“They are here, I fear, to stay. But they will never take the place of the horse.”
- Dorothy Parker
Some people are particularly good at identifying good writing, and have a willingness to meddle through the rubbish to get there. That’s a talent that should never be underrated.
Recently, I read two similar accounts of that talent on the same day, and it brought into stark clarity that the medium may have changed, but the issues remain the same.
On February 28th 1928, Dorothy Parker wrote a meticulous description of amateur literary critics, called “literary Rotarians,” in her column for The New Yorker.
The topic remains entirely relevant today; life really does rotate like a circle, like a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel; and, baby, literary criticism is no different.
Recently the chair of the Man Booker Prize judging panel said things about book bloggers that are hauntingly reminiscent of Ms Parker’s sentiments.
“The literary Rotarians have helped us and themselves along to the stage where it doesn’t matter a damn what you write; where all writers are equal,” Parker wrote during her early 20th century crisis of literary criticism.
Peter Stothard, the aforementioned Man Booker judging panel chair, said something remarkably similar: “To be a critic is to be importantly different than those sharing their own taste … not everyone’s opinion is worth the same.”
Parker describes literary Rotarians flittering from one literary throwdown to the next. They live to write enthusiastic accounts of their literary adventures in newspaper columns where, she says, they demonstrate their ignorance of “taste.” For Parker, literary Rotarians were in a battle to make good literature indistinguishable from any other form of writing:
“To have written anything, whether it be a Ulysses or whether it be a report of who sat next to whom at the P.E.N. Club dinner, is to be a writer.”
While less outright damning than Parker (who could match her?), for Stothard book bloggers pose a similar hazard for the modern reader. I feel for him; he must feel as overwhelmed by book bloggers in cyberspace as Parker felt by literary Rotarians in New York:
“The town, these days is full of them,” she writes.
Critics are vulnerable things. Their profession is often dismissed as a lesser version of their subjects’ pursuits or a glorified version of the living room opinions any dignified person has in some measure.
Indeed, to be human is to be a critic and the evidence suggests nothing will hold us back from our evolutionary duty. An unfortunate consequence is that the professional literary critic, unlike the professional brain surgeon, must share their profession with the rest of us – regardless of our lack of talent or whether there is anyone about who cares to listen.
It doesn’t help that these contests are intrinsic to the process through which the curators of cultural capital are selected and so will never go away.
Good critics fly or fade on their ability to discern. Clarity of thought, precision in language and breadth of knowledge play a role. Money, cute names and who you write for likely do too. But nothing surpasses the ability to discern.
In Parker’s day, rich toffs amplified their critical voice by turning literature into gossip, with themselves as the energetic centre. Today the internet has given every lay critic who wants to write a review a public place to house their opinions. The medium may have changed, but the conversation has not.
Anyone can put their hand up to curate, but one only becomes a cultural curator through collective selection. Who we pick defines our cultural milieu and we have a collective responsibility to choose our curators well.
So, we watch the tit-for-tats between the critics of all kinds – the offence followed by the witty rebukes – and then we do our duty by picking the ones who do it best.
Bring on the ones who deliver the stories from the field, not the stories from the literary club. Toss out the ones who encourage us to wear blinkers instead of opening our minds.
We are herds looking for tasty pastures, desperate for cud to chew. Our best critics lead us to the choicest fodder – and all the better if we have to pass through the Valley of Death, so long as we know we will arrive somewhere of quality in the end.
If the similarities between Parker’s column and Stothard’s comments on book bloggers tell us anything, it is that tensions between the professional critic and the lay critic don’t ruin literary criticism, they are intrinsic to it.
Rotarians, lay critics, bloggers, readers and authors have been simultaneously creating and destroying literature in their own unique ways for a long time. If Parker is right they probably always will:
“Some of them are women, some of them are men,” she observes. “This would indicate there will probably always be more of them.”
The lay critic is here to stay, and a good thing too because living in a world without opinions would be a disastrous dystopia. That doesn’t mean we should throw out the professionals though, as it would also be a very sad day for literature if we lost our Parkers.
Thanks to Libby King for this fabulous guest feature! For more from Libby, follow her on Twitter.
Do you think quality book bloggers get the respect they deserve? Is it possible in the current media environment for the best literary critics to rise to the best positions when they come through their own blogs? How do readers find the best critics with so many to choose from?
Do the established media get away with lower quality criticism just because they have a long-standing name behind them? How do they find the best curators?
Most importantly, who is the Dorothy Parker of 2012, and where can we find her? Share your thoughts in the comments…
All Parker quotes from: Parker, Dorothy. (1970) “Literary Rotarians.” The Constant Reader. The Viking Press; New York. Originally published in The New Yorker, February 1928.