Best American Comics Criticism Roundtable: Different Forms and Shapes

Posted by on August 25th, 2010 at 12:05 AM

Opening contributions from Ng Suat Tong, Noah Berlatsky, Caroline Small, Jeet Heer, Brian Doherty and BACC editor Ben Schwartz; responses from Caroline Small, Ng Suat Tong, Jeet Heer, Noah Berlatsky and Ben Schwartz.

 


From The Hunger Dogs, by Jack Kirby, inked by D. Bruce Berry, Mike Royer and Greg Threakston; ©2008 DC Comics.

 

Noah Berlatsky does not understand the meaning of the word “erstwhile.” Gary Groth is not the “erstwhile publisher” of The Best American Comics Criticism. He is, as the book’s indicia indicates clearly, the co-publisher of the book. My hunch is that Berlatsky thought “erstwhile” was an insulting term and threw it into the mix. This is not untypical of how Noah uses the English language, as a form of grunting and hooting rather than a way of communicating ideas and experiences. If Fantagraphics wanted to do a companion volume of The Worst American Comics Criticism, it would do well to include a healthy dollop of Berlatsky’s prose: Aside from two pieces on Winsor McCay, virtually everything Berlatsky has written is evidence of his complete inability to understand comics (or indeed any other art form). He has a propensity for praising worthless comics and attacking, in a witless and ill-informed manner, cartoonists who have actually created good art. Aside from his nearly complete lack of taste, the most striking feature of his writing is how self-centered it is: He rarely writes about art itself but rather is concerned with advertising his own name. To paraphrase F.R. Leavis, Berlatsky belongs not in the history of criticism but in the history of self-promotion. Given all this, I think Ben Schwartz should be honored to be attacked by Berlatsky, since that puts The Best American Comics Criticism in excellent company.

Caroline Small has a disconcerting habit of conflating intellectual writing with academic writing, and assuming that any critique of academic thoughts or habits is a sign of anti-intellectualism. There are, to be sure, examples of this sort of anti-intellectualism but there is also a longstanding tradition of non-academic intellectuals offering a salutary corrective to the limits of academic thought: I’m thinking here of G.B. Shaw and Pauline Kael (or to pick another field of thought, Jane Jacobs). Small writes: “It is perhaps a semantic distinction that only a critic would make to hold cultural journalism apart from criticism — but they are different professions, with different readerships, expectations, backgrounds and modes of analysis. It’s clear from Ben Schwartz’s Comics Reporter interview that cultural journalism, primarily from music and film, was far more influential on his conception of this collection than literary and art criticism.” I’m not sure that the distinction is as hard and strong as Small thinks it is: The aforementioned Kael wrote cultural journalism which was also excellent criticism. There is a long tradition of this: Think of Hazlitt or Virginia Woolf or Susan Sontag or James Baldwin. Of course, the writers for BACC don’t necessarily equal these masters of criticism in terms of quality — the exception might be Donald Phelps, who has a contingent of admirers who would rank him as one of the great American essayists — but they are working in the same tradition.

As for the critiques by Small and Ng Suat Tong that the book should have contained less journalism and more strenuous intellectual and academic essays, I think it’s worth noting that the book they want already exists: A Comics Studies Reader, edited by myself and Kent Worcester, published by the University Press of Mississippi. That book contains essays from an array of formidable writers: Thierry Groensteen, W.J.T. Mitchell, Adam Kern, Annalisa Di Liddo and Hillary Chute. Interestingly, when Kent and I were first editing the book we wanted to include a few of the journalistic writers Schwartz put in his book (Hajdu, Boxer, Wolk) as well as more essays by cartoonists such as Seth. But the publisher told us it would make for a more coherent book to rely heavily (although not exclusively) on academic writers, which is what we ended up doing. For myself, I’m glad that Schwartz didn’t replicate our labors. Actually I think A Comics Studies Reader and BACC work well as companion volumes, one offering a more academic and the other a more popular view of the same subject.

What it comes down to, I think, is the fact that criticism comes in all different forms and shapes. What unites Noah Berlatsky, Ng Suat Tong and Caroline Small is that they have a very narrow minded view of criticism. Criticism, they think, is only the type of writing they do. And since the type of writing they do, for better or worse, isn’t in BACC, they aren’t happy with the book. But what I like about BACC is that it manages to capture the experience of discussing comics in popular non-academic venues, a discussion that takes many different genres ranging from newspaper reviews to the interviews to historical essays. One could wish that Berlatsky, et al., were less narrow-minded. It seems that their blinkered view of the world is part of their brand identity.

The one major critique of BACC that I agree areas with is the regrettable lack of female writers. If we are interested in having a productive conversation, one question we could ask is what specific pieces by female writers should be in the book but are not? Some of Shaenon Garrity‘s manga writing would be my first thought. Perhaps also Françoise Mouly’s astute essay on Crumb (a controversial choice since some people, notably Dan Nadel, didn’t like it.)

 

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36 Responses to “Best American Comics Criticism Roundtable: Different Forms and Shapes”

  1. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “What unites Noah Berlatsky, Ng Suat Tong and Caroline Small is that they have a very narrow minded view of criticism. Criticism, they think, is only the type of writing they do. ”

    But…Suat does actually do writing very much like that in the book. He does historical overviews and close readings for the most part. And we all participate in comments threads! (Though not on Amazon, so perhaps that disqualifies us.)

