Did virtue and the think piece ruin criticism?
Criticism in the shadow of cultural poptimism
“In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable.”
—Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” 1964
Carmela Soprano: Billy Budd is a story of an innocent sailor being picked on by an evil boss.
Meadow Soprano: Who is picking on him out of self-loathing caused by homosexual feelings in a military context.
Carmela Soprano: Oh please.
—The Sopranos, “Eloise,” 2002
The single best text about criticism is Henry James’s 1896 story “The Figure in the Carpet.” I emphasize the word text because I mean it in the sombre, serious, literary theory way: as a linguistic and symbolic architecture of meaning. Following Roland Barthes’s distinction in Image, Music, Text, a work is that “which can be held in the hand,” whereas the text is “held in language [and] only exists in the moment of a discourse.” I also mean text in the more literal way, as in, from the Latin textum meaning “fabric”—crude words which, per the Roman rhetorician Quintilian, “must be weaved together into a fine and delicate fabric.” Like a tapestry. Or a carpet.
“Something like a complex figure in a Persian carpet,” is how the narrator of James’s story describes the meaning of an author’s work. James’s hero is a literary critic who fancies himself intelligent. He takes special pride in his analysis of a new work by a novelist named Hugh Vereker. Vereker, for his part, doesn’t share in the narrator’s enthusiasm for his own work. When the two meet at a party, the author dismisses the review as “the usual twaddle.” Pressed on, he is unforgiving: “You miss it, my dear fellow, with inimitable assurance; the fact of your being awfully clever and your article’s being awfully nice doesn’t make a hair’s breadth of difference.”
As a self-described “ardent young seeker for truth,” the critic is driven by insult into a kind of mania. He becomes consumed by his failure, and even further consumed by the author’s suggestion that there is a meaning in the work to be revealed: “the string the pearls were strung on, the buried treasure, the figure in the carpet.” What the narrator never seriously considers is that Hugh Vereker is a prankster, perversely relishing in dispatching a passionate and serious young man on a literary wild goose chase. James’s narrator forgets that with a novel, as with any text, there isn’t one unifying figure in the carpet, but many—an infinitude of elucidations, exegeses, essays, and “takes” that overlap, intersect, reflect, refract, and, fractal-like, contain each other. Vereker’s work may be closed. But the text is wide open.
The subject of “The Figure in the Carpet” is criticism itself. It is about the mind-bending, life-ruining desire to understand, and about the ways in which that understanding can be stymied by recourse to the always unsatisfactory (and sometimes wholly delusive) notion of authorial intent. James’s story offers a stern warning against the narrowness of interpretation, about forgetting the pleasure of the text and treating it as a hermetic object, to be dismantled in one correct way like a lawnmower engine. The story stages what the British literary theorist Terry Eagleton has identified as a recurring preoccupation in James’s work, namely the “hunt for the single, secret principle which will transform experience into the cohesive intelligibility of an artifact.” It is about reducing a text to a work.
Yet despite its admonitions against the (mis)uses of criticism, one finds in re-reading “The Figure in the Carpet” a nostalgia, and even a sorrow for the role of the critic. Here is a story about the critic dedicating—and destroying—himself in the pursuit of that Lebensarbeit, the labour of life. For, as half-mad and bedevilled as James’s nameless narrator is, he is possessed by a passion that seems almost unfathomable to us sitting here, circa 2018.
Just for fun, let’s imagine the narrator of Henry James’s “The Figure in the Carpet” operating in the present moment, grappling with modern criticism’s more popular tools to chip away at the imposing marble of his favourite author’s new novel. The results may be something like this:
· “Hugh Vereker’s new novel is an antidote for modern monogamy”
· “Reading Hugh Vereker in Trump’s America”
· “Hugh Vereker’s new novel is obtuse and mystifying. And that’s a problem.”
