Literary Criticism Is Dead


Theme Essay by Ron MacLean 

Who Wants Lima Beans When You Can Eat 24/7 Cheetos?


From "Walls" © Sarah Katharina Kayß

I love literature and believe it has a future. I hope serious criticism does, too. But we’ll only be able to attain that future by accepting the reality of the present.

The study of literature is dying, partly because of self-inflicted wounds. I’m happy to debate all the reasons why: the dominance of an elite school of mostly white, male academics; increased theoretical abstraction; easy-to-mock “littray” pronouncements.

But my focus here is more basic: Literary criticism has become irrelevant—the neglected lima beans on the cultural dinner plate. In order for criticism to matter, literature has to matter. It doesn't, and it won't again soon, at least not in the same way it did for a hundred-plus years of its history. As critic Louis Bayard succinctly put it as far back as 2008 in "Who Killed the Literary Critic?" on Salon, critics "can only survive when their host organisms [authors] thrive…. If we want to bring the critic back to life, we first have to resuscitate the novelist."


In this historical moment, books rank, at best, a distant fourth behind television, video games, and movies as the preferred form for telling stories. Some numbers: The top video game in 2013, Grand Theft Auto V, sold 26.75 million copies. In contrast, Jeff Kinney’s Hard Luck, a children’s title and the eighth installment of the "Wimpy Kid" series, was the bestselling book of 2013—with a little over 1.8 million copies.

© Sarah Katharina KayßAfter that, according to Publisher’s Weekly and Nielsen BookScan data, the book numbers plummet: The Great Gatsby came in sixteenth last year, selling 560,000 copies. Very few books do even this well. In 2012, only 156 trade paperbacks sold more than 100,000 copies. In 2013, overall print book sales went down.

Meanwhile, middling TV dramas average 10 million viewers a week (network) or 3 million a week (cable). And based on box office results from Variety magazine, 2.5 million people saw the movie Ride Along the week of January 24 to 30. Even the more “literary” offering, August: Osage County, drew 710,000 viewers that same week.

People still read books, and they’ll always love stories. What’s changed is the cultural status of books and the critics who hold forth about which ones are "the best." The democratization of popular culture has contributed to this shift. Everyone distrusts experts. Instead, everyone has a voice—an opinion—and, at least online, every opinion matters equally.

This democratization of culture is a mixed blessing: It sets the bar low for quality. Literary diarrhea results from the absence of gatekeepers. If anyone can publish a book, how do we know which are worth reading? I confess I’m often overwhelmed and lost amid the continual deluge.

And yet, I prefer the diarrhea, at least for now. It means each of us has to seek out what matters to us and to figure out why. That's a necessary step, because doing so will help us articulate what sort of guidance we want in the new literary landscape. When critical scolding and the enforcement of predigested parameters get turned off, the door opens for new and hybrid forms—for the evolution of form itself.

The online reading public has made clear that it does not want tastemakers telling them what to like. Psychologist and essayist Adam Waytz puts it this way:

I now count on my social network to enlighten me on albums and films that, as a Midwestern teenager, I feared I could only find in the most selective, coastal-elite magazines. And I count on the hive-mind to give me consumer reports far superior to Consumer Reports.

I’m not quite so sold on the superiority of the hive-mind. Beyond my love for literature and literary criticism, I also think they are good for the culture, in the way that eating peas and carrots—two of my favorite vegetables—is good. I’m a writer and a teacher, and I will forever shake my fist at the unthinking morons grabbing cyber airtime to debate the latest reality show.

But we fist shakers need to change the “eat your veggies” argument, not just to grab more new media eyeballs, but because we live in a radically changed world, and our stories should reflect that. For stories to remain relevant, they must feel alive in the world as it is today. If people experience the world in shorter bursts, in rapid-fire fragments, we can either argue that they should read today's equivalent of Proust, or we can engage these readers by finding the places where this new reality touches, challenges, wounds, or offends them.

© Sarah Katharina KayßAnton Chekhov wrote stories that reflected his experience of the nineteenth-century Russian world he walked in; Flannery O'Connor did the same for her Jim Crow American South. You and I live in a very different world, yet the stories we read and tell often hew too faithfully—in both content and form—to a reality more familiar to Chekhov or O'Connor.

