In a busy week for rockcrit as social media force, two pieces enraged and engaged the cognoscenti: the first questioned the musical knowledge of rock critics, the second mocked the idea of intelligent criticism of unfamiliar genres (I will not link to it). This H.L. Mencken quote from his essay “Criticism” I tend to carry around:
The thing that becomes most obvious about the writings of all such men, once they are examined carefully, is that the critic is always being swallowed up by the creative artist — that what starts out as a the review of a book, or a play, or other works of art, usually develops very quickly into an independent essay upon the theme of that work of art, or upon some that theme that it suggests — in a word, that it becomes a fresh work of art, and only indirectly related to the one that suggested it. this fact, indeed, is so plain that it scarcely needs statement. What the pedagogues always object to in, for example, the Quarterly reviewers is that they forgot the books they were supposed to review, and wrote long papers — often, in fact, small books — expounding ideas suggested (or not suggested) by the books under review. But every critic who is worth reading falls inevitably into these same habits. He cannot stick to his ostensible task: what is before him is always infinitely less interesting to him than what is within him. If he is genuinely first-rate — if what is within him stands the test of type, and wins an audience, and produces the reactions that every artist craves — then he usually ends by abandoning the criticism of specific works of art altogether, and setting up shop as a merchant in general ideas, i.e., as an artist working in the materials of life itself.
Some of my favorite essays — Helen Vender on Wallace Stevens, Greil Marcus’ using the Real Life Rock and Roll lists to address sociopolitical concerns, Robin Wood’s writings about gender roles in Ozu films — use the object under scrutiny as the peg on which to hang arguments; more importantly, not one of the examples cited goes so far into speculation that it abandons the poem, movie, or album in question. Vendler is never more precise than when she subjects one of her theorems to the test of a poet’s meter and rhyme. To be sure, I read excellent criticism that concentrates on the playing of music: Phil Freeman is an inspiration, and whenever I threaten to vanish into the ether I remember one of his metal or jazz reviews. In this age of “branding” and specialization, good writers have more freedom than ever if not the obligation to test approaches.
At the right age I devoured Oscar Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist,” a more elegant development of Mencken’s remarks, which came a couple of decades later. My knowing chords and scales from a year of clarinet in high school doesn’t allow me to pretend I can play music; but responding imaginatively to literature gave me the courage to test propositions.