This essay was originally published at Don’t Do it

In certain cultural circles there has been a recent spate of panels about criticism. The issues discussed at these events are always existential. Critics are invited to peer into the future marked ‘Digital Age’ and speculate about the consequences to their profession.

For anyone interested in pursuing criticism seriously, such events can be comforting: even when the prognosis is discouraging, the conclusions are never particularly surprising. Will criticism still exist? Yes, of course. Will critics still be paid? Sure, why not. That these issues take precedence is maybe unsurprising. Criticism, to the critic, can often feel like a field under siege: from industries and artists who would prefer to be left unmolested; from employers who believe the job should be done for free; from audience members who misunderstand, or even hate, the notion of an authoritative critical voice.

But in a cultural discourse that often takes criticism as a supplementary (or endangered) component to ‘real’ art and industry, authoritative and insightful critical analyses of criticism qua criticism are few and far between. Part of this may be that critical writing invites aspersions on the motives of the writer. An artist who criticizes a critic might be churlish. A reader who criticizes a critic might be ignorant. A critic who criticizes a critic might be some sort of cannibal.

Another part might be the still-sensible injunction against shitting where one eats.

Such concerns did not stop Renata Adler from publicly eviscerating her fellow New Yorker writer (colleague would imply a collegial atmosphere at the magazine) and famous film critic Pauline Kael in a 1980 issue of The New York Review of Books.

In ‘The Perils of Pauline’—a review of the collection When the Lights Go Down—Renata Adler takes a knife to Kael’s critical skin; ruthlessly paring it back and exposing the red workings underneath.

By 1980 Kael’s eminence was taken for granted, having established herself by becoming one of the key critical voices responding to the New Hollywood cinema of the late-sixties and seventies. But Adler just digs in to her, dragging all the idiosyncrasies and quirks in her thought and prose to the fore and mercilessly exposing them to view.

There’s a kind of Mean Girl frisson that comes with reading the piece, as though witnessing a schoolmate being cruelly dressed-down for wearing last year’s fashion.

It’s difficult to not feel a hint of sympathy for Kael. But it’s almost impossible not to exit the piece feeling that late-period Kael is more than a little bit silly—and harboring some serious misgivings about her earlier works, also.

The killing blow comes early on, when Adler writes that the book is ‘to my surprise and without Kael- or Simon-like exaggeration, not simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless. It turns out to embody something appalling and widespread in the culture.‘

The dual contention that forms the brace of Adler’s attack on Kael’s standing follows shortly: ‘To the spectacle of the staff critic as celebrity in frenzy, about to ‘do‘ something ‘to‘ a text, Ms. Kael has added an entirely new style of ad hominem brutality and intimidation; the substance of her work has become little more than an attempt, with an odd variant of flak advertising copy, to coerce, actually to force numb acquiescence, in the laying down of a remarkably trivial and authoritarian party line.‘

Adler’s complaints against Kael are two-fold, but joined at the hip. Kael—or Kael’s writing, if we want to be wishy-washy about it—is doing something. She is doing something to the texts she putatively addresses in her writing—the films—and she is doing something to her readers.

Adler’s issue with the former of these somethings is nebulous. Her issue with the latter she explicates at length. Both issues remain vital to anyone who persists in the belief that criticism can not just continue to exist but actually also exist well.

Kael’s prose, Adler tells us, makes war on her readers. Her limited, repetitive vocabulary, often used incorrectly; her employment of nonsense rhetorical questions; her aggressive imagery; her coercive use of ‘we‘ and ‘you‘ constructions: all this bears down on her audience until ‘it becomes hard to write in any other way; or, in the typographic clamor, to detect and follow a genuine critical argument.‘ Reading this stuff will, if not actually make you stupid, at the least interpellate you in a position of stupidity.

It’s useful, every so often, to be reminded that a well-formed sentence by a well-respected writer need not necessarily be contributing something helpful, interesting, or ‘true’ to the culture. Criticism of anything at all—be it art, literature, film, music—is at heart a rhetoric of persuasion and being effectively persuasive always requires some acceptable degree of rhetorical immoderation. The problem is in not going too far.

Kael’s critical identity lay in her apparent pseudo-sexual arousal by cinema. Her books have titles like I Lost it at the Movies, and Taking It All In, and she used lurid, physical language in an attempt to share and induce this arousal in her audience. But it is arousal to nowhere. Watching the work of, say, Brian de Palma can’t compare with the ecstatic, orgiastic states expounded on by Kael’s reviews of his films. Disappointment may follow; a disappointment which can, unchecked, develop into misapprehension of the films themselves.

This behavior might not be so bad—hyperbole is, after all, a perfectly acceptable critical stance under some circumstances—except that Kael’s writing brooked no disagreement. She dazzled her audience with meaningless interrogatives (‘Have you ever bought a statue of a pissing cupid?‘) and then enlisted them in a kangaroo court against the films, or against the hypothetical audience that might enjoy them. Meanwhile, she constantly projected emotions, thoughts and attitudes onto the work, its actors, and its creators that stretch the boundaries of what is reasonable to believe (not to mention stretching the boundaries of what is actually true; as in her famous dismissal of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for being shot on soundstage, when it had in fact been filmed on location). Eventually, the possibility of the reader inhabiting an alternative position in relation to the text, or of resisting the author’s exhortations, is drowned beneath a torrent of bullshit.

It sounds almost boring to point out that criticism should, at its best, expound upon the emotions and ecstasies offered by a text in proportion to those ecstasies which might actually occur in that text’s audience (or in that critic’s audience). Responsible criticism is non-totalising. Anything more does the text a disservice. A critic frames a text not only to establish a ground for understanding that text, but also to allow an audience to step into and out of its boundaries. Kael’s criticism, at its worst, is a labyrinth of mirrors. Her readers are informed that not only do they belong in the labyrinth, but that they have never belonged anywhere else.