    I guess it’s supposed to be some sort of critical point to compare the writers in BACC to James Baldwin and Shaw and Kael…but, I mean, are you serious? Those writers are strongly polemical and determined to relate art to social and political issues. Where is that kind of writing in BACC, Jeet? Sarah Boxer’s Herriman essay talks about race, but hardly with the polemical or personal edge of Baldwin. Donald Phelps’ airy treatment of Ditko’s Mr. A may be much praised by some, but it hardly wrestles with the political issues involved in a way that would surely be at the heart of a Shaw review. (R. Fiore’s Sept. 11 piece is more in line with Shaw’s work perhaps, but it’s definitely the exception in the book.) And Kael, who is not a favorite of mine, was nonetheless famous for her counterintuitive assessments. Is there an essay here that does the equivalent of praising the Exorcist 2? The only way that most of the writers in BACC can be said to be working in the same tradition as Baldwin, Shaw, and Kael is that they all write in prose.

    I should say that I admire your chutzpah in accusing me of self-promotion and then spending a significant portion of your short response singing the praises of your own anthology. Good show, sir.

    Oh, and your erstwhile pedantry is, as always, appreciated — especially when it serves as an excuse for you to unleash some grunting and hooting.

  2. Caro says:

    Hi Jeet — I’m glad my “habit of conflating intellectual writing with academic writing” disconcerts you. I think a little disconcernment could go a long way. But you should read the comments on my essay in this roundtable (and Noah’s) because they dig into this issue vis-a-vis the New Wave cinema a little bit and I think that might make it clearer for you: it’s not “academic” writing that I want. It’s for critics to bring their A-game to the table with regards to ideas.

    You mentioned critics like Kael and Baldwin but you did not talk about Diana and Lionel Trilling or the Cahiers Group. It is not my intent to exclude writing like Kael’s or Baldwin’s from the class of “criticism” (I didn’t see a whole lot of that kind of writing in the book) but I think it’s easy to defend the argument that Lionel Trilling was “more” of an intellectual than Pauline Kael. Do you disagree?

    “Degrees of intellectualism” aside: the critics you cite all were part of artistic and critical communities that made a much less sharp distinction than you do between academic and non-academic “intellectualism.” That distinction contributes to the general lack of big ideas in comics criticism, and the fact that there is a separate book of academic comics criticism merely is an example of the problem, not a solution to it. What you see as “conflation” on my part is intended to push back against the strict demarcation of the two and the damage it does to the conversation overall: I’ll work harder to make that clearer in future writing.

    To state it baldly since you didn’t get it: my issue is not that criticism is not written like academic writing. That would be a mistake of audience, as Ken Parille pointed out yesterday. My issue is that what passes for criticism now is not particularly intellectually challenging or even stimulating, with the most challenging work ghettoized into the academy, wrapped in jargon, and often locked behind paywalls (or targeted anthologies), while the game of public criticism is marketing and education. A more determinedly pro-intellectual perspective is a good corrective to all of that. Making excuses for how other kinds of “intellectualism” are good enough is a cop out.

    For the record, if you actually made critiques of academic thoughts or writing, I’d probably agree with you. I’d welcome those critiques from people like you who are in the academy and spend time writing for the public as well — I think the academy needs to hear them. I did, after all, leave the academy to no small extent because I so strongly object to its overprofessionalization and the lack of rewards for meaningful public engagement through any other mechanism but pedagogy. But you and many others who share your position generally don’t critique the academy in your writing; you just reject it (at least rhetorically, since you work as academics in other contexts). You dismiss it in blunt, generalized statements that show more bias against the idea of the academy than they do genuine engagement and critique with the ideas the academy brings to the table.

    What this translates to is a stratification of ideas: academics have access, locked behind paywalls and jargon, to the most ambitious big-ticket ideas, while non-academics — no matter how bright — get dumbed-down journalism for a “mass” audience that is merely one step above entertainment. The academic criticism gets more oblique and less relevant as a result, and non-academic criticism gets dumber and dumber. That’s either letting the market dictate the level of ideas you are willing to put into public discourse, or it’s the worst kind of elitism. I’m more than happy to go on record as objecting to both.

  3. Kent Worcester says:

    Talk about blunt, generalized statements. Sigh.

  4. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Kent, If you’ve got an objection to what Caro said, then you should explain your problem. Standing off to the side and sneering just makes you exactly the kind of academic she’s talking about.

  5. Caro says:

    Kent’s right that I did make a bunch of blunt, generalized statements. Part of it is responding in kind, but I’m willing to make them more targeted for anybody who actually wants to talk about it. Jeet just usually doesn’t so there’s not much point. At the rate we’re going, he and I will likely still be hurling blunt, generalized statements into each others’ earhorns in the Shady Panels Home for Moribund Comics Critics 50 years from now.

    Kent, you might want to check out my related conversations in comments on other posts, in particular the ones with Ken Parille. Or, as Noah says, you could make your point here and I’ll keep an eye out.

  6. Chris Reilly says:

    Hey Jeet,

    Read the book a month ago and really enjoyed it. I thought it could have used a bit more swearing but that’s just me. Ben and all involved delivered the goods. There was even a joke that I want to have printed on t-shirts and hand out to fellow pros: “If cartoonists are the new literati, what must their critics look like?” I would have asked “what the fuck do their critics look like” but I am no Drew Friedman.
    It is a book I plan on rereading many times in my life. Hell, it is already on my coffee table.

  7. patford says:

    How would Toar deal with Oscar in a situation like this?

  8. Kent Worcester says:

    For obvious reasons (see my most recent tcj post) I haven’t seen the BACC book, and can’t really offer an opinion about it. Gary promised me a free copy (in exchange for transcribing the Lethem-Clowes exchange) but it hadn’t arrived by the time I left the country. He may have forgotten his promise. Whatever.