As the fiction writer (and sometime critic) Jeanette Winterson said in the late 1990s, "the job of the artist in any medium is to make it new." It's happening in spots: Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly's graphic story collection Local is one of the most inventive and satisfying books I read in 2008. Marisha Pessl’s fascinating 2013 book Night Film takes the noir novel into hypermedia.

Alison Bechdel's terrific 2006 graphic novel Fun Home landed on the NYT bestseller list that July and is on its way to becoming a canonical work in American Studies curricula. It’s also now in development as a Broadway musical.

I'm taking the need to "make it new" seriously in my own writing as well. Even as my first story collection was described as "alternative" or "experimental," I was determined to not repeat myself last year when I sat down to write new stories.

Now, I start with what I see and experience that's particular to being alive at this moment. I stop myself any time I lean on mere ingrained habit or old form as reflex. In my 2013 short story "River Song," for instance, a fictional community tries to understand a gruesome event, based on a real news story from 2011—the abduction and murder of a nine-year-old girl drowned in the Ohio River. I was interested in the way we make sense of such horrible acts. I began with a "straight" telling: Here's what happened, and here are the ramifications.

Yet, this initial draft didn’t reflect the way I and others around me tend to process such news. I cobble together TV and radio coverage, online reporting, even overhead bits of conversation—always incomplete, nearly always contradictory. My “River Song” ultimately became seven different perspectives on this fictional tragedy—each fragmented, many contradictory, adding up in some ways, decidedly not in others:

What she would want you to know:
we are more than the parts we’re made of;
the world still doesn’t know where its house is.
Follow this like the current:
the story rings true even as the narrator
becomes increasingly unreliable.

Literary criticism needs to take new forms, too. Consider the Morning News Tournament of Books, one harbinger of things to come. The Morning News recently announced its tenth anniversary edition, describing it as "a March Madness-style battle royale." The seventeen selected 2013 books have been seeded in NCAA basketball tournament-like brackets, with a judge evaluating each pairing and picking a winner until a final round "champion" will be declared.

These book tournaments are both self-consciously silly and deeply serious—and people are into them. Learning theory junkies would say it's because the Morning News uses "gamification" to get readers interested. The editors say they’ve found a fun way to do something they love. I say they’re alive in 2014, and their work reflects that. Here, they unveil the 2013 field:

Today we are merely pulling the tarp off a group of books that we hope are representative of the outstanding fiction that was published in 2013, and we hope it is a mix interesting enough to provoke a discussion about why we still read—why it is necessary for us to read—even when we are constantly being told that no one does.

© Sarah Katharina KayßLetting go of literature’s relevance is a hard idea to swallow for those of us engaged in the profession. I’m not saying we all have to become well versed in the exploits of Chris Brown-Rihanna/Gaga/Amanda Bynes or whatever the pop-cultural train wreck of the moment is. I'm not arguing that we should stop writing or analyzing what we read. I am saying that now, more than ever, literature has to be a labor of love, the rewards of which may be tenuous and fleeting.

Still, conveying that love directly, to new audiences, is vital work. And it's far more satisfying than trying to force cultural lima beans down readers’ throats. The conversation about literature will happen in a meaningful way only if readers crave it. And if they crave guidance and the other useful things literary criticism has historically provided, they’ll let us know—loudly, often obscenely, and clearly. That's the democratic power of the Internet. If we pay attention, we'll recognize the demand and start to meet it.

Then and only then can criticism emerge in a new, relevant form. In the meantime, let’s participate. Write and read. Rave to friends on Goodreads about what we love, and (as simply as possible) why we love it. Otherwise, we risk the whole enterprise turning into a museum piece, visited only by a few students of dead things.


The New Criticism 

For a glimpse of lit crit's future, see the combination of reviews and graphics in HTML Giant (dubbed "The Internet Literature Magazine Blog of the Future"), including the recent post "ALL THE TEXTS I’D SEND YOU IF YOU WANTED TO GO TO A SERGIO DE LA PAVA TALK WITH ME ON DEAD RUSSIANS" by Elias Tezapsidis.

Or take this "Zombie Round" excerpt from The Sisters Brothers v. Lightning Rods,” reviewed (“judged”) by E. Lockhart in the 2012 Morning News Tournament of Books:

The death count is massive. There's a lot of boozing, whoring, vomiting, blistering, bleeding, suffering, blindness, amputation, and surprisingly, tooth-brushing. (A motif! Just like the [how-to] books want you to have! But an effective and light-handed one.) Despite the gore, The Sisters Brothers is ultimately the story of a guy trying to figure out how to be a good brother, a good son, and a good friend; how to deal with the evil inside him, and reconcile with the evil he has done.

