On December 1, 2021, I tweeted: «Earlier this year I argued that we are living in a golden age of popular criticism. To prove my point … here’s the tip of the iceberg: my list of 21 of the best essays, reviews, and criticism published in 2021.»
The thread of 21 essays that followed were warmly received, which came as something of a surprise since any optimism about contemporary cultural production tends to be regarded as suspect, even controversial. If you spend any time in the Anglophone public sphere, you’ll know that a deep pessimism is instead the prevailing mood. Whether the issue is the stagnation of fees for freelance writers at rates first offered by magazines a century ago, the decline of the average book advance, the conglomeration of publishing houses, the endangerment of the species of the midlist author, and the role of Amazon as a distributor and publisher; whether it’s the extremely precarious financial position of little magazines, the collapse of book reviews sections in newspapers, and the oceanic supply of free content (i.e. published writing that is not paid for by the consumer), some of which is no longer even being generated by humans; whether it’s the state of the PhD job market, the casualization of academic labor, the drying up of tenure lines, the downsizing or wholesale closure of humanities departments; or whether it’s the cost of living crises and the collapse of economic protections in the societies in which these workers are embedded, this pessimism is not entirely unjustified.
Yet against the vulgar logic that suggests the quality of economic arrangements determines the possibility of quality work, a great deal of evidence points the other way. Quantitatively and qualitatively, critical production is flourishing, despite – and in some cases because of – the dire economic state in and around the Anglo-American critical field, where criticism is being practiced and received as an artform in its own right.
First, I should define terms. I’ll take them backwards. By «literary criticism» I mean any piece of writing which takes one or more pieces of writing, of whatever genre, as its primary subject, starting-off point, or raison d’être.
By «public» I mean that the intended audience for this criticism is external to academia. The persons who produce and consume this writing may also work in literature departments or have been trained by them, but the venues of distribution, the occasions and incentives for production, the self-conception and work culture of the producers, the stylistic and generic protocols involved, the quality control procedures or lack thereof at play, and the reception context are all shaped more by the historical norms of journalism than those of scholarship.
By «age», I mean roughly 2018 to the present. Although it could be argued that the fuse for the present explosion was lit ten, even fifteen years ago, this period has seen particularly intense levels of production, consumption, and circulation, especially during the years 2020-2021, coinciding with the social, cultural, and intellectual dislocations wrought by the pandemic.
Finally, by «golden» I do not simply mean the way new talent flooding the critical field and collegial competition has produced network effects that have led to an increase in quality of work across the board. Rather, we’ve seen a more profound shift, whether or not it sustains itself at the current degree of intensity for much longer. What the exemplary critical essays of the present day have in common is that they are received as literary art, providing an aesthetic experience closer to fiction than to a consumer report or even to scholarship. For whom have the last five years been a golden age? For readers of criticism, above all. These readers have constituted themselves as a public that is not merely a readership, but a connoisseurship, often reading critical essays for their own sake, and not necessarily as gateways into the books which have occasioned them.
It is perhaps useful to think of the critical field in schematic terms, as the points of a rectangle, with critics occupying the upper lefthand corner, venues occupying the upper righthand corner, publishers occupying the lower lefthand corner, and readers occupying the lower righthand corner. The standard way for information to travel around this field is as follows: publicists at publishing houses send advance review copies or galleys to critics who pitch articles to editors who publish them in their venues which are read by audiences who in turn do or do not buy the publisher’s book. In this situation, criticism reaches audiences indirectly, via the mediation of the venue. But this schema is simplistic and ought to be complicated in several ways. Publishers engage in publicity directly to audiences and also diagonally to venues themselves, which sometimes commission critics directly and provide publicity for publishers in the form of blurbs and the imprimatur of a review. We can draw a diagonal line not only between publishers and venues, but also between critics and audiences, who directly and sometimes reciprocally communicate with each other via online publishing platforms like Twitter, Word Press blogs, and more recently through subscription newsletters like Substack. Venues are no longer exclusively print or even hybrid print-online outlets but have been supplemented by listener-interface venues like literary podcasts. There is a degree of overlap between the personnel of each of the points of the rectangle: editors sometimes produce criticism, critics form a part of the audience for criticism, and members of the audience sometimes maintain blogs, Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads accounts that bring them into direct contact with publishers. These qualifications aside, however, this rectangular schema provides a decent overview of the landscape of the literary critical field and will be useful to keep in mind as I talk about critics and to a lesser degree, venues, and audiences.