    Here are a few phrases from Caro’s piece that struck me as a bit sweeping –

    “people like you who are in the academy and spend time writing for the public as well” [is there anyone in comics criticism who has Jeet's kind of public intellectual profile? in other words, there are no "people like you" when it comes to Jeet]

    “what passes for criticism now is not particularly intellectually challenging or even stimulating, with the most challenging work ghettoized into the academy, wrapped in jargon, and often locked behind paywalls” [some of the most interesting academics writing on comics are also bloggers etc., and a lot of academic material is easily available to anyone if they use a site like the nypl website]

    “you and many others who share your position generally don’t critique the academy in your writing; you just reject it (at least rhetorically, since you work as academics in other contexts” [who are these "many others"? show me one example of Jeet's work as an academic that isn't also written for a broader audience]

    what are the “ideas that the academy brings to the table” anyway? what does “the academy” mean in this context? are there particular thinkers, schools of thought, paradigms or whatever that Caro has in mind? my own discipline, political science, sure doesn’t bring a lot to this table, even though the comics-politics nexus is full of juicy possibilities.

    “academics have access, locked behind paywalls and jargon, to the most ambitious big-ticket ideas, while non-academics — no matter how bright — get dumbed-down journalism for a “mass” audience that is merely one step above entertainment” [this strikes me as seriously overstated. does it really apply to a world in which folks like Hatfield, Kannenberg, Beaty, Chute, Groensteen, Heer, etc. are writing on comics, often (but not exclusively, of course) on the web?]

    “The academic criticism gets more oblique and less relevant as a result, and non-academic criticism gets dumber and dumber. That’s either letting the market dictate the level of ideas you are willing to put into public discourse, or it’s the worst kind of elitism” ["the academic criticism" sounds pretty sweeping in its own right, to my ears, and how do we know it's getting "more oblique and less relevant"? was there a golden age of academic comics analysis?]

    Here’s a Noah Berlatsky story for you. A couple of weeks after he vividly trashed my posts for the Journal website (in particular, for posting my comics course syllabus, i.e., for breaking the “firewall” of tuition), he tried to friend me on Facebook. We’ve never met (as far as I’m aware), and we certainly aren’t friends. What the hell was he thinking?

    And yes, I’m an academic. It’s my day job. Most recently I edited a symposium on the Magna Carta for a journal called PS: Political Science and Politics. Weirdly enough, it’s easy enough to find via google. There’s some specialized language in the symposium contributions, but that’s because we were discussing a document written in Latin from the early thirteenth century.

  9. Caro says:

    Kent: I’ll try to answer your questions.

    [is there anyone in comics criticism who has Jeet's kind of public intellectual profile? in other words, there are no "people like you" when it comes to Jeet]

    I’ve never heard anybody mention Jeet outside of the comics world, so he has no “public intellectual” profile to me. A public intellectual to me is someone like Umberto Eco. The comics critics I had heard of from general sources prior to writing for HU were Groth, Groensteen, Bart Beaty (entirely because he translated Groensteen) and Doug Wolk. I did not mean that statement necessarily to be limited to people in comics, however; I’d welcome those critiques from academics who do public writing in any discipline.

    I am, however, primarily interested in an familiar with humanities academia as it is most relevant for me and my interests. If things are different in the social sciences I’m happy to hear it.

    “you and many others who share your position generally don’t critique the academy in your writing; you just reject it (at least rhetorically, since you work as academics in other contexts” [who are these "many others"? show me one example of Jeet's work as an academic that isn't also written for a broader audience]

    I’m not sure what Jeet’s academic work has to do with that point… The “many others” refers to the ongoing debate Jeet and Noah and I have been having about this anti-academy business, starting with his claim that you can learn more from listening to Art Spiegelman talk than reading an entire shelf of academic books. It’s had more words than I’m sure you care to read spilled over it, none of which as yet constitute an actual critique of any actual academic writing or thought.

    what are the “ideas that the academy brings to the table” anyway? what does “the academy” mean in this context? are there particular thinkers, schools of thought, paradigms or whatever that Caro has in mind? my own discipline, political science, sure doesn’t bring a lot to this table, even though the comics-politics nexus is full of juicy possibilities.

    Well, there are at least a half dozen academic journals focusing on comics in English alone, and the academics who write in them have perspectives that they bring to the table from a wide range of disciplines. That’s not a “generalization;” it’s just an equivalency. I didn’t specify them because they’re all equally relevant since my point was that there had been no critiques of any of them despite the repeated refrain that they don’t have much to offer. But to answer more generally: regardless of what people have already done although there’s a good bit being done, any interpretive structure from literature or art history could be relevant to comics in the hands of the right critic, as well as anything from Continental Philosophy since the 1920s at the latest. Film theory, narrative theory, paraliterary studies, discourse theory, reception theory, theories of representation, theories of mythology, all of the “post-this-and-thats”, modernism, experimentalism, structuralism, formalism, cultural studies, gender studies, queer studies, visual culture studies, popular culture studies, material culture studies…Alex Buchet did a great series on Tintin a few weeks ago at HU with a colonialist bent in places…I’m not sure there’s a single thing from the humanities that I think should be out of bounds on principle although obviously some of it means more to me than others…

    ["the academic criticism" sounds pretty sweeping in its own right, to my ears, and how do we know it's getting "more oblique and less relevant"? was there a golden age of academic comics analysis?]

    How ’bout this: academic criticism = criticism published in academic journals. Not more and less than a “golden age”; more and less than it would be if it wasn’t stratified. It’s not a historical point. It’s a point about the impact of stratification and professionalization on the way ideas get thought and written down.

    Academic writing, at least in the humanities, is professional discourse and it’s quite frequently locked behind either paywalls or jargon (or, for comics in particular, French). Go do a few searches for humanities articles on Google Scholar and see how many you can get access to without a trip to a university library. Not much of Groensteen is translated; some of the most interesting stuff is even hard to find in libraries (I’ve requested a couple of pieces in French via ILL at my excellent public library and been told they can’t be located). IJOCA isn’t available in digital format anywhere period. ImageText is free, but tends to be pretty jargon-laden.