· “Why the new Hugh Vereker book is the novel we need right now”
In one sense, these hypothetical headlines speak to the expansive possibility of the text itself. They suggest an explosion of opinion, an infinitude of meaning, a garden of forking takes. Yet where “the figure in the carpet,” as a metaphor for the aim of criticism, privileges the roaming eye of the critic, and the likewise ambling, freewheeling mind scanning for a meaning that (one hopes) reveals itself in time, what we have today is something else entirely. The text does not reveal a shape but is rather torqued into shape. Meaning is not revealed, but imposed. Understanding is found not inside the intricacies of the fabric, but traced over top, like the chalk outline of a corpse drawn atop the delicate texture of the Persian rug.
Criticism at its best serves a vital function. The critic is a necessary intermediary or interlocutor, bringing professionalized expertise to the work of sense making, serving a public that, frankly, may have had better things to do than acquire a storehouse of esoteric knowledge and references. And criticism still exists: in specialized magazines and journals (such as this one), on blogs un-beholden to commercial interests, and in the ever-narrowing pages of newspaper arts sections, where panicky writers (such as this one) purvey evaluations of books and albums and films, attempting to convey what the august American literary critic Alfred Kazin called their “intense and meaningful experience with a work.”
But contemporary criticism takes place alongside (or, increasingly, in the long shadow of) a cultural environment heavily influenced by the critical-adjacent endeavour known as the think piece. Merriam-Webster, which defines that latter genre by its reliance on “personal opinion and analysis” rather than plain fact, traces the first known use of the term “think piece” to 1941, but the earliest use I found dates back a bit further, to a November 1936 issue of The Nation. In a column simply titled “Think pieces,” Paul W. Ward called out the emerging process of filling reporters’ downtime with idle speculation:
It is the time when the men who report to the nation the doings and misdoing of its federal government find the springs of factual news all but dried up and reduced to turning out, in the guise of the news, dispatches that in major part are the product of the reporters’ communion with their own imaginative souls. The production of such dispatches is known to the craft as “thumb sucking” and the products themselves as “think pieces.”
In his 1941 media literacy guide, How to Understand Current Events: A Guide to an Appraisal of the News, Leon Whipple warned readers against these think pieces, which are “draped around a phantom authority.” In those early days, think pieces seemed to resemble what are now called op-eds and were thus quite distinct from cultural criticism. After all, critics, unlike those “men who report,” could hardly be condemned for communing with their own imaginative souls, and their claims to authority are (ideally) not phantasmic. Still, these earlier uses of the term anticipate a feeling that remains in this era of think-piece ascendency, in which thumbs have been sucked to the bone. At its core, the think piece remains what its earlier iteration had been: a substitute for something more serious.
Decrying the collapse of Serious Criticism in the face of commercial frivolities is, I know, a tack as old as the practice of Serious Criticism itself. In a 1959 Harper’s essay, Elizabeth Hardwick whinged that more acerbic, hostile literary criticism was being overtaken by “sweet, bland commendations.” The critical impulse—once productively dominated by a mean-spirited opprobrium practically synonymous with criticism’s other definition, i.e. as a form of condemnation or sustained disapproval, or its Greek derivation from the word meaning “judge”—had fallen prey to a watery niceness that betrayed “the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity—the lack, at last, of the literary tone itself.” Such lamentations of critical culture quickly acquire a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” quality. The catch, however, is that the boy who cried wolf rather famously did eventually see a wolf.
In the nearly sixty years since Hardwick railed against the pervading critical torpor of her age, that sense of literary languish has only swelled. The tone, too, has slumped from blandness to an almost hyperactive, and utterly indiscriminate, enthusiasm. When critical writing is negative, it is almost unanimously so, and against insignificant cultural objects (like a 50 Shades book or an Adam Sandler movie). More typically, one encounters effusive recommendations, profiles, how-they-did-its, and articles yoking a work to a salient social moment. See, for example, “Why you should read books you hate” or “Why Black Panther is a defining moment for black America,” or “Why Fahrenheit 451 is more relevant now than ever.” (Really? one wants to ask. More relevant now than in the historical and social context in which it was produced?)
