Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Reading Experience Takes on Steve Wasserman

Serious Criticism
Much of Steve Wasserman's Columbia Journalism Review article is concerned with delineating newspapers' obligation to cover "books as news that stays news." He suggests that this means reviewing books "of enduring worth," which in turn suggests an emphasis on work of inherent literary value. I think most people would understand this to signify specifically works of literature--fiction and poetry, although some occasional works of nonfiction might also be included as achieving "enduring worth" as well. Indeed, in further indentifying "news that stays news," Wasserman asserts that "It is through the work of novelists and poets that we understand how we imagine ourselves and contend with the often elusive forces—of which language itself is a foremost factor—that shape us as individuals and families, citizens and communities. . . ."

But in his otherwise cogent enough defense of "serious criticism" in newspapers and other general-interest print publications, Wasserman doesn't really focus with much particularity on literary criticism. It is more or less conflated with discussion of "books" more generally, as if the latest academic tome on American foreign policy or most recent biography of William Randolph Hearst were equally the subject of "criticism" as a new novel by Richard Powers or new collection of poems by John Ashbery. As if the "news" conveyed by The 9-11 Commission Report were the same kind of news conveyed by Falling Man.

In fact, what Wasserman really has in mind is the kind of social analysis or cultural criticism described by Leon Wieseltier (as quoted by Wasserman): the "long, thoughtful, patient, deliberate analysis of questions that do not have obvious or easy answers." While most good novels do not offer "obvious or easy answers," I don't think it's the interpretation of fiction that Wieseltier has in mind here. Novels might sometimes provide grist for the cultural critic's rhetorical mill, but ultimately "criticism" as Wasserman and Wieseltier understand it is an "elite" discourse through which learned commentators discuss the cultural, political, and historical forces bearing down on "society" as it is reflected in all forms of expression. (I don't object to learned commentary per se, but I do like my learned commentary on literature to be about literature.)...

Read the rest HERE

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