I think one of the reasons I like literary criticism so much is that many of the best critics also happen to be very talented writers. They understand how to craft a beautiful sentence, and they have a wealth of knowledge about books and authors from which to draw references perfectly suited to my own bookish tastes.
Now, some critics can tend to skew negative, making their reviews a bit more about their own artistic flourishes and clever turns of phrase than the writer under consideration, but Susan Glickman, in her essay collection Artful Flight, proves that criticism need not prioritize the critic’s style and ego in order to be compelling.
This excerpt from the piece “In My Opinion” sets out some eloquent reasoning that underpins this idea, and for me encapsulates a lot of what makes the pieces in Artful Flight such appealing criticism.
* * *
From “In My Opinion”
There are a heck of a lot of opinions out there. Some days they come at you as thick as blackflies over Lac Ouareau on a July afternoon. Small, insistent opinions: some winging singly and some blackening the sky in noisy hordes. Some are meaningful and some mean well and some are just mean, but most are superfluous to our peaceful co-existence on the planet — or at least to the quiet enjoyment of a summer afternoon in the Laurentians. You can swim out to the dock to work on your tan, you can bury your head in an Agatha Christie novel so venerable that it has lost its cover and smells not of paper but of wood smoke and mildew, but unless you stay under water holding your breath, you just can’t escape the plague of modern opinion.
I should know. I trace my descent from givers of advice both requisitioned and unsolicited; a wiggly conga line of doctors and social workers and other avatars of professional wisdom. Indeed, I myself have been, in my time, guilty of opinion-mongering in mixed company. I was a professor. I was an editor. I was a book reviewer. These learned occupations may seem sufficient justification for dispensing one’s notions like so much aspirin.
And in fact, in those bad old days, flattered by the merest quiver of interest, I complied whenever possible. I improvised opinions instante, trying to sound witty, informed, and sardonic or sincere, passionate, and moral, depending on the subject in question and the degree of engagement of my interlocutor. Nonetheless, my belly churned with shame, knowing intimately, as such organs do, that I had no right to trumpet opinions on subjects with which I had insufficient familiarity.
Before Borat declared open season on satirizing Americans, Rick Mercer had a TV show in which he got over-eager Yanks to expose their ignorance of Canada by asking them trick questions like whether the city of Winnipeg should outlaw the annual polar bear hunt. Not wanting to admit they’d never heard of such a thing, they would happily spout nonsense, which the camera obligingly recorded for posterity. Watching them in their enthusiastic innocence being bludgeoned as heartlessly as baby seals, I found myself wondering why people always find it so hard to say, ‘I don’t know.’ Why are we more ashamed of not being able to express an opinion than of expressing a stupid one?
A question worth pondering, my friends, the next time you find yourself tempted to respond to a telemarketer or doodle in the answers to a quiz while waiting for the dentist.
I speak here only of opinions, mind you. Judgments are something else again. There’s nothing as inspiring as a well-considered judgment, robed in evidence and crowned with citations, sturdily shod in footnotes and trailing yards and yards of bibliography. Those guys wind my clock, I tell you; they make me proud to be a primate with opposable thumbs and the two-volume edition of the OED. But judgments deserve respect precisely because they’ve paid their dues. It takes time to arrive at a considered judgment: time to noodle around in libraries, to wander and ponder and get good and lost; time to find your way out of the woods again, older and wiser, following a bread-crumb trail by the light of the moon. Time is equally essential to all Judgment’s respectable friends and relations: the well-founded Belief, the reasonable Surmise, the profound Conviction, and even the oft maligned but really rather fetching old-fashioned Doctrine. Stuff that’s weathered years and stood up to skeptics, scoffers, and one’s own doubts — now that’s stuff with substance.
But opinions … well, opinions give me the heebie-jeebies, and opinions seem to be, increasingly, what people expect writers to have. And I don’t mean opinions about books, which are, after all, one’s business if one is a writer. I mean opinions about daily life, or politics, or the environment; the kind of opinions people seem compelled to share with each other on talk shows and editorial pages and even, alas, on Via Rail. Opinions are to judgments what sushi is to bouillabaisse: superficially pretty and chic, but ultimately raw and indigestible. The fast food of the pseudo-intelligentsia; something to be ingested on the run in that heedless North American way so disdained by the French. Insubstantial sound bites prepared by food stylists instead of chefs.
* * *
I hope you enjoyed reading this passage from Artful Flight, coming soon from the Porcupine’s Quill! For more information on this book, or to pre-order from our distributor, UTP, visit the product page on our website.