What motivations shape a critic’s decisions to write about the books they defend and those they dismiss? And what are the ethical or moral dimensions of those decisions? Beyond mere conflicts of interest, what lines do they draw for themselves in their work? Are there personal forces or experiences that affect their preferences about what to read and review?
In this ongoing series of interviews with critics, one of the central questions will be, “What is a critic’s role?” It’s a broad question, open-ended, but one which can be used, if the critic chooses, to address the personal side to their lives as critics, and perhaps how they see their work affecting society and culture.
Daniel Evans Pritchard took the time recently via email to talk about some of these questions during a discussion that ranged from his reflections on the effect of focusing solely on writing by women and writers of color for a year to the possible fates of respected literary journals that refuse to address biases in the kind of writing they support.
Daniel is a poet, translator, and essayist living in Greater Boston. He is the founding editor of The Critical Flame, an online journal of literature and culture, as well as a board member at Salamander Magazine and consultant to AGNI. Some of his writing can be found in the Drunken Boat blog, Prodigal, Rain Taxi, Little Star, The Quarterly Conversation, The Buenos Aires Review, and elsewhere. He works as a communications, marketing, and development professional. Find him on Twitter at @pritchard33.
What early influences do you think led to your becoming a poet, essayist, and editor? I’m curious about experiences you’ve had along the way with writing or writers that made this kind of life and career seem attractive.
Well, I’d love to trace it all back to a single book. It would make for a good story. Plenty of real books from my past could serve: the Shel Silverstein volume that was a gift from my absent father; my grandfather’s collected Sherlock Holmes, his complete set of National Geographic. Shelves and shelves of books were filled and refilled by my mother, who never denied me a new one, no matter how badly off we were, and never refused a trip to the library. These all contributed to my love of language, to my interest in ideas, to my appreciation of what’s possible in writing. But plenty of my peers read as much as I did and didn’t become writers or editors, I suppose.
In retrospect, I was a tough case as a kid, isolated and emotional and awkward, getting in fights, getting sent to the principal’s office once or twice a week, and then I nearly lost my mom to a stroke when I was eleven. That experience fell so far beyond my ability to articulate it that any kind of masterful speech came to seem like a kind of magic. And it sort of is magic, isn’t it? Sleight of hand. An effect produced by very mundane methods: words in a certain order. Well, difficult experiences made the unmeasurable, irrational, arbitrary dimensions of life vivid and tangible. They brought the inscape into focus, though it remains outside immediate understanding, a territory that can only be described in ever less ineffective words.
After my mother got sick, I just poured all my emotion into schoolwork. My family weren’t wealthy or highly educated, but they were readers, and that helped me get pretty good grades. I was trained for analytic thought through a succession of Catholic schools (thanks to my mother, who worked three and four jobs at a time), which is probably what makes critical work appealing. The word and the Word, all that. And I have always felt separate from people — could be only child syndrome — which might be why I had the gall to start and edit a publication mostly on my own.
Poetry is the more difficult one to explain. I hate to chalk it up to taste, which is to the arts what the market is to economics: the word we use when we can’t otherwise explain what’s going on. I’d like to say that poetry represents the cultivation of intellect and emotion twined tightly around each other, inextricable from root to branch. But that doesn’t even really describe all the poetries I like to read; and then, what art form doesn’t that describe, to some degree?
You know what? I take it back. Let’s just attribute it all to A Light in the Attic.
Yes, I have to agree about magic — to choose just one part of what you’ve mentioned — that the best writing has a somewhat mystical quality, or produces that kind of feeling. And as you said it so well, it achieves that using such mundane means, just a trick of word order. Does the task of a critic then involve studying the abilities of a writer or poet to produce this kind of magic? That is, among the many ways critics approach their task, what kind of criticism are you drawn to?
I’m drawn to many styles of criticism, depending on my mood or the topic. One type puzzles out the way writers use language to produce imaginative, intellectual, and emotional responses in readers, absolutely. Almost all criticism probably does a bit of that. But another type might focus more on the means of production. Another might focus on the operation of gender. Another on the way a work represents a theory of mind, or a religious idea, or a cosmology. Each of these types of criticism have slightly different modes, drawing from different traditions. They all serve equally well to challenge and expand our understanding — of the work, the world, each other, ourselves.
As soon as you try to define a standard there comes along some genius who’s ready to explode the boundaries you just set. That may be more true in art than in criticism. But if there’s a cohesive quality to the type of critical work that interests me, that quality is probably related to rigor. Reader response, for instance — criticism in which a writer describes their experience of a book — probably comes closest to an exploration of that magical effect. It’s a perfectly valid type of criticism and some of it is really great. But it’s not enough to say: I felt this way, I felt that way, the book was compelling, the book was boring, two stars, four stars.
A good critical essay, to my mind, should always be taking the reader more deeply into the why behind whatever its focus is. Don’t explain the technicalities of a stanza without telling me why it matters, why it’s effective, why the poet might have chosen that specific language and structure. Don’t just track a motif across a novel, tell me what the author is doing and what that does for the reader. Dare to be completely wrong, as long as you dare. If the work is worth writing about at all, there’s probably another layer of analysis waiting. Channel your inner four-year-old. Why, why, why, why, why, ad nauseum.
Now, I’m excluding distant reading / digital humanities. And I know DH is the happening thing. (Can I just say, as an aside, that whenever I see “DH” used as an acronym, I think Designated Hitter. That will never not be the case.)
