“Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in 1964. “In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning,” George Orwell cautioned in “Politics and the English Language.” Zadie Smith lamented “the essential hubris of criticism,” noting, “When I write criticism I’m in such a protected position: Here are my arguments, … here my rhetorical flourish. One feels very pleased with oneself.”
Bedeviled by these pitfalls as traditional criticism might be—an echo chamber of ideas, vacant verbosity, protected preciousness—online criticism has arguably only exacerbated the issue.
But in conceiving of criticism as a value system for what is “good” or “bad,” worthy or unworthy, there is another, implicit shape “criticism” can take—a celebration of the good by systematic omission of the bad. To put in front of the reader only works that are worthy, and to celebrate those with a consistent editorial standard, is to create a framework for what “good” means, and thus to implicitly outline the “bad,” the unworthy, by way of negative space around the good. The celebrator then becomes a critic without being critical—at least not with the abrasive connotations the term has come to bear—yet upholds the standards of “good” and “bad” work with just as much rigor.
Despite the baggage of misuse and overuse by which the term “curation” has come to be weighed down, the nature of this type of “criticism” is thus both curatorial, in its selection of what to celebrate, and editorial, in asserting a strong and consistent point of view.
T.S. Eliot understood this curatorial, relational aspect of criticism when he observed: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.”
Today, this model of online criticism is, unsurprisingly, nothing new. It harks back to Marshall McLuhan, who arguably laid the groundwork for New Criticism as a foundation of media theory. By seeking to borrow, as Henry Fielding wrote, “wit or wisdom from any man who is capable of lending us either,” he became a celebrator of ambient ideas with his own original editorial point of view, channeled through the curatorial selection and mashing up of these ideas.
I don’t identify as a critic, for the role of the critic is to provide an analysis of the negative and the positive in a specific work, but the very etymology of the term invariably prioritizes the negative. I write about books, but I don’t write reviews. I write recommendations, based on my own taste. I have no interest in putting in front of my readers books that I myself have found lacking in merit. Instead, when readers are presented with a steady stream of “good” works, over time these help develop an understanding of goodness itself, or at least of the subjective criteria for merit against which a particular writer measures works. What emerges is an osmosis of positive reinforcement and negative space through which each subsequent celebration of the worthy spurs a richer understanding of how to recognize and shield against the unworthy.
Ultimately, as E.B. White reminds us, “a writer has the duty … to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” That is the promise of the critic-as-celebrator—to inform and shape culture by virtue of elevation.
Maria Popova is the founder and editor of Brain Pickings, an inventory of cross-disciplinary interestingness.