Now that we’ve defined our terms, let me put some raw data or anecdotal evidence in favor of the «golden age» claim in front of you. Here is an alphabetical list of fifty critics who have produced excellent essays in English about literature in non-academic venues in the period 2018-2023: Andrea Long Chu, Dan Chiasson, Nicholas Dames, Maggie Doherty, Lauren Elkin, Merve Emre, Greg Gerke, Nathan Goldman, Tobi Haslett, Sophie Haigney, Jennifer Hodgson, Jane Hu, Dustin Illingworth, Kamran Javadizadeh, Katie Kadue, Evan Kindley, Phil Klay, Ben Kunkel, Ben Libman, Sheila Liming, Patricia Lockwood, Christian Lorentzen, Kevin Lozano, Julian Lucas, Jeremy Lybarger, B.D. McClay, Tyler Malone, Alex Marraccini, Tom Meaney, J.W. McCormack, Anahid Nersessian, John-Baptiste Oduor, Emily Ogden, Lauren Oyler, Rebecca Panovka, Sophie Pinkham, Jared Marcel Pollen, Rebecca Ariel Porte, Leo Robson, Becca Rothfeld, Dan Sinykin, Lola Seaton, Parul Sehgal, Ed Simon, Alina Stefanescu, Justin E.H. Smith, Mitch Therieau, Francesca Wade, Alex Wells, Jennifer Wilson.
This, I hope it goes without saying, is a personal list, a list of the critics who I have been reading over the course of the past five years, and whose work is providing much of the energy that underwrites my golden age claim. They range in age from their late twenties to their mid-forties, in status from emergent to established, in frequency of publication from a few pieces to over twelve per year, and in readership from a few dozen to several thousand. It is a list that could easily be doubled according to taste, or tripled if one were to include names from the two preceding generations of well-established critics from Perry Anderson and Elif Batuman to Zadie Smith and James Wood, many of whom have also published important literary criticism during this period.
The venues where they publish include major general-interest magazines and literary reviews based out of New York and London (e.g., New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, Harper’s, Paris Review, New York magazine, The Nation, the New Left Review, and New Statesman), as well as a more recent generation of little magazines or public-facing academic outlets (e.g., Bookforum, The Baffler, The Believer, n+1, The Point, The White Review, Music and Literature, Public Books, Post45, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Jacobin), but also a number of print and online venues which have emerged during the golden age period proper. These include online supplements to established print venues (e.g., the New Left Review’s Sidecar blog and the new prose vertical at Poetry magazine) as well as the relaunch of publications (e.g., The Yale Review, The Oxonian Review, Jewish Currents, Gawker, The Dial), but also entirely new print and online publications such as Liberties, The Drift, Socrates on the Beach, the Cleveland Review of Books, and the European Review of Books. Three other types of venue which have emerged at this time are also worth mentioning: the Substacks of individual, better-established critics; literary podcasts; and finally book-length critical essays of around 100-150 pages aimed at a general readership and published by small independent presses or university presses such as Verso, Sublunary, and Columbia University Press.
If it is to be objected that a group of 50–100 critics writing for one to two dozen venues which reach an audience that maxes out in the low five digits is nevertheless a very small group of people, I will just say that, historically speaking, literary revolutions have been made by far smaller groups than this. We can break this heterogeneous group of critics down into a few general typological categories. The first would be the freelance or staff critic, whose work as a «literary journalist» at one or many venues constitutes the vast majority of their output, and whose credentials are derived primarily from experience in the field; related to this group are those critics who also work or have worked as editors at publications or people who are primarily critics of other media, who sometimes write literary criticism when the title under review is relevant to their specific expertise. The second group is what I’ll call the critic-practitioner: the novelist, poet, or non-fiction writer who writes discursively in parallel to or as a compliment to their primary literary output, which functions as their credentials for commissioning editors and readers. The last group is the scholar-critic: the professor, current graduate student, or recent PhD who supplements their academic research and/or teaching by writing criticism in non-academic venues for a non-academic audience; as professors or advanced students of literary history and critical methodology, their credentials are quite literal: their job titles or their terminal degree.
As with all classifications, the «pure type» is the exception rather than the rule; freelance critics go on to sign book contracts, novelists teach at universities, academics get jobs as staff critics, and so on, according to the career trajectory of each particular critic. It should also be noted that many critics, especially freelancers, perform labor – sometimes salaried, sometimes not – outside the literary field. While scholar-critics have, of course, been a mainstay in the literary public sphere for generations, it is this group, in my view, that has been the primary driver of the recent resurgence of public criticism practiced as an artform.
What the above classification excludes is people who write the genre of criticism generally thought by the public to be the paradigm case: the standard book review. Usually between 500 and 1500 words in length and published by professionals in the review sections of wide-circulation newspapers or by amateurs on sites like Goodreads, this kind of criticism takes the form of a consumer report. It provides a little background on the author, followed by a synopsis of the content of the book under review, a comparison to existing titles, and finally with a cursory one or two sentence judgment – and depending on the particular venue, sometimes even a numerical rating – whose purpose is to recommend or dis-recommend the book to potential buyers.
