What criticism might be

What is criticism?

At its best, a piece of criticism is something smart said about a thing that is smart. It is the type of criticism which most criticism aspires to be; it is also the most fundamentally redundant. It puts in words what was already in terms that the heart already knew and the body already felt. It is a description of a caress to the cheek, an explication of a sucker punch to the gut. It helps us mutually recognize certain qualities in the smart things we might wish to ourselves create without giving us the literal tools we need to create smart things ourselves. If it were so easy, after all, there would be no dumb things, and we would not require these answers printed at the back of the book.

On a lesser rung, a piece of criticism is something smart said about a thing that is dumb. It is, in theory, the most utilitarian form of criticism, in that it can provide insight to creators of things into what makes a thing dumb, so that more new things that are created will be smart instead of dumb. The continued existence of dumb things, however, points either to the cultural irrelevance of smart criticism about dumb things, or to the fundamental laziness of people in the business of creating. Often taking the form of “hit pieces,” this form of criticism is often the most subjectively entertaining, a fact which, in turn, reveals certain less-than-flattering aspects of those of us who participate in cultural conversations.

Far less useful or desirable is the piece of criticism that stands as a dumb thing said about something smart; this level of criticism can even be seen as dangerous in so far as it may pass itself off as smart and in turn somehow superior to the object of its attacks. In this sense, this type of criticism can validly be subjected to derision. However, dumb things can also be said about smart things not out of ill-will but quite by accident; such criticism can usefully be turned into the opening of further conversation with the purpose of correcting the original perceptions and further illuminating the original subject to the greater benefit and understanding of all involved. In this sense, it is perhaps the most useful type of criticism: the thing said not as a conclusion but as an introduction, a subjugation of one self to the process of meaning-making.

Finally, at its basest form, criticism is something dumb said about another thing that is dumb. While it may often be safely disregarded, it may not be forgotten, as it is, after all, a fundamental and essential underpinning of the system of intelligence which is veined throughout the culture of criticism.

Criticism, in so far as it is deeply connected with intelligence, is also firmly ensconced in a system of privilege. Freedom of thought, the time required to pursue thought and develop works of thought, whatever financial or physical resources may be required to engage with thought and works of thought; all signs of a privileged status in contemporary society. Gender, race, religion, class–all play into a system of privilege that is inescapable. Recognizing the role of privilege in critical conversations opens one’s eyes to the ideological nature of all said discussions: it is just not a question of what a smart thing is and what a smart thing said about that thing is but who is it who says these things and makes these things and who is it that grants that these things are, in fact, smart?

Of course, it also stands to reason that, beyond the influence of ideological concerns, there is a gradation of critical intelligence and the relative smartness of our cultural artifacts: there is a smartest thing said about the smartest thing there is, and the dumbest thing said about the dumbest thing there is. What, then, are those things?

Who is the most privileged? Who, in short, is winning?

Because I needed a way to make The Instructions feel like a short beach read I went ahead and read War and Peace and it was good

Things went from “I’m busy and then I’m lazy when I’m not busy” to “wow I’m really completely busy” to “well I guess I’m busy but now I’m also mostly lazy since I know I’m just going to be busy again soon” so I haven’t properly post-mortem’ed my reading of War and Peace, a book that I read somewhere in there between the being busy and the being lazy. Here goes.

First, the great thing about War and Peace, is that when you’re not reading a lot, or you’re not reading as much as you might like I should say, because you are being too busy and/or lazy to read as much as is proper, when you’re sitting there thinking you’re way under-read for the year, you can look up at your pile of books you’ve read in the current calendar year, and you can see War and Peace sitting there, and you can say, well, I read War and Peace. I did that thing nobody really does. Even though I was busy! Even though I was lazy! And you can pat yourself on the back, because guess what: you win. You read War and Peace. You are a better person than you were a few short months earlier.

Second, the other great thing about War and Peace, is that War and Peace is actually really great. It’s a really great book. The question people who have not read War and Peace will ask you is, is it worth it? Is it worth reading this book everybody talks about and nobody actually reads? And then when you’ve read it you can answer that yes, actually, it is a great book, and it is worth it, and when you’re done, you’ll sort of wish it was longer, because it sort of felt short. As short as a 1200+ page novel can feel, at least.

See, here’s the thing they don’t tell you when they tell you that War and Peace is this great book that nobody reads: War and Peace is a great book that is entirely readable. At least, in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, the one I read, it was entirely readable. On a basic human activity level, fundamentally, as a thing that a person has to sit with and doWar and Peace is readable prose; it is story with characters and plots and digressions and you don’t need a doctorate in doctorology to make your way through the thing. Because it’s great literature doesn’t mean it isn’t funny and sad and moving. It is a book. I enjoyed engaging with it.

It is, of course, however, still a long novel, as will most every novel I’ll read between now and likely the end of this year be; it is true that a cup of coffee will help propel you through the pages at a bit more steady of a clip, and you’re going to hit points when you realize you’ve read four books worth of text before you’ve even hit the halfway point. But then you keep going and weeks or months later you finish and you feel good for doing so because it was enjoyable far more often than it was not.

Which probably all seems like a shallow read of the book and I admit, perhaps it is. Perhaps I did not read this book like a blogger looking for a scoop or like a student looking for a paper topic or like a reviewer looking for a lede. Perhaps the next time–because I believe there will in fact be a next time!–I read War and Peace I’ll read it with a few extra hats on and a few more pairs of glasses and I’ll drink the coffee straight from the pot. But here, now, I’m please to submit a defense of War and Peace as a book that can be read purely for the pleasure of reading the book even when there’s a lot of other things going on in your life and that it works just fine for that purpose. In evidence of my defense I submit myself. Case closed!

Also I think the book changed how I view history, at least a little bit. Well. So. There’s that, too.