That is all of us, I think.

Chekhov said, 'Cut a good story anywhere, and it will bleed.' It’s a quotation I think about often.... The Sisters Brothers bleeds its guts out on every page.

Note: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt (HarperCollins, 2011) won that round.


Publishing Information

Art Information

Ron MacLeanRon MacLean is author of the novels Headlong and Blue Winnetka Skies and the story collection Why the Long Face? His fiction has appeared in GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, Best Online Fiction 2010, and elsewhere.

Learn more at Ron MacLean’s website.


As I see it, the truly

As I see it, the truly negative review is the nonexistent one. A pan by established critics is really criticizing the gatekeepers who accepted the book and invested in its market potential. Such pans can become a pissing contest among the established critics -- fun to read, occasionally, but do they hurt sales? No matter what the critics say, the books are being discussed publicly. I wonder how many more sales Michiko Kakutani's vitriol has inspired than had she ignored the books altogether?

Matt, I agree. I like bad

Matt, I agree. I like bad reviews for all sorts of reasons—some noble, some not so very. The real issue, I think, is the credibility of literary critics now and whether they can grab any kind of media space. I agree with Ron about literature no longer seeming relevant to many, but the relevancy of anything can be goosed by the media machine. The trouble is, those who still control mainstream book review outlets have seemingly turned their backs on all sorts of innovative writers and forms of writing proliferating beyond the narrow boundaries of what they deign to annoint "literature." They're out of step with what's going on in digital lit circles, for starters.

True literary criticism is

True literary criticism is the attempt to recreate the story but to do so in critical terms.
What gives a story unity is not as the masses believe--that it is about one person but that it is about one action.

I wonder if we're talking

I wonder if we're talking about two different things here: academics and marketing. Hard to argue authors are less concerned with the latter. "Serious critics" can wrangle forever over form, symbols, philosophy, social relevance, etc. Critics are still weighing in on Gatsby, but their mixed reception in 1925 surely contributed to its commercial failure then. One New York reviewer called it a "dud", another, slurred Fitzgerald as "the boy" and concluded he was "simply puttering around." Mencken was more balanced, finding the form "no more than a glorified anecdote" and "far inferior at the bottom," but recognized it as "plainly the product of a sound and stable talent, conjured into being by hard work". No doubt this warmed Fitzgerald's heart enormously.

What, then, is the role of the review? An honest, informed look at a new work to help potential readers? Or a platform for reviewers to display their own skill, knowledge and biases? It is my understanding that works are often reviewed in the elite literary fora by colleagues and even friends or rivals of the author. While these might well be objective and fair analyses of the work, the suspicion would always lurk that personal familiarity has tainted the message. As I see it, reviews are for the marketplace, and literary criticism's for the classroom and lecture hall. There will always be room for both, but it is conceit, I contend, to confuse one for the other.

Matt, there are different

Matt, there are different audiences for different kinds of reviews and llt criticism, but I'd argue that reviews are a form of literary criticism. To relegate literary criticism to academia is to nail yet another nail into its coffin--the museum of dead things Ron is talking about. There's a long history of writers writing essays about the work of other writers, which is always the kind of literary criticism (or "belles lettres") I've preferred to academic criticism. Indeed, I've never found works of academic critcism to be useful in teaching writing.

In any case, long feature book reviews are often idea-driven think pieces. They are a particular kind of essay that is about much more than conveying to a reader whether a given book is worth reading or buying. This kind of essay is hard to sell these days, and I can tell you from my experience of editing TW that such critical essays about books are rarely the things that generate a lot of traffic for us. But I still love the good ones, because they engage with the ideas, craft, and universality that power good literary writing.

P.S. Sorry about ornery CAPCHA; we've fixed the duplicate comment.

More thoughts: Maybe the

More thoughts: Maybe the future of literary criticism's not so dire as it might seem at first blush. We see digitalization bringing about reduction from the general to the particular everywhere in the information realm, including democratization of what traditionally was a relatively elite literary class, including authors, critics and readers. The literary parallel is a consequence of the disaggregation of information delivery -- in print alone, general interest publications are succumbing to those appealing to specialized interests and even sub-categories within those. Then there's TV and the Internet -- and even radio. All this multiplying of access portals exacts a fragmentation of our attention and the amount of time we allow ourselves in the marketplace of ideas, information and entertainment. I no longer feel I can afford the time to devour newspaper or magazine book review sections, and am more apt to get my reading recommendations from groups of Internet friends, blogs I follow and from Maureen Corrigan's reviews on NPR. Sometimes even from TV, which I rarely watch.