While aesthetic judgment remains at least an implicit part of most public criticism, the nakedly instrumental character of the standard book review is precisely what is eschewed by those who practice criticism as an artform. Even those critical essays which hew most closely to the form of the standard book review depart from it in two important ways. First, by length: such reviews start at 2,500 words and sometimes extend to 10,000 words, space enough to allow for more sophisticated interpretations and formal play. Second, critics often view themselves not just in competition with other critics – which encourages a fine-grained noticing of detail and structure in order to say something distinctive or novel about the book under consideration – but often also with the author of the writing they’re considering, which encourages a heightening of the prose style to levels expected of literary artwork as the critic, especially in the case of a pan, attempts to turn in a bravura performance of hermeneutics and rhetoric.
The major genres of the golden age of public criticism typically depart from the form of the standard book review in more noticeable ways. For example, in the Contemporary Themed Review or CTR, to reclaim the somewhat disparaging term given to it by the editorial board of n+1 in the Summer of 2021, the book or books under consideration are used as a pretext to engage in critiques or symptomatic readings of contemporary manners, morals, politics, economics, culture, or other social arrangements. The modifier «contemporary» here is somewhat misleading. It must be taken to refer to the particular themes themselves, because the «themed review», defined in the way I have just done, has been a major feature of English criticism since the age of Matthew Arnold; indeed, much like the novel itself, social critique might be considered its traditional remit. A critical essay which substitutes social critique for literary criticism by commenting on fictional scenarios as though they were real would rightly stand accused of instrumentalizing the critical essay for an extra-literary purpose just as surely as the standard book reviewer does, and is best dismissed as a form of punditry, but the best CTRs being written today focus instead on what the formal choices made by the author reveal about the society in which the book itself has been produced and in which it will be consumed.
The other major form of critical essay is a specific variant on the personal essay, which has filiations with «autotheory» and the «memoir of reading». but which I’ll call simply «personal criticism». These are essays in which the critic narrates the experience of reading a particular literary work in the first person as a means of situating their analysis of it. The degree to which the critic as a narrative persona appears in the essay varies widely across the genre – the use of the first-person alone, which has become increasingly acceptable even in academic writing, is not sufficient to distinguish it – but the best of these essays skillfully balance narrative exposition and critical analysis of the text. Well done, the advantages of this form are many: they provide a surrogate for the reader’s experience of the text and make concrete the stakes of reading as an activity. No less importantly, they merge the kinds of pleasure one receives from the interpretation of a text with those of fiction. While this genre emerged before the period I am describing, its recognition as a standard critical form is in my view one of the more exciting developments in the critical field today.
Why have the past five years been such a fertile period for public criticism? The first factor has to do with the dire state of literature departments in universities in the United States and Britain, which have begun to hemorrhage talent and cultural capital. I alluded to some of these issues at the outset, but along with the numerous sticks of the academic job market, a few incentivizing carrots are worth mentioning: the inauguration of a number of «public humanities programs» aimed at bringing scholarship to non-academic audiences, the allowance by some departments for junior scholars to count so-called «public-facing» writing towards their publication records, and the measurement of the «impact factor» of citations in these venues for use in hiring and promotional decisions.
The overall effect of both the sticks and the carrots has been to drive academics into the critical field in droves, which has been enriched by the methodological sophistication and specialist knowledge accumulated by these scholar-critics. Liberated from the stultifying stylistic protocols and citational practices of the academic paper, the taboos against aesthetic judgment, the need to explicitly foreground rather than simply apply methods of interpretation, and the narrowness of period and other specializations, these scholar-critics are flourishing, especially as they command a much broader audience for their expertise as well as fees for their work, however small. In short, the university’s loss has been the public sphere’s gain. If criticism is indeed returning to a late-19th or early-20th century formation, as a kind of belletristic art aimed at a non-academic reader, it appears to be doing so with as much energy exiting the academy as it did when it was absorbed into the institution in the first place.
The second factor is Twitter. Much maligned by nearly everyone who uses it for other purposes, the platform is indispensable for the transmission of criticism today. Twitter, of course, was founded over a decade before the period I have been discussing, but just as the pandemic accelerated existing conditions in the Anglo-American university, it also drove people across the world online in 2020 to a degree not seen before. On the production or supply side, this had the effect of levelling out certain geographical disparities in industries which are still largely centered out of New York and London, diminishing the value of in-person networking, and opening the available talent pool to critics based elsewhere. On the transmission or demand side, it has facilitated the dissemination of popular criticism to an expanded audience.
