Criticism

As a practicing critic, I once thought that literature need not be "new" to be good. Criticism of the "new" was merely a specialty of mine; it was only one of several strong critical interests.

I later believed that a work might be "better" if it were new as well as "good"--its innovative quality became a positive increment, so to speak, upon its artistic base.

Then I judged that a work was not consequential unless it were new, because only by realizing innovation did it earn a place in the history of art. By this time I was avoiding questions of quality.

By now it is clear to me that simply by being radically innovative, simply by discovering possibilities for literary art, a work is worthwhile, both esthetically and ethically. Simply, if a new work does not particularly resemble anything done before--if it is clearly original--it is good, solely for that reason. Thus, only by realizing innovation can a work be truly significant; only what is new deserves serious consideration.

An ABC of Contemporary Reading (1995)

My general sentiment is that there is only one art, which is Art; but among its forms are music, poetry, painting, etc. The qualities we admire in one art are largely the qualities we admire in other arts, whether they be invention, for those with avant-garde tastes, or the fulfillment of conventions, for conservatives; tastes of all kinds are always prepared to acknowledge a unique handling of the materials of any art.

On Innovative Music(ian)s (1989)

I now think that true criticism exists apart from any particular subject. The best criticism reflects radical skepticism as a cast of mind, literally a mental direction, that can enlighten a great variety of possible issues, some of which have not previously been examined as closely. Most of these essays depend upon reading critically—not just texts but experiences. The processes, procedures, and prerequisites informing true scrutiny are themes of this collection. In writing, as in riflery, straight shooting is not born but developed. . . The measure of the stronger critic, in any field, is seeing further and deeper.

Skeptical Essays (2010)

I have been writing literary essays for more than forty years now. Since most of them appear in periodicals of limited circulation, it becomes necessary for me to collect the most valuable of them into books. Earlier self-anthologies have been devoted to essays on poetry, fiction, visual art, music, culture, performance, and politics. Composed mostly of previously uncollected literary essays, written over the past twenty years, this is the first emphasize literature and literary life in general. Since I am a contemporary writer, who came of cultural age in the last third of the twentieth century, it is scarcely surprising that my sense of literature, as both a creator and a critic, includes writing in new media, such as audio and video.

Most of the essays reflect the theme announced in the title, dealing as they do in various ways with the experience of being independent in the age of affiliation, a writer in more than one genre in an age of specialists, a radical among conservatives, consciously avant-garde at a time when innovation was proclaimed impossible, and a literary artist attuned to possibilities offered by new technologies. Since the activity reportedly reflects integrity at various levels, other recurring themes will no doubt become apparent. In my essays, as in my career, I've tried to go beyond–above and sometimes below—what others have done, especially in appreciating what others miss, dismissing what is commonly praised, and in telling truths about literary politics. Lacking power or a secure position, I wouldn't have survived had I attempted anything less.

Person of Letters (2010)

What unites the present conservatives of art and criticism is a constellation of slogans that argue that there is nothing "avant-garde" in art today, or cannot be, because the tradition of the new, or the history of doing what has not been done, has come to an end; but this kind of shibboleth, like predictions of the end of technological progress, is continually refuted by history. One need only compare a work by Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning with one by Roy Lichtenstein or Frank Stella to see how radically painting changed in the nineteen sixties, only compare the history of sculpture with pieces by Claes Oldenburg or Robert Morris to realize how certain works in old art forms are distinctly new, only compare the dance of Martha Graham with Merce Cunningham's later pieces to gauge a difference that represents a leap in style. The arts do not necessarily evolve, in the sense of becoming more complex or advanced and/or building upon previous achievements, but change indeed they do.

Metamorphosis in the Arts (1969, 1980)

With few professional cemeteries to defend, I can from an independent position expose people and institutions of all kinds for failing to realize what they pretend to be or are commonly understood to be. I'm still the snotty little kid, no doubt too big for my age, noticing not that this emperor is too conservative or too radical but that, look, he has no clothes.

Skeptical Essays (2010)

In classifying critics, one can usually separate the initiators from the protégés. The former explore new terrain, either in their choice of subject or in their analytical strategy; their works tend to arouse the scorn of their elders, precisely because they transcend conventional notions of appropriate subject matter or appropriate modes of understanding. Protégés, by contrast, reaffirm reputations established before they arrived, sharing the likes and dislikes of their entrenched elders; they also write with unremarkable style and approach works of art in conventional ways. Among a slightly older generation the epitome has been John Leonard (b. 1939), whose collected criticism, tellingly entitled This Pen for Hire (1973), rarely discusses writers younger than himself. Indeed, in his reviews of critics, he discusses no one younger than Richard Gilman (b. 1926). It is, thus, no surprise that Leonard was chosen, at a young age, to edit the New York Times Book Review or that he was, until recently, the only person born after 1935 to serve on the literature panel of the National Endowment for the Arts. In the past decade, it was profitable for an ambitious young person to ignore his contemporaries.

Younger Critics in North America (1976)

So strongly do I believe in the freedom to read and the freedom to write that never have I tried to censor myself or anyone else. Nothing is ipso facto “unpublishable”—just unpublished, only temporarily, may I hope. I've never forewarned that anything written or said by me was “off the record.” May I hope, and this is more important, that I never withheld a truth.

Skeptical Essays (2010)

Another more crucial distinction separates the genuine critics from the reviewers. The latter publish largely in periodicals, rarely writing more than a thousand words at a time. They prefer small subjects to large ones; and whatever critical perceptions they have are customarily diluted with gossip, extraneous detail and personal impression. Their reviews are rarely reprinted in books, simply because these writings cannot survive retrospective scrutiny. Though most critics also write reviews, their major works appear in longer forms--essays, if not books. The practice of criticism depends upon sufficient space to develop an idea and sufficient freedom of style and content to articulate one's best perceptions. Criticism is defined by the capabilities of the writer; reviewing, by the limitations of the medium. Most reviewers are eat-and-run eclectics, to introduce another distinction, while critics are usually committed to a certain position and analytical strategy, which is generally their own invention. The former often seem easily swayed, 'if not opportunistic, while the latter are sometimes deceived by their commitments into praising works that they will later find less laudable. One reason why the position-takers tend to write longer works is that a large body of material succumbs more easily to a thesis than to a succession of separate perceptions.

Younger Critics in North America (1976)

Since the epithet "minimal" implies a great degree of reduction, pursuing freedom within a severe constraint, the false use of "minimal" in some circles nowadays, to characterize a certain strain of considerably more verbose post Hemingway short stories, is nothing less than vulgar.

Preface to Minimal Fictions (1994)

[John Krich] seems to think as long as his heart is "politically correct" he can write whatever he wants, though my own sense is that a writer makes up stuff only about people regarded as inferior to himself, who pose no threat with a corrective reply.

“The Illusion of Expertise” (1990)

The truest measure of Slonimsky's genius for writing [dictionary] entries is that others have written books comparable to his autobiographical Perfect Pitch (1988) or even his panoramic Music in Latin America (1945), but, no one, not even a multiperson committee, can rival the latest [and last] incarnation of Baker's. The only person who could have written it is Samuel Johnson, alas dead for two centuries and not particularly knowledgeable about music. Considering the two exemplars together, it is hard not to conclude that one measure of a major critic is that he or she writes at least one dictionary.

“Nicolas Slonimsky & Samuel Johnson” (2002)