The New Sophistry

‘Entertaining the reader is now the main goal of criticism’

Why does criticism matter? This is not just an academic question, to be mulled over in a chilly ivory tower. The main outlets of criticism on literature and the other arts are in the process of a dramatic shift: newspaper circulation is falling, the transition to the web proves challenging, and reading and viewing habits are changing. Much depends on what kind of space we allow criticism to have in this new intellectual world. Just how much became clear to me on a recent trip to Munich, where I attended a meeting of young critics from across Europe.

Arriving in Munich, enchanted by its harmonious elegance and splendour — it is so different from the chaotic jumble of architecture, people and lifestyles of Berlin, newly reborn as a Weltstadt — I wondered what the unspoken assumptions of this gathering were. 

Developments in Germany in recent years reveal an interesting paradox: the quantity of literary criticism in the media is increasing, but the perception of its significance is declining. “The reason for this is that entertaining the reader is now the main goal,” I thought on my way to the conference. I was almost ready to continue down this path: “Gone are the times where a review meant providing an article according to the golden rules of the good old criticism, with its academic standards of judgment and sharp verdicts.” 

But I wasn’t quite ready to put on the well-worn hat of cultural pessimism. Not because wearing it would make me appear like a grumpy old woman, but because it would be to underestimate the power criticism  retains, for countless recent debates, particularly in Germany, have reflected on the limits of criticism. 

Whether such debates are an especially German preoccupation is as difficult to determine as it would be pointless, but they belong to a long tradition that begins with the Romantics (led by the Schlegel brothers, Friedrich and August Wilhelm) and ends with the 1968 generation. The aim of criticism, to put the broad consensus in a rather tiny nutshell, has been to shape the future, of our knowledge and of our society. Criticism, if done properly, could change the culture and hence the world.

While support for this noble idea might not be lost in theory, it feels curiously outdated today. The most obvious reason for this feeling is that literary criticism doesn’t happen in that ideal space where, other than aesthetic judgment, no rules apply. Criticism is supposed to sell books, too. Walking up the stairs of the grand Literaturhaus, where the conference was being held, I wondered how this shift would be felt here and how my colleagues from other countries would perceive it.  I was in for a surprise. The mood was optimistic. If there were any cultural pessimists among the assembled critics, they were in disguise. The concerns raised were of a concrete and tangible kind and more on the grounds of quirks of individual countries. Take Norway, where literary criticism tends to take the form of book recommendations and it is frowned upon to interview the same person twice. Or the Czech Republic, which has little impact on the world book market. There are Croatia and Bulgaria which, after decades of censorship, are in the middle of a slow process of reconstituting their political and literary identities. Finally, there was Italy, where the media is almost completely under Silvio Berlusconi’s control. 

So the sombre tone with which cultural pessimism slowly invades debates about criticism was not absent but kept in the background in Munich. Doesn’t this indicate that contemporary criticism is turning into a lightweight, perhaps even somewhat glib form of writing about culture, done by dilettantes who don’t take criticism as a vocation seriously and care even less about Art with a capital “A”? 

Actually, it doesn’t have to be that way. For the role of the critic in a democratic society has never been to shut himself off from his surroundings. If the critic is to remain in a position to reshape our knowledge of the world, he needs to adapt to his surroundings — and then elevate himself above them by exercising powers of aesthetic judgment. 

Strolling one morning through Munich’s baroque Hofgarten with its intricate Renaissance garden design, I revisited my thoughts on cultural pessimism from when I first arrived there. Perhaps now is the best time to bury the talk about pessimism and simply rekindle our interest in criticism. For the most significant of all the judgments we make in a critique is not whether we like this book or dislike that exhibition, but what we use in doing so. Our capacity to judge is one of the most important expressions of human freedom. 

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