Twitter, it is worth remembering, is not simply a virtual public sphere where critics can go to network with editors, writers, and publishers; glean information; promote their work; and build an audience for it among a user base that dwarfs that of print media. It is also a publishing platform in its own right where they can engage in criticism directly via micro-genres such as the blurb, the take, the thread, and the reply. This has made it a parasocial space where critics can interact with each other and with their respective, overlapping audiences. This latter aspect of the platform is well-known, but the implications for the way critical essays are written and its place in the media system as a whole are, I think, underappreciated.
The readership of contemporary criticism is not simply the «common reader» or «lay reader» envisioned by previous generations of critics and academics, it is, as I have said, the sort of connoisseurship one would expect from the audiences of other artforms. Comprised of practitioners, academics, and critics themselves along with consumers of writing with highly-sophisticated tastes across many languages as well as other areas of expertise or interest, this connoisseurship has favorite working critics the way one usually thinks of having favorite novelists or poets. It anticipates new work from these critics and treats publication of new essays or issues of magazines as «events» on par with the release date of a film or novel.
What distinguishes this group from previous connoisseurships is that they are able to provide feedback, expressions of approval or disapproval, differences of perspective, further context or information. In other words, it enables the connoisseurs of critical artwork to in turn act as critics of it. The bi-directionality and speed of critical discourse inevitably affects – and in my view, improves – critical writing itself, as parasocial acquaintance with the audience and its standards enables critics to anticipate responses to their work and incorporate this feedback into it, increasing complexity. Whereas the crisis of a form like the novel, both as an artform and as an object of study, has much to do with its receding place in the media system as a whole, the critical essay flourishes on a platform like Twitter: it is swiftly consumed and, as its basis is fundamentally discursive judgment, it fits comfortably in a medium that rewards position-taking, epigrammatic writing, and further elaboration in the form of an online «conversation» of potentially global reach. Such audiences are not a given in literary history and their formation as connoisseurships are both products of cultivation and fortuitousness, which is why, no less than the work itself, it is their appearance that is the tell-tale sign of a golden age.
I wish I could end on this happy note, but unfortunately I must mention two developments that have taken place in the critical field. Between December 1, 2022 and February 1, 2023, three venues for literary criticism shut down: Bookforum, Astra Magazine, and Gawker 2.0. Of these, the loss of Bookforum, which was shuttered when an entity called Penske Media Corporation bought it and its sister magazine, Artforum, is the most significant; with its closure, an entire culture of commissioning and institutional knowledge dating back to 1994 was lost, along with one of the few major venues in the United States devoted exclusively to book reviewing. Since sales, subscriptions, and advertising are rarely enough to keep little magazines afloat – it is not, ultimately, a pure market commodity – they have always had to rely on some degree of patronage. What is notable about the above three cases is that all of them were financially viable at the time of closure, just simply not financially viable in the way that their new owners or corporate raiders wanted them to be. In each of these cases, market viability has been mere rhetorical cover for cultural vandalism on behalf of a patron class which, unlike many of its predecessors, is composed of philistines. With patrons like these, who needs a market?
The loss of a venue, no matter how storied, is a huge setback to the critical field, but is not one that cannot be remedied by the entrance of other venues into the field. Of more potential consequence to the field as a whole is what occurred a few months earlier, in April 2022, when Elon Musk purchased Twitter, since Twitter is the means which connects all of the points of the rectangle, is indeed one of its structural features. As with the owners of the aforementioned magazines, Musk’s incompetence as a businessman and his disruptiveness as a media personality have injured the long-term financial viability of the site in what can only be described as an irrationally expensive act of vandalism. Users and advertisers fled and layoffs of engineers compromised the ability of the algorithm to function, leaving those who remained to find at random the accounts and posts that were once easily accessible to them. While the inner workings of Twitter are always opaque, since its users get the vast majority of information about it from Twitter itself, things seem to have begun to return to status quo ante over the last few months. However, new features and changes to user policy that have been announced erode confidence that it will continue to function in the future as an indispensable feature of the critical field, as it has done in the very recent past. What the effects will be on the maintenance of the connoisseurship I described above is unclear, but I cannot see how it would be good for it.
The critical field is as precarious as the academy. Indeed, even more so. Whether critical production and reception continues at the rates and intensity it has done for the past five years remains to be seen. Signs point both ways, and I cannot tell you whether my encomium today is in fact a eulogy. What should give us heart as readers of the art of criticism is that the recent spike in production occurred in the face of what were already adverse circumstances. One constant over the course of the past two hundred and fifty years is that because their work is not in the final analysis tied to market incentives, artists, and this I hope you’ll now agree is a designation that includes critics among their ranks, always find a way to make art.
This article is adapted from a public lecture held March 7, 2023 at Vinduet’s Spring Party in Oslo, Norway.