of critical debate is Yann Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil, which touched off some interesting exchanges concerning how we can write about the Holocaust, whether we can appropriate the experience, and whether the book just plain sucked.
Why is this? I dunno. I just observe the observations, man. I don’t explain ’em.
Critics, you know, they’re always ranting on, justifying themselves:
A little grave reflection shows us that our first duty is to establish a new and abusive school of criticism. There is now no criticism … there is merely a chorus of weak cheers, a piping note of appreciation … a mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger. We reviewers combine the gentleness of early Christians with a promiscuous polytheism; we reject not even the most barbarous or most fatuous gods. So great is our amiability that it might proceed from the weakness of malnutrition, were it not that it is almost impossible not to make a living as a journalist … It springs from a faintness of the spirit, from a convention of pleasantness, which, when attacked for the monstrous things it permits to enter the mind of the world, excuses itself by protesting that it is a pity to waste fierceness on things that do not matter.
And when I say they’re always ranting on, I mean always, because this particular piece dates from November, 1914.
Which goes to show either that negative criticism has always been necessary, or that it has always been ineffective. One or the other.