    I don’t think it’s a particularly controversial statement to claim that figures like the Trillings who conveyed ideas sufficiently stimulating and original for academia in prose directed at non-professional audiences are rare in our stratified era where academics have overwhelming professional demands that do not value public writing and journalists have powerful market pressures. I may have stated it too strongly for quantitative precision, but it’s nonetheless a problem.

    What could possibly be the point of that Facebook story?

  10. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “he tried to friend me on Facebook. We’ve never met (as far as I’m aware), and we certainly aren’t friends. What the hell was he thinking??”

    Um… I was thinking that you knew that facebook “friends” aren’t actually real life friends? I don’t bear you any animosity; I’m interested in comics criticism, you write comics criticism; I figured you might be doing updates about things I’d be interested in. I didn’t realize you were pursuing the he-didn’t-like-something-I-wrote-so-I-must-hate-him-forever model of interpersonal interaction. But that’s cool. Your facebook page should be a genuine expression of who you are, and don’t ever let anyone tell you different.

    “people like you who are in the academy and spend time writing for the public as well” [is there anyone in comics criticism who has Jeet's kind of public intellectual profile? in other words, there are no "people like you" when it comes to Jeet]”

    I’m sure Jeet is as individual as a snowflake, but nevertheless, there are in fact a number of people like him in the sense that Caro is referring to here, which is to say, they are in the academy and write for the public as well.

    “my own discipline, political science, sure doesn’t bring a lot to this table, even though the comics-politics nexus is full of juicy possibilities.”

    I’m not sure I understand this. You feel that political science has nothing to offer comics criticism, is that right? There are no theories that are transferable? Do you mean that nobody has made those connections, or that they actually can’t be made? If it’s the first, it seems like the person to make them would be you…and if it’s the second, I guess I just find it a little hard to believe. There are no insights from your discipline that would illuminate, say, Joe Sacco’s work? Or Art Spiegleman’s or Satrapi’s or any number of other explicitly politically engaged cartoonists? Is your work just really quantitative or something? Does political science not really think about Marx or other political theorists any more?

    I use academic theories or ideas for criticism with some frequency. I use gender theory and queer theory a good bit; I’ve used ideas from philosophy and theology… I don’t know, it seems like there are a lot of possibilities.

  11. Kent Worcester says:

    Is there any point in my responding to these comments? Is this a debate worth having? Is anyone learning anything from these exchanges? What do others think? My impression is that whatever I write, NB and Caro will respond with more verbiage than I can possibly bring to the table.

    I will say one thing – Jeet is not a public intellectual in the US context, but in the Canadian context. He regularly appears on radio, television, and in newspapers and magazines. Not so long ago, he debated David Frum on Israel/Palestine in the pages of a major daily. He has become a genuine public figure in Canada. Perhaps that strikes NB and Caro as funny, I dunno.

    And yes, since I brought up the facebook thing, I found it a bit stalker-y to trash someone in public and then try to friend them on facebook. Not super-stalker-y, mind you. Just tone-deaf, like much of his cultural criticism.

  12. Noah Berlatsky says:

    I think talking about how political science might or might not relate to comics criticism seems like it would be interesting and potentially valuable. Though obviously you’re not especially interested in my opinion.

    My comments on Ken are here and here. Folks can decide for themselves if said comments are vivid or constitute trashing, and/or if Ken was justified in not being my friend (snif!)

  13. Caro says:

    Kent: Living in Washington DC, I have a number of friends who are regularly on TV and in print whom I don’t think of as public intellectuals: I think of them as academics and pundits.

    But that’s a matter of semantics, and the more important point is that being famous doesn’t make one immune to criticism, even from non-famous people. If that’s your idea of a “critical stance,” then you are absolutely right that this conversation isn’t worth having and that you won’t learn anything from it.

  14. Jeet Heer1 says:

    @Caro: “…I think it’s easy to defend the argument that Lionel Trilling was ‘more’ of an intellectual than Pauline Kael.” Um, no, actually I don’t agree with that. I’ve read a fair bit of both Kael and Trilling, and I have to say, Kael was a much more intelligent, writerly, flexible and responsive critic than Trilling was. So I actually don’t understand why it should be taken for granted that Trilling was more “intellectual” than Kael. For me, the last word on Trilling was Roger Sale’s 1973 essay on Trilling, which can be found in Sale’s book “On Not Being Good Enough” (Oxford University Press, 1979).

  15. Caro says:

    Hi Jeet — I’ll have to read the Sale before I can really respond to you here: I admire both Kael and Trilling immensely, but Trilling definitely has a more intellectual approach to me. I’ll head off to the library now!

  16. Caro says:

    Thanks, Jeet. Hopefully more people than me will read it: the library had JSTOR so I fortunately got a copy direct from the Hudson Review.

    Having now read it though I’m a little unclear how it represents an argument that Trilling is anything other than a full-on intellectual. Most of the criticisms seem to be criticisms of too much intellectualism, intellectualism to the point of academics, the sorts of things you’d write about any aging academic who got set in his ways and didn’t keep pace with the mood of the times. And Sale’s perspective is very clearly that of the late ’60s intellectuals, trying to incorporate the lessons of their historical moment into their critical practice. (There’s a wonderful documentary called “Arguing the World: the New York Intellectuals in their Own Words” that has a number of good interviews with ’60s intellectuals who were taught by the NYIs and moved in precisely the direction Sale takes to set themselves apart from them.) I think you could put the Partisan Review panel I cited in my original piece as a third point marking yet another shift in America’s intellectual climate.

