The Future of Criticism

I grew up in the age of criticism. Back in the late 1970s, early 1980s, literary critics thrilled me. Mucho crazy, isn’t it? There were many people who read at Princeton when I was an undergrad. I don’t remember anything Joyce Carol Oates read. I don’t remember anything Richard Ford read. I remember Susan Sontag speaking. I remember Harold Bloom.

So this weekend I went to the Center for Fiction, this old-world establishment on 47th Street with carved ceilings to attend a conference on the Future of Criticism. There were two names that excited me on the schedule: Christopher Ricks and Denis Donoghue. Donoghue, born in 1928, is an Irish literary critic now teaching Irish literature, particularly Joyce and Yeats, at NYU. But for me he will always be the author of “Ferocious Alphabets.” It came out in 1981. It was about the “ideological strife” among critics. Donoghue disagreed–precisely and amiably–with French theory of the time that said the author was, in a manner of speaking, dead. Christopher Ricks, born in 1933, is a British critic who teaches at Boston University.  The book of my era that I treasured from him was his book on the British poet Geoffrey Hill, another literary crush of mine. I read and reread Hill and it helped to have Ricks 1978 book, “Geoffrey Hill and the Tongue’s Atrocities.”

Listening to them Saturday, I was transported. They are men “of wide reading and great cultivation.” That was Ricks describing T.S. Eliot. But it applies as much to Ricks and Donoghue as it does Eliot. So much of today’s culture seems, as critic and novelist Thomas Mallon noted on an earlier panel, a “race to the bottom.”  We are flooded, he said, with opinion but very little criticism. Ricks and Donoghue have devoted their lives to reading novelists and poets. Such a life choice seems fairly extraordinary now in this age when everyone wants to be a writer but no one wants to read.

Pick up their books, and if you ever have a chance to hear them speak, run, don’t walk.