I've subscribed to The Atlantic for decades. Yet, it took a chance viewing of an episode of the new HBO series "True Detective" to discover author Nic Pizzolatto, who was discovered by Atlantic senior editor Michael Curtis 10 years ago. The Atlantic published, in 2003 and 2004, the first two stories Pizzolatto sent them. It was his breakout recognition. I missed both of those stories. My entry to Pizzolatto's talent came with a stunningly cynical line mumbled brilliantly by actor Matthew McConaughey on "True Detective". With a little Googling I found the line in a collection of quotes for the show. I also discovered that Pizzolatto was the writer, and then I discovered how he was discovered. I've only begun exploring Pizzolatto's writing. Maybe he's already been reviewed in the New York Times. If not, surely his day will come in that forum. Some day his work might be the subject of exhaustive critical analysis, and studied in college graduate seminars.

Meanwhile, I'm awaiting word from The Atlantic on the two stories I emailed them yesterday.

Gosh, I strayed from my

Gosh, I strayed from my premise again. What I should have said is maybe the future of our access to literature isn't so dire. Criticism might be undergoing similar changes in delivery and access, as well, but not as the initial prompt it once was.

Matt, I remain fascinated by

Matt, I remain fascinated by this topic, and I know Ron is, too. But we've both just returned from the AWP conference where, ironically, I rarely had a spare minute to read anything, even on the TW site.

However, your comment about the lack of comments is connected to a larger issue about the way readers interact with a literary site like Talking Writing--and it's a good point. We have the stats to know that people are reading these pieces, Ron's especially. Yet ever since we redesigned our website, we've had fewer comments on TW articles, even the ones that have gone viral. This is partly a lingering technical problem, which we hope to have fixed by this summer. But more than anything, I think, it's because the new design, wonderful as it is, does not encourage commenting. And that most certainly is connected to Ron's argument about the need to engage readers in new ways in order to make criticism or reviews or any form of writing about writing feel fresh. I am very open to suggestions for how to address this complicated problem.

And as for your other comments, I will certainly weigh in later today--after I've emerged from jetlag and finished my first cup of coffee!

No worries, Matt. When I'm in

No worries, Matt. When I'm in the midst of this kind of online discussion, I get impatient, too. And of course it speaks to your earlier comments about the fragmentation of attention as media continues to spins its proliferating webs all over the place. This fragmentation could even be felt at the AWP, that bastion of literary writing, where this year I certainly felt a new openness about everything going digital. Various forms of flash were part of the vibe, too, all these compressed little nuggets of impact. I like it all, and I believe literature will be just fine, but I have no doubt that people have lost interest in critical writing.

I haven't decided yet how much of a loss that really is, although it's certainly affected me personally as a writer. I'd like to believe, with Ron and you, that fresh forms of criticism will emerge. Maybe. What worries me, though, is a general blunting of criticism, as if thinking hard about literature isn't worth the effort in the current crowded media space.

Regarding our commenting system, I think we're stuck with Capcha, given the spam problem. But there are better ways to lead people through the process, and we don't yet have a way for folks to receive notifications about followup comments. We're working on it, and receiving feedback from readers helps move us in the right direction. Thanks!

I came upon this essay upon

I came upon this essay upon searching the terms "death of criticism" in Google, rather than finding it via the college library, which I would have done as an undergraduate, a testament to one of the themes in Ron's piece. I am something of a curmudgeon, a "fist-shaker", as Ron puts it, and shudder at terms like "gamification", which I tend to see as a kind of cultural race to the bottom, where an increasingly, and willfully, ignorant society descends hand in hand down each rung of the ladder with the forces that would enlighten it. I know this sounds elitist, and perhaps it is. Our culture is changing, and Ron is right that it is unproductive to shout down from pulpits and mountaintops. I agree with the notion of creating art about now, embracing and working with the realities we live in. I just hope we do not throw out the Chekhovs and O'Connor's altogether in our quest to be "current". Thanks very much for the thought provoking-article, and to all those who commented.

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Feb 1, 2013 | Media Debate, About Fiction