In today’s world, what need is there for literary criticism? With do-it-yourself reviewing and online customer ratings, why bother searching out the so-called experts? These three authors have made careers out of writing about writing, and each makes a case for the continued relevance of, respectively, topical reviewing, feminist criticism and literary theory.
1The stand-alone book review is at once the most accessible and the most ephemeral act of criticism, which makes Robert Gottlieb’s Lives and Letters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30) easy to understand but hard to evaluate. The tome collects 44 of the great man’s essays, making it a telling if diffuse record of a life spent at the heart of Manhattan high culture at its postwar apogee. Gottlieb is a central figure in the history of American publishing; he was a legendary book editor at Knopf and the editor of the New Yorker. As a reviewer, however, he’s a sprinter, not a marathoner, and “Lives and Letters” makes for agreeable browsing without ever ascending into the transformative. Gottlieb has areas in which his opinions remain robust and enlightening — he’s particularly good on dance and on 19th-century theater — but cumulatively the essays lack a unifying vision: They’re fundamentally arts journalism, not literature. In a review of a long-forgotten biography of 1950s playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, Gottlieb calls its subject “interesting as an artifact of a vanished zeitgeist if not interesting in himself,” which could stand as an epitaph for this collection as a whole.
2Sandra M. Gilbert’s Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions (Norton, $29.95) is likewise the summation of a life’s work in the arena of ideas. Gilbert is one of the icons of second-wave feminism and the co-author of “The Madwoman in the Attic” (1979), a foundational document in the history of feminist thought. Reading these dense, closely argued, occasionally dry essays, one is struck by how vital their arguments are and by how much force they still carry. Whether deconstructing the myth of Sylvia Plath, which was “launched like a queen bee on its dangerous flight through everybody’s psyche,” or redefining Emily Dickinson as “quite consciously in a great tradition of women writers who have scorned patriarchal male definitions of what is important,” Gilbert practices a criticism that is careful, precise and methodical in its execution and radically, almost joyfully, revisionist in its intention. For all of the political and cultural gains made since these essays first appeared, many women still find themselves “marginal and silent tenants of the cosmic mansion” of literature. In its fierce pride and unapologetic polemics, “Rereading Women” stands as antidote, weapon and manifesto.
3Which brings us to the imposing Harold Bloom and his Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (Yale, $32.50), an almost comically grandiose overview of the idea of artistic influence in the culture of letters. Never mind trends in contemporary literature; Bloom thinks in the sweep of millennia, of intellectual patterns that unfold over centuries, of a vast and intricate labyrinth of interconnections between artists from Plato to Pater. To this “Anatomy of Influence” writer, all of the great minds of the past are equally present, as real to him as the postman is to you or me, and he is engaged in a constant discourse with them, sifting, comparing and judging. Much as a certain kind of baseball nerd will imagine what would happen if Babe Ruth were to bat against Roger Clemens, Bloom imagines Hamlet narrating “Paradise Lost.” Essentially reactionary, he disdains most postwar criticism as “New Cynicism” and thinks that “high-concept directors” of Shakespeare should be “shot at dawn.” A small, piping voice from the back of my interior mental classroom wonders if Professor Bloom’s casting of influence primarily in terms of philosophical inflection — as if verse were simply pretty gift wrap for abstract truths — is at times reductive. His description of Hart Crane as “a fellow Whitmanian yet one who did not write . . . in Whitmanian cadences,” for example, makes no sense to me. But Bloom would probably consider me hopelessly unsophisticated. In any event, it is pleasantly stimulating to grapple with such erudition and authority, traits that will continue to be pertinent even as our culture, in Bloom’s words, races “down the cliffs to intellectual suicide in the gray ocean of the Internet.”
Lindgren is a poet and musician who lives in Manhattan.