April 12, 2006

How Not to be a Good Critic

Filed under: books, criticism — ted @ 3:50 pm

Today’s Slate contained a well-written, insightful article by Ben Yagoda, concerning prominent N.Y. Times book critic Michiko Kakutani. While Yagoda’s disarming of Kakutani is most fine, what I appreciated about the article was the wisdom it shed on criticism as an enterprise:

As a student at Oxford, the future drama critic Kenneth Tynan got back a paper with this comment: “Keep a strict eye on eulogistic & dyslogistic adjectives—They shd diagnose (not merely blame) & distinguish (not merely praise.)” Tynan’s tutor, who happened to be C.S. Lewis, was offering a lesson Kakutani could have benefited from. “Utterly devoid … wonderfully acute observations … debut novel … savvy social and psychological insights … cringe-making … embarrassing new low”: Virtually every word or phrase is a cliché, or at best shopworn and lifeless, and evidence of Kakutani’s solid tin ear.

Lovely how a mere jot on a page from C.S. Lewis correctly diagnoses the problem many critics have: resorting to simply praising or disparaging a work, without truly and deeply explaining why it’s good or bad.

Yagoda ends his article with a plea to Kakutani to “try using the word “‘I.'” This would be a good step, indeed; but it should be kept in mind that for every critic like Kakutani, who avoid speaking their own minds, hiding behind outdated objectivity, there are ten or twenty who merely explain why they liked or didn’t like a work of art, neglecting the larger picture.


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