The problem has only been compounded in more recent years, with the rise of what Jaime J. Weinman, writing in Vox, called “socially conscious criticism,” which reveres (or censures) art based on its ability to embody some woozy consensus of what the world itself should be. Details of character, plot, theme, and even quality itself are subsumed in investigations of “larger” issues of diversity and representation, with films, TV shows, with even young adult novels living and dying on the perceived strength of casting calls and plot synopses.
The de-consolidation of hoary cultural canons dominated by dead white men, and the rise of complementary or alternative canons, is undoubtedly good. In literature alone, diverse and defiant voices such as Roxane Gay, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are expanding the range of cultural and personal experience reflected in serious literature and thoughtful non-fiction. The issue arises when such voices are held up simply for their perceived difference or diversity—or are cruelly subordinated by their usefulness to this time.
Current critical writing is influenced by the contemporary think piece, which recalls what in university literature or cultural studies classes used to be called “reflection papers.” A quick skim across modern syllabi suggests that some professors are now just straight-up calling such papers “think pieces.”1 The reflection paper was distinguished from the more comprehensive, critically investigative form of the essay. Where the formal essay is defined, in William Harmon’s A Handbook to Literature, as possessing “serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length,” (and typically a lot of research), the think piece springs more from the author’s mind, sometimes on the rushed route to market.
The year 2000 feels like an appropriate locus for this phenomenon: a new millennium that brought the era of Bush II, and the Golden Age of TV. Television may seem a funny progenitor for a broad critical movement, but the advent
of subscription cable networks such as HBO—which were beholden directly to the viewer, and not meddling intermediaries such as corporations buying ad time—resulted in a new breed of cultural consumers, who, as the writer Ian Leslie has written, enjoyed “grappling with complex, difficult characters, and genre-busting shifts in tone.” This new philosophy of televisual narrative was best summed up by David Simon, creator of HBO’s “novelistic” critical hit, The Wire. In an interview with BBC2 in 2008, Simon was accused of exhibiting contempt for the casual viewer. At this he leaned across the table, and in a hushed tone, confirmed the charge, declaring, “Fuck the average viewer.”
The advent of what the New Statesman pop culture critic Anna Leszkiewicz called the “avid viewer” demanded new frameworks for writing about television. Where, pre-2000, a major television show could expect a few kind write-ups in broadsheets and (if they were extremely lucky) a TV Guide cover, TV’s Golden Age inspired a new journalistic ecosystem. Websites such as Vulture and the A.V. Club began churning out episode-by-episode recaps, which as a rubric for evaluating long-form storytelling feels about as fair as writing chapter-by-chapter reviews of a novel, attempting to divine the figure in a carpet that is still on the loom. Reflecting what can only be read as an intensified desire for criticism—for keeping that conversation going—podcasts emerged as another medium for talking about (or listening to other people talk about) television.
Desperate to capture readers in the wide open, revenue-draining wilds of the internet, publications began behaving like the cable networks: playing to the tastes and interests of the avid viewers. When people weren’t watching Mad Men (or Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead or Boardwalk Empire or Westworld) they were reading about it, or listening to commentators chat about it. They wanted more content, and critics, for better or worse, stepped in to blandly, enthusiastically, bogusly discriminate on their behalf.
