La critique contemporaine – Magnifico
Text Émile Zola
At this moment, in France, critics are no more. This is the phrase I hear repeated all around me. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, but the role of critics is still hugely important. Of course I do not believe in their influence, direct or otherwise, at the aesthetic level. We no longer live at a time when authors were required to respect genres and rules, in which critics could give a rap on the knuckles like a country school teacher.
Critics no longer have the pedagogical mission to correct and point out errors in books as if they were a student’s assignment, to soil masterpieces with rhetorical and grammatical notes. Criticism has broadened. It has become an anatomical study of writers and their works. Critics examine a man, examine a book, they dissect it, they force themselves to demonstrate through what mechanism this man produced this book; they settle for explaining, for preparing a report.
The author’s temperament is explored, his methods and the circumstances in which he worked established; the piece is presented as the inevitable product, good or bad, of which it is merely necessary to demonstrate the raison d’être. In this way, every critique is limited to verifying an event, beginning with what caused it to be and moving on to the consequences of its existence. A composition of this kind undoubtedly contains a lesson and, seeing himself though such an accurate lens, the writer can reflect, become familiar with his weaknesses, and strive to conceal them as much as possible.
Just one thing, however: this lesson comes from above, it emerges from the very truth of the portrait, and is no longer the composed teachings of a professor. Critics expose, they do not teach. They understood on their own that their influence in the literary domain was practically worthless, as humors remain difficult to tame. And so they preferred explaining and interpreting the history of contemporary criticism. Therefore, the role of the critic today is to acknowledge current literary movements. They must be there, always present, to record new events, to observe the direction in which a new generation of writers is marching.
The public, evidently bewildered by originality, needs to be reassured and taken by the hand. A critic who has authority over his readers can be of great service. His readers accept everything he says and wait for him to speak so that they may blindly believe his every word. Thus, if his views are broad-minded enough, if he welcomes even those with the most unique of temperaments, he alone has the power to impose them upon a hesitant public. He will study these temperaments, demonstrate the rare qualities they possess, and in so doing educate a general public which will ultimately be tamed. There is no better role to fill than that of acclimating the masses to the unsettling splendor of genius. I will go even further to say that every generation, every group of writers, needs to have critics that understand and popularize them. It is understood that such critics must be born with the generation of writers that they will go on to unveil and impose. It needs the “flavor” of this generation, the same loves and the same antipathies.
A mere twenty years ago a newspaper was a serious tool that gave politics and literature all the space they required. Current events were relegated to the fourth page. People were loyal to one publication or another, they awaited articles from specific journalists, and they read them carefully, even if they were five columns long. The critics, during this happy time, were in their element. They were in no hurry, waiting even two months before talking about the latest book to have been published and then providing highly motivated opinions. Even readers, for their part, were patient. They demanded, in everything, integrity, talent, and justice. Now that has all changed. Newspapers today tend to exclude literature. Current events, in response to high demand, have taken over.
The press now exists as a vehicle for information, no longer bothering with the analysis of books and, moreover, readers do not ask for it. Publications are expected to describe what happened the day before in this or that hall, to describe homicides in 300 characters or less, with a nice portrait of the murderer, what he was eating, what he was drinking. Everything must be reduced to small, precise, and well-described events, the stark facts with no embellishments. If we continue like this, in fifty years newspapers will have been reduced to simple pages of advertisements.
It is easy to understand the fatal blow that information dealt to the critics. Scrupulously and conscientiously prepared studies are no longer in fashion. They took up space. The axiom of every director is that articles be brief.
The first word of every editor-in-chief has become: «Cover this topic in fifty lines or less!». It is no longer a question of conscience. An article about a book is expected to appear the day after the publication of the book itself or, even better, on the eve of its publication. No study is necessary, the book goes unread. Critics leaf through and cut the pages, randomly selecting words and, when the book is all cut up, they get to work on their fifty lines. Often they do not even talk about the book, they talk about anything concerning the book, just as long as the title and the name of the author are included. In fact, the most important thing is the news that the book has been released, which must be announced ahead of the other papers. As for the rest, in terms of the true merits of the work, its originality, its future influence, these matter little.
Under these conditions, improvised critics should be satisfied with announcing the publication of a book in two lines. The problem is that we have not yet reached this level of brevity. The critics add their own thoughts at random. They praise or criticize for their own reasons, without method. They stock pile errors, typos, lies, and nonsense of every kind. There is nothing more grievous than this spectacle in the newspapers when a book appears. Platitudes abound.
The fear of boring readers has done away with serious studies. The general public has acquired the habit of reading in haste, even with the ‘reading times’ of a given article.
Shear madness. We expect a man who lives a life as frenetic as ours to find fifteen minutes to read an engaging article? He would need to think, to find the intellectual strength. It would be a disaster. He is satisfied with clichés, with ideas that are easily assimilated by the mind. Enthusiasm, literary faith, all that which raises awareness, these obstruct digestion. We must comfortably go looking for adventure, saying black one day and white the next. The only lengthy articles tolerated by newspapers are those which include excerpts of works to be published shortly. Editors obtain the books before they reach the shelves, take the interesting passages, add several lines, and lure readers by claiming to be the first to offer this glimpse. This is low-cost editing. It is part of the system of indiscretion, which benefits from great favors these days. Every effort by the public is avoided, contemporary journalism is based on readers’ indolence. People want news? Let’s stuff them full of news. Newspapers based on information are agents of literary perversion. The harm they do is such that it has affected everyone. No one can escape its contagion.
From The Fashionable Lampoon Issue 11 – Magnifico
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Britt Lloyd, Rob Rusling, Tom Alexander, Sander Gabriel and Joe Colley
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