On the other axis of her assault on Kael’s standing—that of the critic ‘doing something’ to the text—Adler is rather less demonstrative, or persuasive.

The idea begins with a germ of sympathy. A staff critic like Kael (and Adler had been one also, at the New York Times) is tasked with applying themselves week after week to the latest texts in their critical field regardless of whether those texts have any particular merit or the critic any particular interest in them. Such Sisyphean commitment inevitably exerts distortion upon the writer’s gifts. Adler identifies a few general tendencies that develop from this trap. Some critics hone their craft and distinguish themselves in the quality of their prose, or their general knowledge, or their personal insight. Some stay for a short while and then pursue their interests elsewhere.

Others go shrill: ‘[b]y far the most common tendency, however, is to stay put and simply to inflate, to pretend that each day’s text is after all a crisis—the most, first, best, worst, finest, meanest, deepest, etc.—to take on, since we are dealing in superlatives, one of the first, most unmistakable marks of the hack.‘ This is Kael’s sin. Such critics, we are led to suppose, whip themselves up into a frenzy in order to ‘do something’ to a text which otherwise does nothing for them.

It’s difficult to tell whether Adler is inveighing against the very idea of ‘doing something’ to a text, or merely those critics who over-exercise themselves in the doing. After all, ‘doing something’ to a text is the whole point of criticism. Art existing under no observation and withheld from all judgment is no art at all, but—perhaps—mere object. The role of the critic, when performed properly, is to construct a framework around an art text that enables that text to better perform as a conduit for meaning. This is, at a minimal level, the same job done by any person bringing their attention to bear on an artwork. Objects cannot speak their own significance. Only a mind can provide meaning.

A good critic simply builds a more refined, articulate, and informed frame than the layperson. A well-loved critic is a writer whose mind her readers prioritise alongside their own (or, in dysfunctional cases, above) when it comes to the task of evaluating art objects. Criticism exists to situate and delineate a text: historically, formally, technically, personally, culturally, etc. etc. This is what it ‘does’.

A critic who does nothing to a text is called a journalist. Or a publicist.

It is plain, also, that Adler is ‘doing something’ to Kael, i.e. making her the avatar for some cultural trend in rhetoric that she finds deplorable. As with the fulminations of the ‘hack’ critic, the genesis and focus of Adler’s concerns are not limited to the text at hand. Four years prior to her review of Kael’s work, in her debut novel Speedboat, first published in 1976, Adler’s protagonist—journalist Jen Fain— advances a familiar perspective on the state of contemporary rhetoric:

The physical-assault metaphor had taken over the reviews. “Guts“, never much of a word outside the hunting season, was a favorite noun in literary prose. People were said to have or to lack them, to perceive beauty and make moral distinctions in no other place. “Gut-busting“ and “gut-wrenching“ were accolades. “Nerve-shattering“, “eye-popping“, “bone-crunching“—the responsive critic was a crushed, impaled, electrocuted man. “Searing“ was lukewarm. Anything merely spraining or tooth-extracting would have been only a minor masterpiece. “Literally“, in every single case, meant figuratively; that is, not literally. This film will literally grab you by the throat. This book will literally knock you out of your chair. “Presently“ always meant not soon but “now“.1

I point this out not to advance a kind of ‘gotcha’ argument against Adler, but to illustrate that this ‘doing something’ to a text is not only the foundation of criticism, but the foundation of having anything interesting to say or think about a text at all. Of course, paradoxically, during the business of ‘doing something’ to the text, the text itself recedes into irrelevance. The subject of such writing is, as Adler puts it, ‘[o]nly the review, virtually divorced from movies, as its own end‘.

But if the recession of the text in significance is the consequence of the critic having something interesting to communicate, then so be it. The ‘objectivity’ of any critic is only valuable insofar as we use that word to refer to objective reality of their critical project independent of the texts under consideration.

The origin of a piece of criticism may be supplementary—to inform an audience about some new or newly relevant text or work—but this is not its end. With time, any body of critical writing becomes less about the substance of the texts being discussed and more about the quality or character of the writer’s mind.

Adler persuasively argues that Kael’s character is domineering, obsessive, and perverse almost to the point of neurosis—but, really, this should already be apparent to even the most cursory reader of her criticism. Acknowledging this hardly does her work a disfavor, nor detract from the special pleasures her writing offers us now, thirty-odd years later. Likewise, one needn’t have read Kael to take Adler’s point. Or to see that her review—widowed as it from the occasion of Kael’s publication and with its subject herself now dead—still exerts interest.

So, what of the future of criticism? With the field apparently in crisis—and having been so for a number of years—criticism starts to look something like a chronically sick patient, and, as in a debate about euthanasia, the existential issues are in danger of eclipsing the qualitative ones. Sure, criticism will still exist. But will it exist well?

Digital media publishing—as pioneered by some of the more economically successful web empires of today—rests a substantial portion of its bottom line on entangling readers in alluringly over-cranked, opinion-spouting click-bait, to the trivialization of both reader and subject matter. By contemporary standards, Kael’s seductively inane style might have needed little alteration to find a happy home in a place like Buzzfeed. And in certain lights it starts to look like the profit-driven publishers of the future will, by the inexorable financial logic of page views, come to value exactly the sort of rhetorical immoderation warned against by Adler, as the market space for the alternative dwindles into insignificance.

Adler’s observations, then, hold interest now no less than they did in her day. With all this talk about the future of criticism, is seems churlish not also to consider what criticism could and should aspire to be. After all, if a thing isn’t worth doing well, it isn’t worth doing.

1 Renata Adler, ‘Speedboat’, New York Review of Books, New York, 2013 (1976), 81.