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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Catching Up with the Critics

I've just finished reading the six essays on the role of literary criticism in last Sunday's Times Book Review, and once I got over groaning about the critics' self-congratulatory self-absorption, it got me thinking.

The first point that struck me was that literary criticism is the only type of criticism that discusses a particular art form in its own medium. Dance critics don't dance; music critics don't perform; critics of the visual arts don't paint--or maybe they do, but their criticism isn't presented in the same form as the thing being critiqued. Undoubtedly that's one of the main reasons critics seem to be so self-involved in the first place. They have to be concerned about their own writing since they're criticizing someone else's. That's really sticking your neck out and begging to have your head chopped off!

The second thing I started to think about was that there seems to be an essential difference between the role of the book reviewer and the role of the literary critic. In fact, we tend to call those who review books "reviewers," wheras we call those who review other art forms "critics." We don't say that so-and-so is the dance revewer or the theater reviewer, do we? So, in the end, it seems to me that the role of the book reviewer is to pass judgment on the style and subject of a particular piece of writing, while the role of the literary critic may be broader--to talk about a particular work or group of works in the context of other works to which they can be compared in some way and also to set them within a particular historic or personal context.

Am I getting too self-involved here? Have I fallen prey to having the aha moment that to everyone else is a duh?

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