    Let me posit that the range of intellectualism runs on a spectrum from non-intellectual divertissement through the most ambitious, purely intellectual thought-experiment academic projects, with Kael and Trilling both at a point in the general vicinity of the middle. I know you have trouble with a conflation of intellectualism and the academy, but it seems here like you’re implying that it’s possible to be “so academic that one is no longer intellectual.” I would say instead that the adjective “academic” can connote a kind of “extreme intellectualism” that at its most extreme has lost touch with other values, rather than being something separate, either opposed to or conflated with intellectualism. It’s not Kael’s intellectualism that makes her brilliant – it’s her spirit. Trilling, having less spirit, relies more on his intellectualism.

    Part of Sale’s critique is that Trilling’s prose is his own worst enemy, but if that disqualifies one as an intellectual we’d surely lose Zizek and Eco and even much of Chomsky! It is an extremely difficult task to write complex ideas in good prose, so the more complex the ideas the more likely it is that the prose will go awry in places. It just happens: it’s not an excuse and I’m all for a hue and clamour for better writing, but being a less than perfect writer is not a sign that someone isn’t an intellectual. I’d say the opposite: it’s often a sign that the idea was bigger than the grasp. The quality of the outcome does not always entirely correspond to the intensity or value of the effort.

    Another part of the critique is that he “relaxes just when he should have been more cautious and vigilent” — I can see a standard that says that if he were a perfect academic he would have been cautious and vigilent throughout the entirety of his sustained argument, but Kael certainly was rarely cautious and vigilent, so that can’t be the milestone you’re using for intellectualism. I see greater intellectualism in Trilling in the attempt to make a sustained argument about the role of sincerity and authenticity in the literary trajectory he examines: Kael simply didn’t set herself projects like that. She made very few sustained arguments: her career can be viewed as a sustained argument, but she didn’t articulate sustained arguments often herself. Her lack of caution is part of her charm.

    Sale’s essay seems to me to support the first half of a “thesis” that Trilling’s strengths and weaknesses are those of the intellectual/critic, whereas Kael’s strengths and weaknesses as those of the journalist/critic. I mean neither as an insult. Not being “flexible and responsive” pretty much is an intellectual shortcoming, in the same way that not being particularly dextrous with cerebral abstractions is a journalistic one. And today, in my opinion, the weakenesses of Trilling’s flavor of intellectualism have become more common in the academy and the weaknesses of Kael’s more common in journalism, while their greatest strengths have diminished in both.

    What this boils down to is that at this point I don’t think the Sale by itself is a stand-in for the argument you’re trying to make on behalf of Kael’s intellectualism relative to Trilling’s: can you say more?

  17. patford says:

    Caroline: “Part of Sale’s critique is that Trilling’s prose is his own worst enemy, but if that disqualifies one as an intellectual we’d surely lose Zizek and Eco and even much of Chomsky!”

    I’ve never read Zizek; as applied the the essays I’ve read by Eco I can’t agree, I’ve read close to everything Chomsky has ever written, and find remarkable clarity in the way he explains complex ideas.
    It has always been my assumption that Chomsky explains things so well because he is one of the few people who fully understands many of the complex political issues he deals with. When I say Chomsky understands any of the various issues he will speak to I’m not speaking of his opinions, or conclusions, but rather his factual knowledge of the issue. This is even more apparent when seeing him debate or take questions. He knows his “opponents arguments better than they do.”

  18. Caro says:

    Hi Pat — Zizek’s prose is really convoluted. And Chomsky’s prose seems to me to oversimplify ideas much of the time, to limit the scope of what he’s writing about so he can wrap his hands around it in his prose. Limiting the scope leaves some things begged, other things hanging. When he doesn’t do that, when he really reaches, sometimes it gets away from him: I’ll see if I can find some examples. That’s no real criticism of him, though; I think it happens to everybody.

    I like Eco so much, though, I’ll just concede that point to you. The fiction kind of embraces turgidity. But Travels in Hyperreality is phenomenal. So yeah, he’s great.

    How ’bout Vidal and Mailer as examples?

  19. Jeet Heer1 says:

    @Caro. Okay, this is kind hard to articulate but here goes. At the heart of Sale’s critique of Trilling is the argument that Trilling doesn’t sufficiently engage with the writers he dealing with. I think Sale is completely write about this. Kael, by contrast, always dealt carefully with the movies she wrote about, even (or especially) if they were Hollywood B-movies. Whether you agree with her specific opinions or not, everywhere in Kael’s writing you get a sense of a mind that is engaged with the art she’s writing about, trying to make carefull observations about it. Trilling, by contrast, often glides over his subjects in an airy way. Given this difference, I get a lot more intellectual excitement from Kael’s writing than from Trilling’s writing. Kael does really seem have been constantly alert to experience and art in way that Trilling rarely was. The fact that Kael wrote about popular movies and Trilling wrote about high culture isn’t, to me, relevant, since I’m not judging them by their subject matter but rather by the quality of mind they display in their essays. Kael sparks me to think. Trilling sometimes does that too, but less often. His writing, as Sale says, is padded with excess verbage. Does that make sense.
    @Pat Ford. I agree with the point about Chomsky.

  20. Jeet Heer1 says:

    I should add that perhaps a useful way to think about all this is not to ask who was more intellectual, Kael or Trilling? (Which seems too close to the question who is stronger, Superman or Thor?) Rather, it is worth asking which critic is more worth emulating if you want to write about comics, Kael or Trilling? Here, I think, the answer is clear: a would-be comics critic can learn much more from Kael’s handling of movies than from reading Trilling on Freud or Wordsworth.

  21. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “I should add that perhaps a useful way to think about all this is not to ask who was more intellectual, Kael or Trilling? (Which seems too close to the question who is stronger, Superman or Thor?)”

    But the Superman/Thor analogy is wrong. Being stronger is better; being more intellectual isn’t necessarily better. Caro’s arguing that there’s a continuum and that the poles each have different strengths.

