In the current issue of Harper's, novelist Cynthia Ozick takes off on—what else?—the state of "serious" fiction in this country. Beginning with the now decade-old feud between the novelists Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus, Ozick goes on to examine the role, or what she thinks should be the role, of the novelist: to be a "news-bringer," to provide cultural context for the serious reader.
So far, so good, I guess. But then Ozick's 8,000-word essay takes an interesting turn. The problem is not the dearth of good, serious fiction, she suggests. Nor is it solely that the folks who would have been readers a generation ago are now lured away by the electronic media, or as she calls them, "pixels." No, she says, "the real trouble lies... in what is not happening. What is not happening is literary criticism." Except for a few "real" critics—James Wood, for one, whom she quotes extensively—publishing and the public are awash in book chatter, thanks to book clubs, the Internet, the trade, the consumer press, not to mention publishers themselves, "a book's first and perhaps most influential reviewer." But these book reviewers (unlikely to be Nobel-winning novelists, she points out) are to literary critics what masons are to architects. Too narrow in their concerns, and lacking the interest or ability to to draw larger cultural conclusions.
Is it really possible that there are only a dozen or so worthwhile critics out there, as Ozick suggests? Maybe—but only if you hold with her assertion that the only valuable critic is one who does the heavy building. Yes, it's true that many mainstream reviewers, particularly Amazon.com's, are naïve and untutored. But so what? No serious reader takes an Amazon or Entertainment Weekly review as lit crit. Like a certain talk show host with the power to make or break an author in a single hour, these reviewers are not making "literary judgments." They're simply telling like-minded people what they do and don't enjoy reading.
Although it's never explicitly stated in her piece, I bet Ozick would not disagree that all this speaks to the dumbing down of American letters. I might not disagree, either, except that I bet if you looked at the total number of books published every year (ca. 200,000) and the total that a purist like Ozick would deem serious (a few handfuls), the hard numbers have barely changed. Besides, Ozick herself admits that novelists will always be out there writing novels because that is, well, what they do. So does the lack of sophisticated criticism matter? Of course it does, especially to anyone who wants to view literature in the larger context. But for most readers—and, I daresay, most publishers (who are not so much, as Ozick insists, part of the reviewing process as desperate for a crumb of it)—some news is better than no news at all.
To that end, I can't wait to see Oprah interview Cormac McCarthy, whose The Road she just picked for her book club. Will it be a culture-probing tête-à-tête with a writer who has met Ozick's serious standards? Maybe not, but thanks to our leading noncritic, lots and lots of people who've never heard of McCarthy are going to read him. Oh, that hoi polloi: they may have trouble placing authors in the literary landscape, but they're pretty good at putting them on the map.
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