Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Critic Thinking

Writing at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Joseph Luzzi considers why some eminent critics have gotten it wrong when it comes to negative first judgments of works later held in high esteem.

Sometimes, he notes, some famed critics slammed work that would later be well-respected, or work that others considered such in which the critic went against the tide of approval. Voltaire, for one, derided Shakespeare, Dante and Jean-Jaques Rousseau, which amounts to two clean misses and a foul tip. He didn't do it because he hated them personally, except for Rousseau, since the other two men had died centuries before Voltaire was born. So why, Luzzi asks, and considers some other misjudgments as well in seeking out a reason.

Eventually, he supposes that the works so misunderstood represented a new direction of literature, poetry or thinking that critics didn't recognize or appreciate. Only after some time had passed were these disruptive works seen in their proper light. It doesn't explain why Voltaire hated Dante and Shaespeare, but then there were a lot of things Voltaire said that make no sense, like Candide or The Maid of Orleans.

One possibility that Luzzi overlooks is that the critics who lambaste material later considered great were the ones who got it right and the majority opinion got it wrong. Some of his cited examples were indeed mistaken assessments. William Wordsworth is an important poet, and Francis Jeffrey got him wrong. But at least one is dead on target: Anne L. Goodman said Catcher in the Rye stinks, and she's right. Holden Caulfield's adolescent angst is wearying for anyone over 25 and is all the more annoying for playing into that age group's belief that their insights represent something more profound than they will be able to have when they are older and less innocent.

That might be the kind of re-assessment some well-known works need, too. A careful examination to see if the emperor's new clothes are as real as the deceitful tailor has said they are.


fillyjonk said...

If I want to depress myself, I speculate on "what will be seen as the Shakespeare of the early 21st century" (provided humanity doesn't kill itself off before 2525....)

Also, there's the conceit (I'm not sure how correct it is, not being an expert in Humanities) that a lot of the stuff seen as Great today (i.e., Shakespeare) was pop-culture of its day... thinking about that and thinking about today's pop culture mostly makes me cringe.

Friar said...

It probably was the pop culture of the day in at least some respects, although that's a concept that might not translate back in time exactly the same way it sounds today. But I have a hard time thinking that some of today's best-known stuff will last in that same way, at least as long as the generators and appreciators of it constantly pursue the new and novel.

CGHill said...

And if Shakespeare might not have been, Charles Dickens definitely was.

"Genre fiction" is disrespected by senior editors at the very publishing houses that put out tons of it, perhaps because they resent not being bracketed with the likes of Bob Giroux.

Friar said...

I once heard this description: Genre fiction means the kind of stuff everyone reads but nobody writes about, and literary fiction is the kind of stuff everyone writes about but nobody reads.