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The Breakdown Of Criticism Before The Printed Deluge

We live in an age awash with bad books. This fact, though that statistical non-entity the average reader may be unaware of it, constitutes the greatest crisis facing literature at the end of this century. It has for some time been axiomatic among critics that the sheer volume of new works has effectively silenced their profession; it is simply impossible to cover or recommend or dismiss the desideratum of even narrow disciplines. In the commercially negligible realm of poetry, nearly 1,000 new collections appear annually. In such commercially viable forms as the novel, the number is probably ten times that. Before such a paper deluge, which drowns even the professional critic, what hope for the average reader? The critic already knows what everyone else is learning, and that is Gresham’s Law exists, and applies to print.

[private]Having survived the ideological schisms of the 1930’s, the culture wars of the 1980’s, and all the morasses of the decades in between, it seems rather strange that writers should ultimately be defeated by themselves, or more properly, by their numerical proliferation but such is the historical situation facing us today. For all the talk of new technologies, of televisions and computers, what we are witnessing is the ultimate development of an antique–the hypertrophy of the printing press. The exquisite French critic Remy de Gourmont predicted this state of affairs nearly a century ago:

In a certain sense, the printing press was a hindrance to the practice of letters. It exercised a selectivity and cast contempt on writings that had not succeeded in being printed. This situation still obtains, but is attenuated by the low cost of mechanical typography. The invention that threatens us now– a home printing apparatus– would multiply by three or four times the number of books, and we would find ourselves in the situation of the Middle Ages: everyone who is the least literate– and others, as is the case today– would venture his little lucubration which he would pass out to his friends before offering it to the public. All progress ends by negating itself. Having arrived at its maximum expansion, it tends to reestablish the primitive state which it was intended to replace.

The situation of poetry, in these conditions, is peculiar for one reason: it exists, unlike the serious novel or the play, almost exclusively as a non-commercial medium. Now, all of the arts are sustained by some degree of popular success, or by their proximity to popular (and thus, commercial) success. The Broadway musical attracts an audience to the theater, even to the theater of Moliere, as dime-store adventure novels attract boys to The Count of Monte Cristo. Poetry, however, finds no audience today through its popular manifestations, makes no best-seller lists, and languishes as an academic specialization. It has no recognized laws, no standards, and thus, formless, has become the form that everyone may attempt.

The breakdown of criticism in letters is general, as I have said, but its effects on poetry have been particularly acute. For poetry depends upon critical praise, on the purer classifications of taste rather than on popularity, to advertise the best that has been thought and said. True poets depend upon critics to advertise their difference from their inferiors, though most are loathe to admit that fact. Indeed, this era has rendered the very name poet meaningless, since it confers that title on its popular singers, its performance artists, and eloquent journalists– in short, on anyone who uses language and wishes that dignity.

In such an environment, anthologies and surveys will abound because no one is sure what constitutes poetry and thus no one is certain what is not poetry. Lacking a set of critical principles, the age cannot discriminate between the authentic and the counterfeit. Critics will find everything either commendable or equally bad; poets will veer from one fashionable style to another, uncertain who to imitate. Publishing lists will expand, vanity presses multiply, as a shallow and misinformed culture bloats like any bureaucracy.

Until criticism asserts itself again, by its exercise of judgment and thus exclusion, poets will be free to construct their own Tower of Babel. Worst of all in such an onslaught, as criticism breaks down, libraries founder in their acquisition budgets, and lovers of poetry relent and read the classics, is that some new and important poet will surely be lost in anonymity, from the sheer number of his inferiors.[/private]

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- who has written 38 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world. The magazine was founded in 1998, and was one of the earliest literary reviews in the United States to be published exclusively on the Internet. His poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Criterion, Verse, the Weekly Standard, McSweeney’s, and the New York Sun. He is the editor of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Swallow Press, 2008) and Child of the Ocmulgee: the Selected Poems of Freda Quenneville (Michigan State University Press, 2002). His book of poems, Terminal Diagrams, is also available (Swallow Press, 2010). He served as the literary specialist of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2008. He currently serves as a multidiscipline specialist responsible for the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutes.

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