Of the six critics gathered by the New York Times Book Review to address the question of “Why Criticism Matters,” three state that criticism’s chief goal is to produce good writing. “The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing,” writes Katie Roiphe. Adam Kirsch puts it this way: “I try to believe that what matters is not exercising influence or force, but writing well—that is, truthfully and beautifully; and that maybe, if you seek truth and beauty, all the rest will be added unto you.” And Sam Anderson: “To function as an evangelist, the critic needs, above all else, to write well. A badly written book review is worse than a badly written political speech or greeting card or poem; a badly written review is self-canceling, like a barber with a terrible haircut.”
These are weak defenses of criticism as a unique discipline. After all, every type of writer—the sports columnist, the author of a toaster’s user manual, the teenager working on a love letter—is improved by knowing how to write well. There is enough beautiful writing available from non-critics that the loss of critics would hardly qualify as a loss at all, if beautiful writing is all we’re trying to honor. All this says more about critics’ anxieties than the question of “why criticism matters”: The premise for the entire package is that criticism is under attack by “bad writing”—mostly electronic noise from blogs, Amazon user reviews, and Facebook status updates—that endanger the criticism the Times Book Review supports. “We live in the age of opinion—offered instantly, effusively and in increasingly strident tones,” as the introductory note puts it. Yes. But as anybody who’s tried to argue politics with somebody on a message board or comment thread can tell you, “writing well” has remarkably little persuasive power, even for people who value writing well—a group that’s always been a small subset of the population. A firm command of Strunk & White won’t make criticism “matter.”
None of which is to say I have a pat answer to the question of “why criticism matters,” but I don’t feel a strong need to come up with one; I’d still want to read and produce it even if it was determined that it didn’t, in fact, “matter.” In the same way that the job of a fiction writer is to write good fiction, the job of a critic is to write good criticism—considerations of art that are rooted in knowledge, perspective, and an awareness of one’s emotional response to a work, paired with an eagerness to discover what generated that response.
To my mind, the squabbling about the value of criticism was settled nearly a half-century ago. In 1963 Pauline Kael kicked off the new year addressing complaints about her film reviews. The grousing, when it wasn’t plainly sexist, boiled down to snarky “If you’re so smart about movies, why don’t you make ’em?” swipes. In response, Kael destroyed the distinction between the filmmaker’s art and the critic’s art: “Movies are made and criticism is written by the use of intelligence, talent, taste, emotion, education, imagination, and discrimination.” In 1963 Kael was responding to a mass of people who were happy to reject criticism wholesale; in 2011 the Times is responding to a mass of people who’ve taken on criticism for themselves; if the main change in the past 48 years is that people now have more ways to talk about the art they care about, serious criticism now has less to worry about, not more.