CriticIsm Commentary: The Welcome Buccaneers of Arts Criticism

“Criticism will always have the force of the child in the story about the emperor’s new clothes, because there will always be naked emperors who everybody says are wearing today’s Crown Jewels.” – Eric Bentley

By Bill Marx

A number of people sent me this Atlantic wire item back in early November:

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all,” BuzzFeed‘s first books editor Isaac Fitzgerald told Poynter this morning in explaining why the section would eschew negative reviews, citing the “Bambi Rule” from the old Disney movie. “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” he explained. “You see it in so many old media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.”

I couldn’t find the time to write about this pernicious notion of book critics as cheerleaders, though I have made the case for negative book reviews in earlier columns. Unsurprisingly, Fitzgerald’s statement kicked off a kerfuffle among writers for online and print magazines who generally practice this kind of determined merry-making but are unhappy when someone blurts out what is best left unsaid. Given the shrinking amount of column inches for book reviews in mainstream newspapers and magazines, is it a surprise that book review editors are reluctant to print negative criticism? Why waste precious space in the paper to pan a book? Reviewers know this, and they calibrate their verdicts – upwards – accordingly.

Still, the issue of credibility is a sensitive one: old and new media find that it is better to sidestep the issue by remaining silent about their gentlemen’s agreements. Let readers assume they are getting independent evaluation rather than publicity, even though the quiet editorial edict is to serve up promotion for the sake of greasing the wheels of commerce as well as to maintain peace and quiet. (Arts journalism operates according to very different rules than news coverage. It shouldn’t be, but that is the way it is. Can you conceive of a news editor saying he or she is just going to print nice things about politicians?) Maybe because he is a newbie, Fitgerald uttered an inconvenient truth – too many editors and reviewers see criticism as a form of diplomacy rather than evaluation. (Including The New York Times)

At bottom, Fitzgerald betrays an ignorance of the complex role of arts criticism, which for over hundreds of years has served (alas, not always loyally or consistently) a contentious but culturally positive mission, both when it supports unfairly neglected artists and when it asserts that the emperor has no clothes. The elemental law of meaningful arts criticism is that reviewers must render a judgment backed up by an explanation. The critic is judged by the substance (and persuasiveness) of his or her argument. By articulating the value of the arts in our lives the critic stimulates a valuable dialogue that provokes as well as educates. No critic has the final word – he or she only elevates the sophistication of the discussion. Debate is healthy – agreement bores.

Maureen Dowd’s column in the New York Times about Fitzgerald’s approach made a number of the points I would have made, though I want add a couple of points. The enemies of hard-hitting criticism are not just at the helm of the book section at BuzzFeed, but in the ivory towers of academe. Below is the section of Dowd’s column I want to focus on:

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, notes that we label food if we believe it has deleterious consequences and critics are perfectly within their rights to label books in the same way.

“In the very first issue of my magazine, almost 100 years ago,” he told me, “Rebecca West established what she called ‘the duty of harsh criticism,’ and she was right. An intellectual has a solemn obligation to speak out negatively against ideas or books that he or she believes will have a pernicious or misleading effect upon people’s understanding of important things. To do otherwise would be cowardly and irresponsible.

“If one feels that a value or a belief or a form that one cherishes has been traduced, one should rise to its defense. In intellectual and literary life, where the stakes may be quite high, manners must never be the primary consideration. People who advance controversial notions should be prepared for controversy. Questions of truth, meaning, goodness, justice and beauty are bigger than Bambi. I never thought I’d utter a sentence like this, but I stand with Gawker against BuzzFeed.”

Pretending that false and ugly things don’t exist is a bit delusional. Yet such prettifying is consistent with a culture dominated by an Internet concerned mainly with marketing techniques.

Not to review books negatively is in essence to subsume book reviewing into advertising, public relations and promotion. Succumbing to uplift, edification and happy talk is basically saying that there’s something more important than telling the truth: not making enemies, not hurting people’s feelings.

All quarrels are not petty. Sometimes quarrels are about big things, and it’s an actual privilege to take a side in them.

I would agree with most of the above, expanding it to cover arts criticism in general. Reviews of movie, dance, theater, and music should be more than “advertising, public relations and promotion.” If you take the arts as a spiritual good, rather than a big business, there is no choice but to fight for standards by pointing out good and lambasting the insipid. My only reservation with Wieseltier’s position is that food labeling is a faulty metaphor because it suggests scientific certainty – lab tests prove the presence of poisoning. Criticism is more about generating a thoughtful discussion in which some reviewers make strong cases for what they perceive to be dangerous ideas, bad art, and runaway branding. Others will argue. The ever-smiley world of BuzzFeed and its ilk would reduce this to a competition among ‘tastemakers’ to come up with the most positive blurbs.


