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by William H. Benson

April 15, 2010

     Another prize-winning author once said of William Faulkner: “Well, he never faced any criticism,” a statement that I find odd, even inexplicable, for it seems to me that in America for at least the past three decades, everyone who has achieved a level of distinction or of leadership suffers the most bruising kind of criticism.

     Someone dares to suggest an idea, write a book, paint a picture, coach a ball team, record a song, film a movie, sponsor legislation, and coming fast upon his or her heels is the omnipresent critic, who jumps up to complain and to point out the fallacy of what that someone has done or offered to the world. And more often than not, that critic has never produced or done anything even remotely daring or worthwhile. If the critic ever applauds an achievement, it is negligible and infrequent.

     Alan Simpson, the former Senator from Wyoming, who was recently appointed to co-chair the deficit commission, said this of Americans today: “No one forgives anyone for anything anymore. People get angry just for disagreeing with them. . . . Look at what happens at the State of the Union address. There is a lot of whooping and jumping up and pointing. . . . I wonder sometimes what’s happened to simple tolerance.”

     The only realms of thought where criticism has achieved a heightened degree of respectability are in books and films. Literary criticism has a lengthy and rich tradition, one in which the critic attempts to find the good and the beautiful in that “slush-pile” of manuscripts submitted by erstwhile and would-be authors.

     Harold Bloom, the Yale scholar, said, “Literary criticism, as I have learned to practice it, relies finally upon an irreducibly aesthetic dimension in plays, poems, and narratives.” In a world of ugly, beauty is hard to find, and once found, it cannot be reduced.

     As for film, the most well-known of the critics were Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who had their own television show, “At the Movies,” which began in the 1970’s. Each week Siskel and Ebert would play a clip of the newly released movies, vote with either a thumb up or down, and then briefly argue about a particular movie’s merit. After they retired from the show, two other film critics replaced them: Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and A. O. Scott of the New York Times.

     Last week, the powers-that-be announced that they had decided to give a thumbs down to “At the Movies,” and ax it from their lineup at the end of this season, sometime in mid-August. A. O. Scott wrote in last Sunday’s New York Times: “I am sorry ‘At the Movies’ is over. I had a good time doing it and wish it could have kept going, but I have no scores to settle, no blame to assign, no might-have-beens to explore.”

     Some areas of society institutionalized their criticism, and most deservedly: such as in Congress where ideas are transformed into laws and transactions that can and do profoundly affect people’s lives in countless ways, often not for the better. Criticizing the current administration in power is the American pastime, not discussing the weather.

     Other areas are relatively free of criticism, such as in religion. People in American do not ordinarily publicly badmouth a different denomination—its founder, its packaged set of beliefs, its rituals—than that of their own.

     I know of only one religious critic: again, Harold Bloom, who wrote in The American Religion: “[R]eligious criticism must seek for the irreducibly spiritual dimension in religious matters or phenomena of any kind. . . . A nation obsessed with religion rather desperately needs a religious criticism, whether or not it is prepared to receive any commentary whatsoever on . . . a question as [to] the individual’s relation to group persuasions.” Frequently in his book, Bloom would ask, “Where is the appeal in such a religious imagination?”

     Criticism, for all of its faults, does prod people to listen, to talk, to read, and to think. A. O. Scott wrote: “And that kind of provocation, that spur to further discourse, is all criticism has ever been. . . . As such, it is always apt to be misunderstood, undervalued and at odds with itself. . . . The future of criticism is the same as it ever was. Miserable and full of possibility. The world is always falling down. The news is always very sad. The time is always late.”

     Let’s hear from the critic.