In her landmark treatise “Against Interpretation” Susan Sontag warned of a content-driven style of criticism that was inherently reductive. When one distills A Streetcar Named Desire’s Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois into archetypes of barbarism and Westernized civility (respectively), Sontag writes, the range and possibility of Tennessee Williams’s play is delimited; the text becomes narrowly “intelligible.” For Sontag, such intelligibility was only one constituent part of art’s sprawling tapestry of possibility. “Against Interpretation” was published in 1966, and Sontag’s concerns have proved almost embarrassingly prescient, if not more-relevant-now-than-ever. “Interpretation,” she wrote, “violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme
The think piece doesn’t so much diminish art as render it wholly incidental. The mere existence of a work—and the contemporary proliferation of work after work after work—is enough to justify the think piece. The fundamental problem with so much contemporary criticism is that the prospective critic is structurally encouraged to not care, to treat the value of one-or-another book/TV episode/movie as wholly irrelevant to the task of writing about it. Sontag wrote that desperate, interpretive searches for meaning constitute “the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius.” (One thinks of Henry James’s yearning lit-crit protagonist.) The think piece effectively inverts this formulation. Now it is more common to see genius (or perhaps “genius,” the work of people who, to nip a phrase from the controversial and cuttingly mean critic Armond White, “think they think”) pay compliments to mediocrity. The clarity of critical judgment alights on every rotten movie, grating pop singer, or paperback book written for awkward adolescents alive in the throes of their protean horniness, and dissolves, ultimately, into a sprawling field of meaninglessness. It’s not that, following Sontag, erotics has replaced bloodless hermeneutics. It’s that we’re now subject to soft, dopey forms of both. Enormously erudite and intelligent expositions about extremely stupid things have degraded both the standard for writing about serious things and the seriousness of those serious things themselves.
The mid-2000s trend towards “poptimism” in music writing accelerated this elevation of mediocrity. As defined by journalist Jody Rosen, poptimism (or pop-ism) operates on the principle that “Beyoncé is as worthy of serious consideration as Bruce Springsteen, and ascribing shame to pop pleasure is itself a shameful act.” Poptimism was pluralist, uncaringly commercial, and—as the portmanteau suggests—cheerily optimistic, and the think piece was its ideal bedfellow. The Pollyanna-ish exalting of popular taste, often taking the form of a kind of enlightened philistinism, was regarded by more perspicacious critics as fundamentally reactionary. As Saul Austerlitz wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 2014, in a rare reaction against the poptimist stance,
Poptimism embraces the familiar as a means of keeping music criticism relevant. Click culture creates a closed system in which popular acts get more coverage, thus becoming more popular, thus getting more coverage. But criticism is supposed to challenge readers on occasion, not only provide seals of approval.
Poptimism provoked a shallow rethinking of the function of criticism itself. Criticism’s once serious, dignified function mutated. The impulse quickly spread to other forms of cultural writing, with film criticism (“In defence of Zack Snyder”), book reviewing (“In defence of young adult fiction”), and even food writing (“In defence of Guy Fieri”) seizing on the trend, with critics singing the praises of zero-calorie entertainments with a wholly unearned air of defiance. It’s as if that experience of intensity Kazin prized has been turned inside-out. (One can’t help wondering if the current critical turn belies a deeper, more embarrassed knowledge that 99 percent of mass culture is unredeemable junk, which can only be talked about in terms that conveniently skate over the formal and textual stuff of a work of art or entertainment.)
Where what might be snobbishly termed “proper” criticism once stood in antagonism (or, at the very least, ambivalence) to the larger culture industry, much of mainstream modern criticism, and its relative, the think piece, operates in service of it. When AMC’s Mad Men went off the air in 2015, it was easy to imagine that the pink slips served to its writing staff were handed down to writers at Slate, Salon, Vulture, A.V. Club, etc., as the single-track content conveyor belt driving both production and reception ground to a halt. How a work relates to the history and tradition of its medium and, indeed whether it is good or bad, hardly matters. What’s more, so much time is spent dissecting mainstream entertainment—the stuff that doesn’t need critical advocacy, yet surely benefits from it—that high art and serious literature are all but ignored.
For a critic these days, a stance of critical antagonism constitutes professional liability. One thinks of Dorothy Parker reviewing Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and The Maltese Falcon in an April 1931 issue of The New Yorker under the sumptuously snarky headline, “Oh, look—two good books.” Could any critic working now risk exhibiting such radiant contempt for their medium of inquiry? It would be all the more difficult given that the guiding ethic by mainstream editors and publishers—as expressed to me, a person who is often paid to write this kind of stuff—is, quite simply, that traditional criticism doesn’t sell. In lieu of deep textual analysts of content, to say nothing of formal analysis of style and structure, editors seem more eager to commission pieces that are vaguely “connected to the moment.”
