Joyce Carol Oates’ Joyless Critique of Literary Critics’ Joylessness

Yesterday, Joyce Carol Oates took to Twitter to admonish, in a familiar way, the supposedly gloom-stricken, anhedonic minds of literary critics. The idea, as usual, is that critics are parsimonious, even vindictive melancholics who are constitutionally incapable of setting aside Occam’s Razor in order to enjoy the pleasures of reading. Here is a sample:

So much of reading with/ without pleasure seems to be reader projecting into the fiction. In the right mood we can find much to admire.

Problem w/ professional critics is that their “moods” are set to compare, analyze, resist immersion in work not plunge in like most readers.

The cruel critic eviscerates mainly him/herself.

The late, lamented John Leonard (NYTBR editor) once said, of bad reviews: “No one in America needs to be told not to buy a book.”

It’s unclear whether JCO is tweeting against failures inherent to the critical mind, or if she’s just agitated by cruel or pleasureless critics, but I think the tweet about the “problem” with “professional critics” is telling enough. It’s that tweet, too, that frustrates me more than the others. The idea that “most readers” approach books or texts (or anything else) in a given way is hugely reductive; Oates almost sounds as if she’s performing the critical pose she’s attacking. (She seems to be, in other words, joylessly criticizing the critic.) But even if most readers immerse themselves in books, why does Oates assume that they aren’t always analyzing and comparing? This is an old, unfortunate maneuver, one that breaks down groups into vita activa and vita passiva — those who are active versus those who mindlessly consume. The only difference is that Oates is here pretending that critical activity is hyperactivity, that critics are like organisms with overheated immune systems.

All spectators, readers, and viewers compare and analyze, whether they’re watching television or reading a book. The only difference with critics is that they dramatize or perform or simply write an account of this comparison and analysis. Of course, professionalizing (or capitalizing) criticism can lead to cranky deadline writing, but this is in no way the exclusive domain of the critic. (What reader hasn’t read in a bad mood? What writer hasn’t written in one?) And as for the tweet about John Leonard: when was the last time you read a literary critic who told you not to buy something? If a critic has turned her job into a consumer report, it might be time to subscribe elsewhere.

The thing is that criticism isn’t about to swallow up literature in a smog of gloom. The truth is the opposite: we’re running out of outlets that will pay for quality criticism. One takeaway of this unfortunate gentrification of the critical landscape is that most remaining literary critics draw immense pleasure from their jobs. This joy, too, happened to be on full display at last week’s National Book Critics Circle Awards, which was one of the most heartening nights of literary celebration that I’ve ever encountered in the literary world.

One particular delight of the NBCC Awards was a brief acceptance speech by Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing winner Alexandra Schwartz. In her speech, Schwartz turned arguments like Oates’ on their heads, mostly by embracing the pleasures of “good” critical arrogance:

I’m not talking about bloated, bitter arrogance, the kind that distends the ego and clouds judgment. There’s good arrogance, too, just like there’s good cholesterol: arrogance that bolsters you, that allows you to feel that your judgment might be sound, that it might — and this is when the reviewer’s mind starts warming up, starts humming — be even better than sound.

This is the sort of arrogance, Schwartz adds, that allows the critic to “track the movement of the writer’s mind,” and, ultimately, to form an intimacy with the writer. “It’s the true privilege of the critic,” Schwartz writes, “to sometimes experience a profound intimacy with the author she’s reviewing.” And isn’t an intimate space one where disagreement can flourish and instruct?

Some of our greatest fiction writers acknowledge the same. For Toni Morrison, who accepted the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award at the NBCC ceremony, the role of the NBCC as a critical organ was instrumental not only for her own development, but also for the broader acceptance of black writers. Listening to Morrison’s speech, it seemed that her beef was not with disagreeable critics, but with dismissive ones who often maintain the status quo. Morrison (like Oates) cited John Leonard, noting not that he was agreeable, but that he took her work seriously. Indeed, at the conclusion of a moving speech, Morrison told the audience that the NBCC — a society of critics founded (in part) by Leonard — is not just unique and necessary, as it has always been; more than ever, she said, “it is urgent.”