But BuzzFeed is not the only foe of harsh criticism. I picked up Joan Shelley Rubin’s recent book Cultural Considerations: Essays on Readers, Writers, and Musicians in Postwar America (University of Massachusetts Press, 208 pages, $22.95) with considerable anticipation. Two of her pieces focus on controversial instances of effective negative criticism published in the ’50s. One examines poet/critic John Ciardi’s 1957 demolition in the Saturday Review of Literature of The Unicorn and other Poems by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, a best-selling, award-winning versifier and the wife of flier Charles Lindbergh. The other piece deals with Dwight Macdonald’s legendary 1958 take down of James Gould Cozzens and his hozanned novel By Love Possessed in Commentary. The savage verdicts stuck – Lindbergh never wrote another volume of poetry (out of embarrassment? lack of resilience?) though she published fiction and non-fiction, including her diaries, while Cozzens’s standing as a leading novelist, which he and his wife (the powerful agent Sylvia Bernice Baumgarten) worked assiduously to create, was considerably tarnished.

Rubin, a professor of history at the history of Rochester and the author of The Making of Middlebrow Culture, does not come to praise Ciardi and Macdonald but to critique them as ‘alienated’ intellectuals stuck in the “jeremiad tradition.” There is nothing wrong with that. Critics do not transcend their times, and perhaps these acts of powerful dissent against mainstream opinion are worth reconsidering fifty years on. Unfortunately, Rubin doesn’t make much of a case that the reviews were wrong, and that weakens her line of attack considerably. It seems that Ciardi and Macdonald were right, but for the wrong reasons, at least from Rubin’s irritatingly politically correct perspective.

She is sad about Lindbergh’s silence as a poet, but she doesn’t stand up for the merit of her verse because that would be impossible. It is terrible stuff – I read through the volume before writing this column. Ciardi was not mistaken to call it “an offensively bad book – inept, jingling, slovenly, illiterate even, and puffed up with the foolish afflatus of a stereotypical high-seriousness, that species of aesthetic and human failure that will accept any shriek as a true high-C.” For this judgment he was pilloried by readers, who sent in protesting letters, and given tepid support by Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins. This was at a time when book reviews in some publications could made a national impact. Ciardi became a marked man for blowing the whistle on Lindbergh’s poor verse.

Poet and critic John Ciardi -- penned one of the most notorious negative reviews of the '50s

Poet and critic John Ciardi – penned one of the most notorious negative reviews of the ’50s

Rubin gives Ciardi faint praise for his courage: “One might well credit him with enough autonomy to prevail over Cousins’s attempt to compromise his editorial independence.” Yes, you will might well do that … if you wanted to be fair. Instead, Rubin focuses on what she sees as the crotchety Ciardi’s problems with women writers, Modernism, and the Beats, his feuds with highbrow and middlebrow critics, and the diminution of his career. In his later years, according to Rubin, Ciardi “had almost completely stopped trying to execute the Arnoldian mission of mediating poetry for, and sharpening the literary standards of, educated readers.” Of course, it was just this ‘mission’ that Rubin attempts (unsuccessfully) to undercut by suggesting that misogyny rather discrimination propelled his review of Lindbergh. Regarding his job struggles, the point should be made that Ciardi didn’t have tenure at a university; he was trying to survive as a critic/poet. When it comes to earning your chow in the mainstream media it is best to wield your thumbs strategically, puffing celebrity male and female writers when it is fashionable to do so. And to keep quiet about the undeservingly admired. Ciardi chose the tougher road.

Maybe Ciardi was not a nice person. But nowhere does Rubin invalidate Ciardi’s dismissal of Lindbergh’s book. She speculates – by way of character assassination – on his motives. Of course, if you are going to swing the polticially correct axe you can’t be selective. Where were Lindbergh’s defenders? Rubin suggests that most headed for the hills once the jig was up. J. Donald Adams, editor of the New York Times Book Review, seethed that he was “fed to the teeth” with “dogmatic” critics “insensitive to the broad human appeals which move the hearts and stir the minds of many millions of men and women.” Not a very compelling defense of the quality of Lindbergh’s writing, only a reminder of its sales numbers. How many female critics contributed reviews to the New York Times Book Review during Adams’ tenure? I have taken a look, and there weren’t many. Sexism anyone?

