A recent essay by Christopher Beha in Harper’s compares the literary criticism of Lionel Trilling (1905-75), who reigned in the mid-twentieth century, with that of contemporary critic, James Wood. (1965 -) Trilling judges a work based upon its the effect on the reader. Wood, honors work for its realism. (“How Much Damage Can It Do?” by Christopher Beha, Harper’s, Feb. 2015, pg. 84.)
Beha’s essay, a review of 3 new publications touching upon literary criticism,* is too complex to handle here, but when Beha compares Wood to Trilling and pronounces that both men have altered “the way a generation of literary writers write,” I have to sit up and take notice. What a curious notion. Does Beha believe a writer aspires to conform to a critic’s opinion of what is good or bad art? Does he think they sit around reading literary criticism like a manual before going off to write a book? Did James Joyce? Did Samuel Beckett? Ezra Pound?
Artists influence artists. To write according to some aesthetic theory strikes me as a dead end, like painting by numbers and staying within the lines. By its very nature, creativity aims to run free. It has no desire to oblige the intellectual sensibilities of commentators, even if they are writers, themselves. Rest assured, if a critic were foolish enough to make a stab at establishing a cannon, some rebel would make a point of destroying it. The best a critic can do is pursue the artist in an attempt to understand what he or she is doing. If he fails, his option is to label it “modern.”
Readers may need critics to guide them, though I doubt it. They’re more inclined to listen to the recommendations of their friends. To be honest, I’m flummoxed to know what the role of a critic is.
*Stuff, by James Wood
Happiness: Ten Years of n+l (Anthology published by Faber and Faber)
Rocket and Lightship by Adam Kirsch