    I think it’s an important distinction because then the question becomes not who is better to emulate, but rather what can be taken from each — or even, which might be better to emulate in a particular project or for particular reasons.

    “everywhere in Kael’s writing you get a sense of a mind that is engaged with the art she’s writing about, trying to make carefull observations about it. ”

    I don’t think that’s right — or at least that’s not the sense I get from her. As Caro noted, Kael isn’t especially careful. She’s brilliant and vivid, but that’s not exactly the same thing. And she’s really polemical — as much about using the films to make particular (not systematic, but still) points as about making careful observations.

    Your description sort of turns her into Ken Parille, Jeet (or at least the Ken Parille of the Clowes essay in BACC.) I actually much prefer that Clowes essay to anything I’ve read by Kael — but better or worse, they’re really different approaches to criticism.

  22. patford says:

    The complexity of political issues is in the details.
    Who are people involved, what is their long, and near term political history, what are the statistics. Chomsky knows not only who all the players are, but who their predecessors were, and who their current rivals are.
    One interesting thing Chomsky does is he almost always uses government documents for citation. Chomsky might mention in passing a perhaps inflated statistic, but will use the “official” numbers to build his argument.
    It is true that Chomsky has a simple straightforward nexus. Chomsky approaches issues from a clear moral position. Anyone who has read him knows he is very consistent in his approach. He is primarily a critic of US foreign policy rather than being in either political camp. He would likely be one those people Robert Gates suggested should be “drug tested” because of their detachment from reality.
    Vidal is a fine writer. His regal air of resigned detachment is almost reassuring, he’s to far removed to convey any genuine fear.
    I like his essays and will seek them out, mainly because I enjoy his writing.
    Mailer? I read “The Executioner’s Song.”
    Is he a bourgeois version of Vidal? Or is his detachment more of the world weary Sam Spade variety he projected in “Tough Guys Don’t Dance?”

  23. Caro says:

    Jeet: sorry for taking so long to respond to you. The Sale essay is really good; I’ve read it a few more times. I see a few more things in his argument: it seems to me not that Trilling never sufficiently engages with the works at hand but that he is at his weakest when he glosses over texts in order to address general subjects that have little to do with the texts. The point is not one of absolute evaluation but of distinction. Sale comments:

    …if [Trilling] cannot settle subjects, be truly decisive with individual works, he can almost always be counted on to ask good questions, to open something up: the essays on Emma [et al.] give Trilling a subject where his penchant for generalizing is called for, and he is a careful and fine critic.

    It’s not that generalizing is never called for, that Trilling is weak, but that there is something about him that doesn’t quite work anymore (such that he is no longer revered by the students…)

    Sale gets at this “something” when he goes on to point out the more serious weakness: that Trilling “cannot respond well to quirkiness or eccentricity, to slippery surface texture, to unargued assertion, to prejudice or mere opinion…If we are to maintain our link with the European past, we will have to do so more fugitively and eagerly than Trilling has done, and with a more urgent sense that we are liable to lose it if we fail to speak with our own voice, our ignorant voice, our American voice.”

    It doesn’t seem to me that Sale is just asking for Trilling to be more attentive to textual specificity. That could mean close reading, which Trilling does and which Sale acknowledges. What Sale advises critics to do — I’m guessing this is the passage you’re speaking of? — is to “quote at length, because … one is forced to face the fact that the subject is another mind, to try to make one’s prose responsive to the words of another, even if the response is scorn or laughter.”

    This mode of quotation is what Sale again refers to at the end of the essay when he urges us to “keep the past alive not by imitating or emulating it but by reading its words aloud and by answering them in whatever authentic voice we have, wildly, loudly, or in hushed tones.”

    But notice that Sale’s essay is not particularly replete with quotations, nor is it a close reading of the Trilling: in that sense it is as much in Trilling’s mode than in his own. Sale is also “blind to what he does not say” — the extraordinary historical specificity of his own position, and as such the equivalency of his own position to Trilling’s. Trilling’s generalizations, his broad strokes, his lecturing tones, tie him to that modality that Sale repeatedly — and brilliantly — describes as “centrality”: Trilling is “sure of its centrality”; he “needs centrality of subject to be himself central”, and most important he was, in the 1950s, “at the center of a number of important concentric circles important to the literary intellectual life of the country.” The “centrality” of Trilling’s voice is the very thing that made him so powerfully of his time, so capable of speaking, in books like The Liberal Imagination which Sale praises, to a Western intellectual culture at its zenith, with the world spread concentrically around its feet.

    By the time Sale speaks, in 1973, there is no more center, and the West is no longer at the zenith even in its illusions. The idea of an authentic, ignorant, echoing, conversant speech is the battle cry of the counterculture, the mocking “Who does he think he is?” to the authority figure of the generation before, an authority replaced by a things-as-they-are aesthetic: “be done with models.” Sale’s essay reproduces the shift from Trilling’s “sincerity” to the authenticity of the countercultural voice, speaking out “wildly, loudly, or in hushed tones.”

    For me, the best part of the Sale essay — thank you so much for pointing me to it — is that in that resonance it both replicates in microcosm Trilling’s trajectory from “Sincerity to Authenticity” while also turning it on its head. There is in Sale’s analysis a layer of reading Trilling’s words, a layer of reading the context in which Trilling spoke them, and a layer of reading the context in which they are in 1973 read out-of-context (i.e., the book is an anachronism). And then, in the process of articulating those layers, there is yet another layer which “reads” the newer context itself: Sale’s essay, when his voice and values as a critic are compared with Trilling’s, illuminates the breakdown of those concentric circles that defined Trilling and his age into the cacophony of voices that defined Sale’s.

