on criticism

on criticism

A fool might once himself alone expose,
Now one in verse makes many more in prose.

When Pope wrote those lines, in 1709, he assumed that critics (however foolish) would actually read the work they judged. This seems a reasonable and necessary foundation for criticism; unfortunately, the hard work of actually reading a work seems to defy the inclinations of at least one critic who loudly proclaims his love of literature.

Consider these remarkable lines:

More that a few people have asked me in the past year how I explain the enormous popular success of Robert James Waller's Madison County books. Although I haven't read either The Bridges of Madision County or Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, I answer with full confidence: They are selling the reader a fantasy of individuality and freewheeling independence.

This amazing assertion, from Sven Birkerts' The Gutenberg Elegies (Faber and Faber, 1994), seems to have escaped notice when this book -- a jeremaid against electronic writing -- was reviewed. The Boston Globe didn't mind that Birkerts didn't actually read some the works works he critiqued. The New Yorker seems not to have noticed the lapse. Publishers Weekly saw nothing unusual. These august journals saw only that Birkerts was defending Literature from technology, and responded reflexively with praise.

Birkerts' trouble with reading doesn't stop with popular fiction. He mentions only two hypertexts in the course of an entire monograph on the topic: Perseus, the landmark compendium of ancient Greek literature published by Yale University Press, and Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden. Moulthrop's writing isn't Birkerts' cup of tea; comparing Moulthrop to Cortazar, he finds Moulthrop "stylistically uninspired". This is a silly objection: we might as well dismiss Hemingway because his prose is less elegant than Melville's, denounce Becket for plotting less enthralling than Shaw's, or despise Renoir because his draftsmanship is inferior to Delacroix's.

In ev'ry work regard the writer's end,
Since none can compass more than they intend

Moreover, each critic brings taste and personal experience to his or her criticism; when trying to understand a new medium, it makes sense to choose those writers most likely to appeal to us rather than selecting a work at random. Birkerts gives no indication of having read much hypertext, or of having chosen to discuss Victory Garden for any particular reason.

Birkerts doesn't like Perseus, either. Or, at any rate, he doesn't like the advertising brochure that Yale wrote to describe Perseus. Birkerts spends a chapter describing the faults of the brochure; whether he actually examined the work itself is difficult to determine.

Was an effort made to save the writer from such an embarassment?

The appearance of the phrase, "Although I haven't read [the book] I answer with full confidence" in a book of literary criticism is remarkable. Did an editor at Faber & Faber notice this blunder? Was an effort made to save the writer from such an embarassment? Perhaps the editor felt safe in assuming that this extraordinary confession, which appears on page 203, would itself go unread by the book's reviewers.

The pity of The Gutenberg Elegies, though, is that beneath Birkert's nervous fear of technology, and beyond his nostalgia for an imaginary past -- a past where everyone spent their abundant leisure immersed in fine leather editions beside comfortable fires -- lies a very interesting observation: hypertext demands introspection. Faced with a link, we must think of ourselves, of what we want and what we feel, and whether or where to follow it. This is indeed new, it does change the narrative art, and it can transform the experience of reading. Unfortunately, Birkerts seems not to know of Jay David Bolter's Writing Space (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991), the indispensable (and very well known) book that originally raised the question. (It is difficult to be certain, because Birkert's list of Cited Material fails to mention some material that he cites).

Had Birkerts done his reading, his contribution might have been considerable. As it stands, he merely comforts those he says he fears -- those who can't bother to read deeply, to think seriously, or to judge critically.

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