Poetry News

Literature as Weeds: Another Critic Criticizing Criticism at the Paris Review

By Harriet Staff

Our friends at the Paris Review have entered the lively dialogue on criticism, asking the question, "How free should a critic be?" Writer Caleb Crain brings up the constraints of writing for publications with specific audiences. "...Readers choose their favorite publication in part because of these constraints—because they trust that its reviewers share certain political and aesthetic touchstones," writes Crain. He continues by comparing critics to discerning gardeners, saying:

The trouble, John Ellis explained in his 1974 book, The Theory of Literary Criticism: A Logical Analysis, is that “literature” is a category like “weeds,” necessarily ad hoc. There’s only so much room in your garden, and there’s a hodgepodge of things that you want and don’t want from the plants growing in it. For any rule of thumb you formulate, there will be an exception. Despite the logical conflict between your criteria, however, you can still weed your garden. As Ellis put it, “We can look at bad weeds and find out what it is about them that makes them such a nuisance; and unless we make the mistake of supposing that all such things must be true of all weeds, there is absolutely no mystery about the situation.”

Be sure to follow this fascinating streak of criticism criticism; read the full Paris Review piece here.

Originally Published: September 5th, 2012