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Another Defense of the Good, Harsh Critic

By Harriet Staff

Veteran critic Dwight Garner entered the lively discussion on literary criticism intitated by the Slate article we posted last week, asking writers and readers to give honest reviews a break. In this New York Times Magazine essay, Garner provides a window into the storm of “incoming words and shards of shattered cocktail glasses” that pelt critics on a daily basis.

If I’ve developed a tough hide in my professional life, away from my laptop I’m as sensitive as anyone else. More so, perhaps. I brood over slights. I possess greatest-hits collection of wounds on my psyche from cutting comments. I can call them up with a mental click, like YouTube clips.

No one likes to be criticized. The sound grates on our ears; it can appear to threaten our status, at work and at home. John Adams said it beautifully: “The desire of the esteem of others is as real a want of nature as hunger, and the neglect and contempt of the world as severe a pain as the gout or stone.” If you have ever had a bit of gout, you will appreciate the keenness of that observation.

I think about literary and cultural criticism all the time. But some days, when my wife and I are letting fly at each other, or when I’m blowing it by being too stern with my children — who was it that said all fathers are Republicans, while all mothers are Democrats? — or when I’m on the receiving end of criticism from my editors, I think I know nothing about words and their power to sting or inform at all.

What is criticism? Karl Marx had a pretty good idea. On a perfect day in a perfect world, he wrote, a happy citizen might “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening” and, finally and best of all, “criticize after dinner,” perhaps with a bottle of wine on the table.

Marx understood that criticism doesn’t mean delivering petty, ill-tempered Simon Cowell-like put-downs. It doesn’t necessarily mean heaping scorn. It means making fine distinctions. It means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter (and they do). It’s at base an act of love. Our critical faculties are what make us human.

Whether you agree or disagree, you should read the full article here.


Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, August 15th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.