At a certain stage in my life -- as a student and later as a professional critic -- I would have considered pointing out the flaws in a book to be my main job. It’s pretty typical for young critics to think that nailing an author for ideological or aesthetic failures is the apex of our craft. Over the years, though, I’ve come to believe that the real task lies elsewhere, and that even the most sophisticated criticism too seldom ventures beyond the merely analytical. Some novels just don’t work, it’s true; they’re literally broken. Others almost work and the mechanics by which they don’t quite click into gear can be fascinating (as you might deduce from the metaphors I’m using) as a kind of engineering problem. But some fiction, rare indeed, does work, by which I mean that it feels alive. There’s more to this, of course, than technique and mechanics, just as a biological organism can function like a machine in many ways without actually being one. While there may come a day when scientists can define for us the crucial differences between a living body and an inanimate one, at present that is still a mystery, and a sacred one, even for those of us who aren’t sure we believe in God. To me, whatever it is that makes a novel or a story alive amounts to a kind of divinity.
A critic can dissect a great writer’s technique, can offer us a few ideas about how, say, Tolstoy is able to observe his characters with the apparent impartiality of the heavens. But I think that it is just as important to convey what the experience of reading Tolstoy feels like, because we read novels to feel as well as to think; in fact, feeling is what makes us bother with fiction to begin with. If I tell you that to read “War and Peace” for the first time is to realize that every other novelist casts a tinted light on his or her characters -- whether the hue be rosy or bilious -- while Tolstoy bathes them in white light, so that none of their colors are distorted, I believe I’m telling you one of the most important things I can articulate about this particular great writer.
Most people in my profession prefer to take a more cerebral approach, and as in every other profession, this preference leads to an unarticulated form of peer pressure . In most serious literary criticism, expressions of feeling get parsed and analyzed and intellectualized, partly because this is what smart people do, and if they’re honest, most literary critics will admit that their fondest dream is to be thought brilliant and fantastically well-read. It’s safer, when writing criticism, to skirt the emotional claims fiction makes on us, especially when we love it: If you rave, you can wind up looking like a pushover, while if you sneer at a book that almost everyone else likes, you come across as more selective — at any rate, the worst you’ll get called a sourpuss. Slap your heart on your sleeve for a book that other critics disdain and you may be accused not only of poor taste but of easy sentimentality. Discrimination, after all, is what criticism is all about.
Perhaps, some of you reading this are now scoffing and about to launch into a hearty “Nobody cares what those snobs say” speech. I hear this often, but sorry, I don’t buy it. People wouldn’t spend so much energy denouncing snooty critics if they didn’t have the power to make us feel intellectually inadequate.
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