Success, Failure, and the Role of Critics Who Sort It All Out
I’ve been thinking about failure a good deal lately. The words of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” haunt me: “These days I sit on cornerstones/count the time in quarter tones to ten, my friend/don’t confront me with my failures/I had not forgotten them.” Now, he was 15 when he wrote those words, so you wonder what failures he would have not forgotten at such a young age. However, like a taproot, failure runs deep and nourishes the soul with the despair it carries to our hearts. Once we fail, it’s hard to forget that feeling, and in the worst cases, we sit on cornerstones, rooted by our having missed some mark or not having reached some goal or having disappointed ourselves, our family, or our friends with our actions or words. In those worst cases, we’re immobilized by failure. In the best cases, though, failure motivates us to write about our experiences in the hope that sharing our moments of regret over failing will illustrate the tension of living lives measured simply by success or failure.
Sitting here on this cornerstone in my office, preoccupied with my failures, I read the newest column my fellow No Depression columnist Ted Lehmann, titled “What Happens When Reviewers are Too Nice.” His words led me to thoughts about the failure of criticism in our day. Well, maybe the question should be, “Has criticism failed in our day?” It’s also the case that every generation of critics has wrung its hands over a lack of negative reviews or a preponderance of perniciously spiteful reviews.
Ever since Plato, as a matter of fact, there have been questions about the role of the critic in society, and both writers and critics have often worked strenuously to divide the two roles. Writers create literature, so this line of thinking goes, and critics interpret it. Oh, if it were so simple. First, at least until the mid-20th century, many writers — and the list is long: William Wordsworth, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, George Orwell, John Updike, Elizabeth Hardwick — also practiced the art of criticism. These writers’ critical writings were imbued with a creative sensibility and a feeling for the creative process. Thus, the line between artist and critic can’t be so easily drawn. Second, society expects critics to play a judicial role rather than a hermeneutic role; that is, we expect critics to make judgments rather than to interpret. Of course, when critics judge too harshly, we vacillate about their perceived role and often castigate them for making judgments. Third, we expect critics to have technical expertise in certain areas, such as music, film, literature, politics, that none of the rest of us has; thus, we can trust them to make judgments if they demonstrate in their reviews or essays that they are familiar with the history of a genre, or the history of an artist, or the techniques for achieving a certain sound or creating a certain literary portrait. Finally, since Plato, we expect critics not only to work within certain aesthetic criteria, though critics often challenge the value of those criteria, but we also expect critics to exhibit moral responsibility. After all, critics are making judgments about the value of art, and the line between aesthetics and ethics limns thin (“good,” “bad”).
So what’s the role of criticism today? Why aren’t there more negative reviews? I suppose the answers to the latter question are numerous: We don’t expect critics to judge, but we expect them to offer unmitigated praise; we can judge for ourselves the value of an art work, and we don’t need anyone else telling us about its value; we leveled the playing field for criticism when everyone — friends, lovers, family, neighbors — started writing “reviews” of books or music on Amazon. Criticism is a pat on the back rather than a kick to the groin — and meaningful criticism falls somewhere between those body parts, aiming to reach a listener’s heart in order to change it or embrace it. After all, passion dwells in and inhabits the best criticism. A larger answer to that question, of course, is more moral than aesthetic: culture tends these days to think of human nature as inherently good and incapable of being flawed. Thus, culture expects to offer praise for a job done — good or bad. After all, this line of thinking goes, an artist completed a task (made a record, published a book), and the completion of the task should be reason enough for praise.
My models for criticism remain writers such as Lionel Trilling, James Agee, Alfred Kazin, Pauline Kael, Ellen Willis, and Lester Bangs, though my writing pales in comparison to theirs. Still, each of those critics turned out elegant sentences that vividly praised, damned, or cautiously recommended books, movies, or records. They understood the role of the critic in culture and, to varying degrees, embraced it. As Kazin once said: “I have never been able to understand why the study of literature in relation to society should be divorced from a full devotion to what literature is in itself, or why those who seek to analyze literary texts should cut off the act of writing from its irreducible sources in the life of [people].”
In my own writing, I’ve tried to emulate their models. When a book has flaws, it’s my responsibility to point them out to readers, and if a book fails to hold together as a cohesive and meaningful whole, then it’s also my responsibility to point this out to readers. In the former case, the virtues of a book may well outnumber the shortcomings, and I can write a mixed review, praising those virtues; in the latter case, I can illustrate a book’s shortcomings and recommend that readers not spend their time reading it. For example, Jimmy Webb’s new memoir, The Cake and the Rain, is so flawed that it almost unreadable, and I indicated this in my original review of the book. In the edited review, the force of my negative assessment still holds, and even the final sentence indicates that the book itself isn’t worth reading unless all you really want is gossip:
In this kiss-and-tell memoir, songwriter Webb longingly recalls his nights of hot sex with beautiful women, his love of fast cars, and his appetite for cocaine and drink (which almost killed him), but offers no insights into his songwriting. Webb is best known for his songs “MacArthur Park,” Glen Campbell’s “Galveston,” and “Up, Up, and Away” for the Fifth Dimension. His magical touch in songwriting doesn’t carry over to his prose, which is often flat. Webb fails to maintain a compelling narrative flow as he jumps back and forth in time to chronicle the highlights of his childhood as a preacher’s son in Oklahoma and his decision to live in California; he describes his earliest attempts at songwriting in high school, and his decision to pursue it when Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine tells him to “just stick with music.” Webb writes lovingly about the many musicians who ambled through his life, including Frank Sinatra, Richard Harris, Joni Mitchell, and Johnny Rivers.
As a book critic, I see quite a few books. For this column, I select those books that I hope people will be interested in reading, and I strive to provide a few passages to illustrate the quality of writing, or an author’s turn of phrase, or a key argument, in the book. I learned from my friend Michael Dirda, who was my editor at the Washington Post Book World and their book critic, that if I have one column a week, I want to introduce readers to a book through an appreciation of the book. This doesn’t mean I’ll avoid pointing out a book’s flaws, but it does mean that I’ll decline to review a book that I can’t recommend to readers.
Morris Dickstein, whose book Gates of Eden (Basic; reprint by Norton) remains one of the best books on the 1960s, once proposed three thoughts about critics and criticism in his book, The Double Agent: The Critic & Society (Oxford), which I keep close at hand to guide me in my own writing:
“A critic is not a plumber, an electrician, or an engineer of human souls. Criticism is not a technical diagram…It is writing, and hence its first goal is to interest and hold its readers.”
“Like all good writing, criticism is personal or it is nothing.”
“Criticism, like art, is a social activity, however solitary its origins. Vibrating with human meaning, radiating will and desire, good criticism is an intervention in the world that seeks subtly to change the world, starting with the mind of the reader, the auditor, the spectator. Only in defeat can we say that it makes nothing happen.”
Sitting here on my cornerstone, I’m aware I’ll fail to please some readers, I’ll fail to reach some readers, but like the artists about whom I write, I continue to be aware of my failures and confront them as they’re woven into the fabric of my writing.