I was afraid when I turned to Rubin’s essay on Macdonald’s review “By Cozzens Possessed” – what charges would she level against him? She brings up an early letter of Macdonald’s with a whiff of anti-Semitism but doesn’t press the issue very hard (Michael Wreszin, Macdonald’s biographer, has little to say about the critic having problems with Jews.) Macdonald didn’t share Ciardi’s supposed animus against women writers (or would that be simpering verse?), though Rubin supplies some ham-fisted analysis of the language of ‘manliness’ in Cozzens and Macdonald, suggesting at one point that the critic, though he charged that the novelist “misunderstood true masculine behavior,” somehow “implicates” himself “in the same anxiety about encroaching emasculation.” Rubin’s essay is much more entertainingly informative when she explores Cozzens’s anti-Semitism (“the jew-boy line against me”) and his campaign, led by his well-connected agent wife, to puff up his reputation via back-room deals, cushy reviews, and notices in the media. No doubt that sort wheeling-dealing is still going on today.

Dwight Macdonald

Critic Dwight Macdonald – he wrote and spoke as if fear and conformity were foreign to his nature.

Aside from the amusement provided by the machinations and prejudices of Cozzens, there is much strained insinuation as Rubin goes about unmasking Macdonald’s pernicious “need for distinctiveness and legitimacy.” What critic doesn’t want those things? Macdonald is accused of inconsistency because “he called for ‘an audience that can appreciate and discriminate on its own,’ but only if it were ‘sophistocated’ enough to listen to him.” At their best, American critics from E.A. Poe and William Dean Howells to Henry James and H.L. Mencken square that circle by asserting that substantial reviews are a vital part of a cultural education in a democratic society: challenging the status quo – by raising issues of value, supporting unfairly neglected artists, cutting down to size those they saw as overpraised – expands the consciousness of readers, who are free to accept or reject critical judgments and arguments. Anyone who has been in a classroom knows that some students engage, some don’t.

Rubin dismisses furious dissenters, such as Ciardi and Macdonald, are ‘alienated’ intellectuals, their tough verdicts propelled by personal insecurities, sexual biases, etc. From this perspective, reviewers who aren’t cynical about art that contains “broad human appeals which move the hearts and stir the minds of many millions of men and women” come off as the well-adjusted reflections of the healthy side of the American psyche. The status quo serves as the conformist yardstick: if you don’t like the message, kneecap the messenger. In truth, critics such as Ciardi and Macdonald are an essential (even heroic) part of the cultural eco-system, offering a necessary jolt of skepticism amid the yea-saying of today’s versions of J. Donald Adams, reviewers who automatically respect art that stirs the millions. But arts criticism is supposed to shake things up – it should be a fearless exercise in discrimination that contributes to an ongoing dialogue about the arts. The more voices the better – let them range contentiously over a wide number of issues.

Naysayers play a powerful role in energizing the cultural eco-system. James Walcott posited in his piece in The New York Times on Macdonald’s 100th birthday that “every intellectual era needs its dedicated pirates, and Dwight Macdonald was one of postwar’s finest. He wrote and spoke as if fear and conformity were foreign to his nature and affronts to the spirit of liberty.” Imagine a culture in which James Gould Cozzens, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and other third-raters were hailed as literary masters with cowardly unanimity. It is not that difficult – it seems to be the direction we are moving in. More than ever, we need nervy buccaneers boarding the good ship SS Happy Talk.


  1. Harvey Blume on January 14, 2014 at 6:31 pm


    feeling offended, disappointed, fooled to the point of being violated is one of the reasons i write reviews. being pissed off at counterfeits is as good a motive as any.

    but alas, no amount of negative reviewing by the likes of either of us will ever stop immense segments of the public from gobbling up such things as the dan brown novels — all of which are an offense to taste, wit, and intelligence. and yet we must try. notice must be served, though the dan brown reading public thinks is getting the inside track on secrets, on wisdom.

    one of the best bits of lit crit i’ve read recently is francine prose’s take down of donna tartt’s much praised “the goldfinch” in a recent new york review of books. if you, like me, find tartt’s writing clotted, stuffy and pretentious the review will help clarify things.

    not that i confuse donna tartt with dan brown. there are, after all, levels of bad writing but it may be the tartt version, since it is more literary and hi-brow, is the more pernicious. i applaud francine prose for saying so and saying why.

    • Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on January 14, 2014 at 6:44 pm

      Hi Harvey,

      The scorching reviews I talk about in the column are exceptions — they were effective, partly because their targets were “critic’s favorites.” It is worth shouting that the emperor has no clothes even if no one believes you because it is part of a critic’s duty to diagnose cultural illnesses. People are eating at McDonald’s and becoming sick or physically rundown though they enjoy the food; there are healthier, more enriching restaurants around the corner. A critic should point to where the chow is good and explain why — and warn us where the food may be cheap, tasty, but not nutritious. People will continue to eat the bad food, but you have met your responsibility. Too many reviewers think discrimination means telling us to gobble up Big Macs rather than Whoppers.

  2. Harvey Blume on January 14, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    > It is worth shouting that the emperor has no clothes even if no one believes you because it is part of a critic’s duty to diagnose cultural illnesses.

    i do agree.

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