    It’s a brilliant essay. Superb. Full of big ideas, expressed in rhetoric that not only clarifies the big ideas explicitly but also opens up even bigger ideas between the lines.

    Where are THESE kind of essays in comics criticism? ‘Cause when someone does for Herriman (et al.) what Sale does for Trilling, then maybe I’ll buy Ben’s argument that we’re in a golden age…

    Pat, this may be the best thing I’ve ever heard said about Vidal: “His regal air of resigned detachment is almost reassuring, he’s to far removed to convey any genuine fear.”

  24. Chris Reilly says:

    patford says:
    August 25, 2010 at 9:02 pm
    How would Toar deal with Oscar in a situation like this?

    I think Toar would have been thankful for Oscar showing up and adding some comic relief.

  25. Caro says:

    I was so busy enjoying the Sale that I didn’t respond to Jeet’s followup: Noah’s right about the continuum and I agree the correct model is to take bits from both, not emulate one or the other. Big spirit and big ideas.

  26. Jeet Heer1 says:

    @Caro. Briefly: that’s a very good reading of Sale’s essay. I think you’re right that “centrality” is the key term in Sale’s essay. What strikes me as absolutely right about Sale’s critique is the idea that Trilling is assuming that he’s speaking from a position of centrality and authority, but that this assumption is no longer warranted, since there is no longer any center. Cultural authority, even in Trilling’s lifetime, was becoming much more dispersed. So it’s more honest, and also more useful and fruitful, to speak as a quirky, individual voice, which is the way Kael spoke, rather than speaking from a lectern assuming that you and the audience share a common idea of what the great writers and great issues are. Because Kael was aware that cultural authority had dispersed, her writing seems smarter, somehow, than Trilling, who seemed like he was trapped in a Matthew Arnold hierarchical view of culture that was going out of fashion even when Trilling was young. Intelligence means knowing what is going on around you. In that sense, Kael was a very, very intelligent writer, one of the smartest critics in any field that America has produced. By comparison, Trilling, for all his knowledge and despite the many fine essays he wrote, remains a less interesting and figure.

    As for who is writing comics criticism at the level of Roger Sale? Perhaps no one, but there are some who come close. I’m thinking of Charles Hatfield (in his book on Alternative Comics and perhaps his much-anticipated Kirby book) as well as some of the essays in The Comics of Chris Ware book (I’m thinking of David M. Ball’s essay). I also think some of Gary Groth’s best essays, like the one on Eisner, or R. Fiore’s best essays, like his overview of Crumb’s career, show what comics criticism is capable of.

  27. DerikB says:

    That reminds me, I got that Groth on Eisner essay from the library (after seeing it on so many lists of “best” comics criticism), but I don’t think I ever actually read it.

    I’d still like to see a “Best Criticism from The Comics Journal” book.

  28. Caro says:

    Hi Jeet: I think it’s worth making a distinction between ideas and the voice that’s used to express them, as well as between intelligence and intellectualism. If I said that Trilling was smarter than Kael I didn’t mean to: I don’t have any way of knowing that really and I definitely don’t see that in their work. “Intellectualism” is an approach to thought, not a measure of its quality.

    Let’s maybe leave Trilling out of the equation: Kael also doesn’t generally craft the type of essay that Sale wrote and called for either; she rarely “quotes” from the movies she’s writing about and her reviews are full of observations and history. But she does not get to the point — I’m sure intentionally, given that she is writing primarily reviews — where she’s presenting both a reading of the movie and some big thesis about the context, the way Sale did in his essay on Trilling. Sale is more like Trilling than Kael: I called this “more intellectual” earlier and that still seems right to me, not more intelligent, but more intellectual. More concerned with big ideas, transferrable ideas, less concerned with readings and reviews. Not unconcerned but less concerned.

    In light of your post I feel like I should say I don’t think Sale is more academic than Kael. Trilling is more academic than Kael. But Sale really isn’t (at least in that essay): that’s an immensely readable essay from a periodical, not a “journal.” And yet it has a conceptual bite to it that Kael lacks: she bites, of course, but she bites in a very reactive, passionate way, not the “calm and measured” way that intellectuals tend to use. (Sale uses those words, I believe, to describe Trilling at his best.)

    This is the stratification I’m talking about: Charles Hatfield’s essays are not impenetrable piles of academic jargon. The Craig Fischer essay that Noah linked to is also not “academic” in any perjorative or exclusionary sense. But those types of essays were not included in BACC, because there is a strong preference for a type of primarily “journalistic” writing, whether the models are Kael or the volumes Ben mentioned in his Comics Reporter interview, that rarely attempts, for example, to deploy a metaphor the way Sale used “centrality”, or to work out the trajectory of a concept like Trilling did for authenticity.

    That doesn’t make the works of cultural journalism that are included “bad criticism.” (They might or might not be, but not for that reason.) It makes the diversity of writing in BACC limited. I think that limitation has to do with the limited embrace of (non-academic) intellectualism among critics. Some critics embrace academia. Other critics embrace whatever we want to end up calling Kael: “intelligent journalism” maybe? But very few people work in a synthetic mode. Picking Kael over Trilling in all instances and for all purposes is narrow; there are more ways to recognize Trilling’s limitations and avoid them than to create a class of “academics” that sweeps up everybody who won’t say that spirit matters more than ideas. We can debate the semantics, but the suspicion of academic writing tends to sweep up “academics” who do in fact write like “critics” and who are not guilty of the excesses of Trilling, but who are more conceptually ambitious in their thinking and writing than people whose priorities are more journalistic. It seems wrong that they should be excluded, but at the very least, it seems like we should expect to understand the reasons for their exclusion as something more than subjective caprice.