Large-scale, cumulative data collection and analysis can be fascinating. I love a good data visualization as much as the next nerd, and the digital tools at hand have huge potential. But I’m not sure we’ve learned to ask the best questions of the technology yet. It always feels like there’s a missing dimension of analysis, or else there’s a mismatch between the technological and critical fluency behind the project. Digital humanities has facilitated some great research, but it has almost become more interesting for what it asks about the humanities, funding, buzzwords, corporatization, technology, interpretation, premises, frameworks, scholarship, analytic breadth, etc. Almost.
In 2014, at your online literary journal The Critical Flame, you announced a year of reviewing only women and writers of color. In your announcement you wrote, “If there is a cycle of criticism / reviews, book sales, and publishing trends that perpetuates the unjust inequalities we’re seeing today, then CF will act in some small measure to break it.” Looking back at that experience now, with a couple years’ hindsight, what does it feel like in terms of accomplishment, or resolve? Have you changed your opinions or seen any change that gives you cause to feel better or worse about the dominance of white male authors in publishing?
I can’t say that my opinion has changed. It’s outrageous that any general literary-intellectual journal should be publishing women writers and writers of color at the paltry rates that we’re still seeing. It marks a journal as being out of touch with the most important artistic and intellectual discussions happening today. I realize that the literary sphere is just like the rest of society, every bit as flawed, and that the struggle in literary culture mirrors the struggles for inclusiveness and equality in society at large — but literary publishing is my community, and this is a space where I have the opportunity to bring my ethics directly to bear. I want it to be better, and it can be. It should be better. The excuses have worn thin.
I’m not optimistic about the survival of journals that don’t effectively alter their publishing practices. They’re going to struggle to find readers. I wouldn’t be shocked if we lost some of the standard-bearers of literary culture.
Collapsing journals is a pretty good segue, actually. When I launched The Critical Flame, literary-intellectual periodicals were seriously foundering. Our mission at the outset was generalist, oriented toward reviews and lit crit. Trying to pick up the slack. Today a lot of good literary outlets are publishing longform critical work, so that original mission began to feel less urgent. The year of covering only women authors and authors of color was a response to the changing needs of the literary ecosystem, inspired in large part by the VIDA Count. (I was fortunate to be invited to serve on the VIDA board for several years as well.)
From the inception, I had total faith in the amount of high-quality writing. There are more serious, strong writers than there are outlets to publish longform work. The only risk, the only reason the project might fail, I knew, would be my own limitations as an editor — not because there wasn’t enough worthwhile work, but because I hadn’t done enough to connect with the writers.
I don’t think it failed. There are definite shortcomings, my own. But we published six very good editions and capped the year off with a special issue on Adrienne Rich. I think we also made CF known as a place where writing from every perspective is truly, whole-heartedly welcome. In the end, I also realized that what I really wanted was to re-imagine Critical Flame as a place where readers could find more of the kind of work they might be missing at other journals. So, diverse writers and subjects, more small press titles, more translation (we’re planning a special translation issue in Nov/Dec 2016), as well as interviews that focus on ideas (rather than the writing life) and unique literary nonfiction. Not that we don’t also publish generalist intellectual essays and book reviews. There’s room for that work. But I hope to strike a different balance at CF than elsewhere. That feels like a meaningful contribution to the larger literary conversation.
But do critics and editors have a duty to bring these ethical considerations into play in their work? Because many of these long-standing, well-known journals — many of which continue to do very poorly according to the VIDA count — still survive and wield influence to a great degree. Ethical decisions don’t seem to matter in their case. One could argue that sticking to their old version of ethical criticism, often defended as focusing on the “best” writing, the kind of work that people with “taste” want to read, suits their purposes just fine. That is, there’s plenty of money to be made feeding the audience for the white male patriarchal canon.
Editors and critics do bring ethical considerations to their work, just as they do every part of their lives. It’s not a question of whether. It’s a question of which values they prioritize. Some employ a different set of ethics in their work than in the voting booth, or in their private lives. Intentionally, maybe? Or maybe not. I guess plenty of liberal technocrats would abandon the most vulnerable populations for more efficiency. Dissonance between the things people believe about themselves and their actual values, as practiced, is not unusual. In either case, editors and critics already carry ethical considerations with them. We all do. We are all, consciously or not, working these concepts out.
I think expectations within the general readership have been changing pretty significantly across generations. If the median subscriber age of your journal is sixty or older, and you’re not addressing these editorial issues, you may be facing some hard years ahead. We’ll see how they fare. I could be completely wrong. It doesn’t take much to keep a journal running, in the grand scheme of things. Just a modest amount of money and the willingness to lose it for the sake of something more valuable.
Taste, at least the predominant use of the term today, is a function of social milieu, a performance of authority rooted in identity. The construction of a set of superlative guidelines — the “best” that editors reach toward — is always already ethical and historical. That’s why “best writing” is so often understood, especially by writers and readers coming from marginalized communities, as “writing that reflects a social identity in which I am already comfortable participating,” so that the juxtaposition between the natural diversity that ought to exist and “best writing” seems to expose the person’s low valuation of the voices, aesthetics, experiences, and identities being locked out.
Taste isn’t a thing you cling to, it’s a thing you destroy. It stands between you and the work. I frequently re-read, re-listen, re-watch work, and also revisit my own essays, so I can try to differentiate my own reactions from socially-constructed tastes. It’s an eternally incomplete process. The changes from one reading to the next give me useful insight into my biases and blind spots. I get to see how my socially-conditioned reactions were limited, and thus how my understanding is limited — and it so is. There’s so much more to know, always, and more than I’ll ever grasp on my own. I get to see how my own past judgments align with my ethics, and then if they don’t, why not. We’re all inscrutable to ourselves, so you have to keep digging. Stasis means failure.
This interview was originally published July 2, 2016, by Necessary Fiction.