Friday, October 21, 2016

Critical Thinking

I just read Cynthia Ozick's latest, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, And Other Literary Essays.  As the title suggests, it's a collection of her writings on literary figures--thirteen pieces, to be exact, plus introductions to various sections.  She takes on a lot of big names, such as Henry James, Edmund Wilson, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and others.

Among my favorite pieces:

Lionel Trilling.  Once a name to conjure with, now all but forgotten.  He was a noted critic, but Ozick reveals he wished he were a novelist.  She discusses his first novel, which isn't nearly so bad as critics of the time said (perhaps because he was too tough on communists), and the second, unfinished novel, that wasn't working at all.

Kafka.  She notes that Kafka needs to be saved from "Kafkaesque"--there are none who can capture his lucid yet ineffable mood, so why claim so much is like him? He also needs to be saved from those who say he transcends his era--of course he does, but that doesn't mean the facts of his life are irrelevant, and that, for example, his Jewishness doesn't come into play in his work.

Harold Bloom.  Probably the most noted living American literary critic.  And yet why does he get to decide which authors are taken up by the daemon, as he would have it?  And those more orderly authors who seem to write well, but don't receive his approval, what of them?

Ozick is what you want in a critic--knowledgeable (a good critic doesn't just know literature, but biography, history and philosophy at the very least), erudite, complex but always clear.  And she doesn't shy away from judgment--she explains her thinking, but doesn't feel the need to qualify it.  I'm not saying I always agree with her, but it's good to know where she stands.

Her opening essay is about the need for a culture of serious criticism in the literary world.  I suppose this book is a good start, which may be its intent.


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