“The great artist is he who goes a step beyond the demand, and, by supplying works of a higher beauty and a higher interest than have yet been perceived, succeeds, after a brief struggle with its strangeness, in adding this fresh extension of sense to the heritage of the race.”—George Bernard Shaw, The Sanity of Art

The Awl’s Maria Bustillos wrote a fascinating piece on the art of critique, with specific focus on literary criticism versus popular criticism. From “What Makes a Great Critic?”:

It has ever fallen to critics and journalists to create new ways of looking at new things, to relate the message of art to audience. The artist (or the scientist, or the politician) is necessarily absorbed in his own craft. The critic’s concern by contrast is the audience, which includes himself. He’s the citizen, the moviegoer, the diner, the art lover. He fashions his own experiences into a kind of bridge to new places we might not otherwise have cared (or maybe even dared) to visit. He creates or extends the shared experience that is the real purpose of culture.

Or maybe the critic just says the expected thing, seeing the movie or reading the book from the establishment point of view, making no personal connection either with the work or with the reader. Nobody remembers or really engages with such writers at all, but they are “safe” for establishment purposes and they can be trusted to not get into any snafus with Warren Beatty (as Kael once did). George Bernard Shaw once described this timid, conformist mentality perfectly, pointing out that there is always a change-resistant establishment against which the undeceived and openminded critic must fight.

It only gets better from there, with Bustillos contrasting the efforts of great critics against one another and popular literature and literary thinking, and is a nice history of literary critique to boot. Take a minute to read “What Makes a Great Critic?” on The Awl, and then come back to discuss it with us.

What do you think, LitStackers? Does a healthy knowledge of literary core automatically equal a great critic, or are other, less scholarly factors at play?

We want to hear what you think!

3 thoughts on “Discussion: What Makes a Great Critic?”

  1. "As a lover of good criticism, I am asking, or demanding (more like begging, really), that this passion and immediacy be the first quality that should recommend a critic to public notice." Everything is subjective, especially whether we adore or abhor a work of art, written or otherwise. The thing is, as Bustillos says, to tell us why, then sit back and watch the agreement/disagreement. Watch and enjoy. Too often, we just want everyone to agree with us. Sick. And no fun. Agree, disagree, love, hate–but do it with passion and abandon and love of the game.

  2. But it's hard to say that everything is subjective. If we're using our experiences with past work (maybe the "literary core," but maybe not) as guideposts when we look at contemporary lit, we're creating some standards by which to make our statements about that work. Whether it's criticism of style or concept or whatever, those choices should be informed by the way in which the art form has developed over time…unless we're dealing with certain, especially fluffy texts that are more popular entertainment than literature. If everything really were subjective, there would be no especially good reason for this site to get 2,500 hits per week, and crazed Amazon posters would rule the world of criticism. We don't have to pretend to be that democratic.

    And I think you've got to be able to draw a dividing line between popular criticism and literary criticism, in that one shares an opinion of whether or not a book is enjoyable, and the other judges its artistic merit by placing it within the context of a very old tradition. To explore the development of that tradition through the pages of a single work is to get to the real excitement of literary criticism, and to allow it to continue to progress alongside the art.

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