Likewise, a generation of overeducated and underemployed writers (present company included) enter both a bland cultural ecosystem and a struggling market for criticism. Instead of being afforded the time (and financial security) to undertake study of an art form and develop expertise over years, they freelance their way to the best approximation of authority, and sometimes substitute personality for it instead. Where the best critics once used style to, as Daniel Mendelsohn put it in his 2012 “A Critic’s Manifesto,” dramatize their own thinking, for the modern purveyor of think pieces, their own writerly persona surges to the fore. And who can blame them? Met with an editor seeking stories filed with impossibly tight turnarounds, what can the struggling hopeful do but will a hasty “take” into existence in exchange for two hundred very real dollars?
Social justice, too, is a pillar of this new economy of publishing. Woke takes get “eyeballs”; particularly incendiary pieces go viral. The problem of listicles and “quick hits” is not merely their length or speed. It is that in a media environment rich with headlines such as “10 ‘woke’ works of literature you need to add to your reading list this year” (Elle) or Buzzfeed’s “21 books by POC writers that you should definitely read at some point” (a list topped, incidentally, by that noted literary obscurity Toni Morrison), book selling rather than book reviewing seems the focus. A book is hailed for being “woke” and festooned with Social Justice Literature prizes (yes, these exist), leading to the production of more social justice literature and turning the endeavour of tolerance and empathy and human fellow feeling into just another pulpy commodity.
Such readings, however well-meaning, forsake the very spirit of literature. As the great critic Northrop Frye wrote, literature is not valuable because it reflects our beliefs or aspirations, but rather because it “has such a vast importance in indicating the horizons beyond all formulations of belief, in pointing to an infinite total concern that can never be expressed.”
When this horizon is hemmed in by contemporary expectations of good taste and social rectitude (however progressive), literary production is itself stifled, held hostage by the fickle vicissitudes of fashion. The very dignity of literature, and of what we might call “art,” is that it holds such capricious social and political affairs beneath its concern. In Sontagian terms, socially conscious criticism is likewise guilty of turning art into an “article for use.” To use the language of Theodor Adorno and subsequent Marxian critics, it “instrumentalizes” art, only further ensconcing it in the logic of domination from which it yearns to break free.
Of course, this style of writing recalls the hoariest history of literary criticism, in which intensely partisan publications like The Edinburgh Review, The London Magazine, Blackwood’s Magazine, and the Tory-friendly Quarterly Review used literary essays as mere vehicles for smuggling political agendas. Criticism of such eighteenth- and nineteenth-century schools treated a book review like an ideological Trojan Horse—a shoddily built one whose exterior is all-but-exposed, so that the Trojans crammed inside are plainly, absurdly visible to the naked eye. More recent literary debates have been subtler. In a case of history being not so much progressive as cyclical, the contemporary trend of socially conscious criticism constitutes less a major leap in critical thinking than a reversion; another bit of history repeating—with the full force of late capitalism behind it.
In his Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope described the critical impulse in terms that were more didactic than democratic: “Men must be taught as if you taught them not;/ And things unknown proposed as things forgot.” H.L. Mencken, similarly biting and misanthropic, in a 1914 column cites the advice of a senior critic, “an ancient”: “Unless you can make people read your criticisms, you may as well shut up your shop, and the only way to make them read you is to give them something exciting.” Mencken responded by adopting a pose of utter ferocity. Some of his peers, he writes, abandoned the requisite critical combativeness for populism (early poptimism). “The primary aim of all of them,” Mencken writes, “was to please the crowd, to give a good show.” He accused them of operating behind a “veil of self-deception.”
Such self-deception is the default mode of the think piece. The internet’s push toward a “democratization” of voices and opinion has served to undermine the authority of cultural gatekeepers. And cultural gatekeepers, in turn, have responded by abdicating something of their responsibility. Instead of appearing knowledgeable, savvy, and even a bit miserable, they adopt the forged mantle of vox populi. They’d rather be the guy you can have a beer with than the guy across the room squinting at you warily through a monocle at a cocktail party.