    Gary’s writing less on comics is a tremendous loss. (His piece on Strangers on a Train for tcj.com is worth a read, though, if you haven’t.) Maybe he’ll get less busy and write on film more for us. So sure, he and the critical writing he cultivated at the journal set up an amazing critical foundation. (I’m a bigger Harvey fan than Fiore; his piece on Monument Valley is my favorite thing I’ve read since I started paying attention.) But I’m uncomfortable with saying that the existing work shows “what comics criticism is capable of.” Kill your idols a little bit here; can’t we really not pick up where those guys have left off and do even better? Isn’t that sort of what Sale is doing that makes that piece so great?

  29. patford says:

    The best thing about Groth’s essay on Eisner’s “pseudo-Singer” work was he said what a lot of people were probably thinking.
    The latter work of Eisner diminishes all his other work.
    This isn’t to say the later Eisner work was crap, but it was pedestrian, almost corny.
    For me the best measure of it was after awhile I quit buying it.

  30. R.C. Harvey says:

    As a general rule, critics tend to take themselves more seriously than the rest of the world does. That’s no sin: everyone does it, regardless of their hobby horse: if the hobby horse rider doesn’t take himself seriously, who will?
    But, seriously, a critic does what he does for what is a very shallow reason.
    When I first set out to make a living in the world, I did it by teaching English in high school. Years later, one of my former students wrote and asked me why I chose teaching English as a profession. I thought about it and realized that I had no messianic purpose. I liked literature and I liked talking about it with others who liked literature and liked talking about it. I taught literature because that was a way of creating others who could talk about it in ways that were congenial with my own passion. It was a way of creating a conversation I enjoyed.
    Ditto, in some fashion, comics criticism. I enjoy comics and I enjoy writing. Writing about comics combines both enjoyments. What I write is half a conversation that readers, in effect, overhear. And maybe they supply the other half of the conversation; most of the time, I don’t know if they do. But sometimes, I find others who enjoy comics and enjoy talking about the art form. And conversation ensues.
    Sometimes my half of the conversation is simply: “I just read a good graphic novel, or a comic strip, or a comic book that I enjoyed and thought you might enjoy it, too. And here’s why.”
    So much for high purpose in comics criticism.
    It would also be nice, and highly beneficial to mankind and civilization as a whole, if everyone would do exactly as I tell them—if cartoonists reformed and perfected their practices in accordance with my prescriptions, if other so-called critics started talking about comics as a visual art form as well as a narrative one, and if the Grumpy Old Pachyderm became the GOP of “Yes.” But—well, I, like most critics, may be self-absorbed, but I’m not delusional. Not yet.

  31. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Hey R.C. I doubt I know any comics critics who think they’re changing the world, or even interesting the world very much. On the other hand…why people do or don’t enjoy art can be tied up with a lot of things that have more resonance than just, “well I happen to like this or that.” Liking (or disliking) art has something to do with values, something to do with communication, something to do with desire. The way that personal, subjective interests are often, in the end, not so personal is what I find interesting about art, and about writing about art (and about creating art, when I occasionally get to do that.) Even you’re argument about art and shallowness and delusion — that’s an argument with a long pedigree, embedded in conversations about what art should be and how people should treat it…and, by implication, about how people should treat each other, and why. Maybe those conversations don’t much matter in the scheme of things….but if they didn’t matter to somebody a little (and occasionally, potentially, more than a little), nobody would bother with them.

  32. [...] There’s been an extended debate about what constitutes good comics criticism here, here, and here hosted by The Comics Journal on the occasion of the publication of The Best American Comics [...]

  33. R.C. Harvey says:

    The other thing that criticism does, apart from gratifying the passions of the critic, is to enhance appreciation of the art being critiqued. In fact, I suggest that enhancing appreciation is the only legitimate function of criticism (beyond a critic’s self-indulgence).

  34. Caro says:

    The thing about that definition, Mr Harvey, is that pretty much all criticism can be seen as doing that depending on the audience. It takes something different to enhance my appreciation of a comic than it does for a high-school student, or a painter, or a Methodist minister, or a Kenyan businessman, or my mother, or a life-long comics fan, and different kinds of criticism enhance appreciation in different ways. There are as many different approaches to enhancing appreciation as there are minds in the universe.

    Even what you describe as the critic’s self-indulgence is a variation on enhancing appreciation. The act of writing criticism enhances any critic’s appreciation, sometimes of the work at hand, and sometimes just of art or the artform in general. I agree that’s enjoyment, but it’s not mere diversion. It’s pleasure, a particularly human pleasure, and I think the pleasure of art is a high-enough purpose. It’s not the fight against human trafficking, but it’s also not entirely indulgent.

    It seems to me that there are simple pleasures and luxurious pleasures, and art (and criticism) are luxurious, complicated pleasures, with many facets and permutations and possibilities. So are our options here really limited to Things that are Matters of Life and Death and pure self-indulgent diversion?

    Not that you meant that. It’s just that there’s a real danger in using the term “enjoyment” to describe the work of the thoughtful critic, regardless of approach, who takes the time to engage in that conversation you describe. It can too easily be equated with the passive, simple “enjoyment” of someone who pays their $10 to sit in the theater and watch a slapstick comedy. Thinking of criticism like that really seems like the wrong way to go.

  35. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “I suggest that enhancing appreciation is the only legitimate function of criticism ”

    Hey R.C. So, does that mean that there’s no legitimate place for negative criticism? (You occasionally write negative criticism yourself, so I don’t think this can be what you mean, so I must be misunderstanding.)

    I also wonder…what in your view is the legitimate purpose of art? And if art can do things other than enhance appreciation of other art, why shouldn’t criticism be able to do those other things as well? Or do you also feel that art is primarily self-indulgence, and therefore should not be taken all that seriously (though that doesn’t seem right if you think that we should be enhancing appreciation of art….)