A culture that vaunts the popular, gives voice to the amateur, and drives toward the mellow middle of consensus, is invariably chary of didacts, of experts, of snobs, of anyone who can be cut down with a damning accusation of pretentiousness.2 Yet isn’t this precisely why one turns to criticism? Not merely to validate one’s own taste, but to be met with a rare insight borne from deep knowledge of a subject, to encounter the pleasure of a new text, to rise above one’s delimited cultural horizons and assume a love of alien cultures in a way that is, pretty much by definition, pretentious? Why would I, or anyone, confine themselves to picking up a magazine or clicking a link on a website to read articles about why Budweiser or Beyoncé or other best-selling, entrenched bulwarks of the culture are worthwhile?
The answer, counterintuitively, provides something like hope: the flotsam upon which the aspiring, irrelevant, proudly pretentious Serious Critic might buoy herself against the deluge of think pieces and watery woke “takes.” Readers read this stuff precisely because they care about critical validation; they want to read, and understand. Otherwise they’d be content to crack a Coors Light and play a few Taylor Swift MP3 files without bothering with the attendant literature. The critical voice still matters.
What criticism and the dopey, bloviating culture of think-piecey optimism need, then, is renewed, radical pessimism, an acknowledgment that the machinations of the culture industry are bad, not good, and that it is the duty of the critic to oppose them. It is a cruel function of late capitalism that it makes all righteous complaint seem cliché, rendering its critics foolish, like mid-’90s standup comedians wondering “what’s the deal” with the price of popcorn at the multiplex or the swelling cost of a cup of coffee. But this is an unflattering pose worth assuming. If the critic—or journalist, or aspiring belle lettrist, or run-of-the-mill writer—encourages hostility towards the products and operations of mass culture, if she attempts to lay bare its machinations and schemes, then perhaps the so-called “average consumer” may absorb something of this productive skepticism.
A fundamental myth of our times is that culture gives us what we want. This is an obscenity. As anyone who has napped through an episode of AMC’s prestige advertising-and-philandery drama Mad Men likely knows, the culture only gives us what we want after dictating what it is that we want. Before it can satisfy desire, first it must structure that desire.
If, as a quote commonly attributed to Picasso goes, “art is a lie that tells the truth,” then mass culture is a lie that tells a lie. Criticism that does not speak truth to this lie only serves it. Criticism orients itself toward the sharpening of reason and the awakening of passion. It is the painstaking marriage of hermeneutics and erotics. It is not enough to enthuse. It’s about the constant interplay of enthusiasm and the ruthless inquiry of that enthusiasm; of the commingling of intensity and meaning.
The function of criticism today, then, is simply the function of art itself. In his seminal text Expanded Cinema, media theorist Gene Youngblood counters the cultural aim of entertainment with that of art, writing, “Entertainment gives us what we want; art gives us what we don’t know we want.” Echoing Pope’s sentiment about teaching without teaching, this formulation provides a standard for criticism, too. Instead of turning art into artifacts, of reducing its possibilities to a sprawling supermarket aisle of bulk “takes,” the critic aims to account for the unknown and ambiguous, and so expands the horizons of literature, of art, of civilization itself.
It’s not even so much about explaining the mystery of the text as restoring a belief in that mystery; less about finding the figure in the carpet than about the faithful, half-mad belief that there is one.
The earliest meaning of the term think piece was as a synonym for the skull or brain, as in a 1909 story, “Terwillinger and the Senorita” by W.A. Scott in The Overland Monthly, in which a man is struck “over the think-piece with a six-gun, an’ he took an immediate trip into the trailless hills of dream-land,” which is the sort of place one might reasonably wish to drift off while suffering through so many modern think pieces. ↩
As Dan Fox notes in his lively essay Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, calling someone or something “pretentious” is often a reflexive gesture: “The pretentious flaws of others affirm your own intellectual or aesthetic expertise. Simultaneously, their fakery highlights the contours of your down-to-earth character and virtuous ordinariness.” ↩