PEN 2013: Critical Cold Wars

May 3, 2013

"We have a Cold War on the Russian soul," said Mikhail Shishkin. Lines are drawn, barricades are up. On one side are the nationalists and isolationists who proclaim Russia to be the center of the world and a power to be reckoned with. On the other side of the barricade are the internationalists who see affinity with Europe and a greater, global cosmopolitan attitude. These starkly drawn political lines extend into cultural spheres, bifurcating the Russian arts and cultural scene. As such, Shishkin remarked, it is easy to predict who will say what about his books even before they hit the shelves.

The style, attitude, and role of book criticism differs from country to country. The PEN World Voices Festival panel "The Critic's Global Voice" explored how book critics and reviews shape the literary discourse within three countries. Shishkin was joined on stage by Ursula Krechel (Germany) and Jean-Euphèle Milcé (Haiti); Albert Mobilio (Bookforum) moderated.

In the critical landscape (here I speak only of the literary context), several Cold Wars simmer. First, there is in some countries, as Shishkin reports of Russia, tension between highly competitive political ideologies. While the stronger State appears to be winning in Moscow (at least from the outside), the liberals at least have a fighting chance. The Russian Occupy movement was quite vocal last year and dissident intellectuals like Garry Kasparov continue to challenge the status quo. The results have been minimal, to be sure, but compare the fight of the liberal Russian intelligentsia to their comrades in China, where the State dominates the cultural discourse to such a degree that to massive segments of the population, no other truth than the Official Truth is known. Ai Weiweiwriting in the Washington Post of the situation in China, speaks of the courage, or lack thereof, of a citizenry that has forgotten what it is like to fight for an alternate reality. Ai Weiwei, of course, is not allowed to leave China. He fares better than some of his countrymen and women who are either silenced (Liu Xia) or imprisoned (Liu Xiabo). In this critical Cold War, the stakes are very, very high. A society that inhibits the free exchange of a plurality of opinions is a society doomed.

Mikhail Shishkin (via Calvert 22)

Subsequent critical Cold Wars are not so life-or-death, at least for the human body. At stake here is the human spirit and the ideal of a thoughtful, opinionated, and challenging discourse. In the United States, this battle is being waged between book critics and everyone else. The Internet has made it easy for anyone (ahem) to launch a website or blog to add their own voice to the literary discourse. What really frustrates so-called professional critics is the proliferation of "reviews" (call it commentary) on the bookstore-killing, emerging publishing behemoth, where anyone and everyone can weigh in on the merits of a novel. The process is fraught: while a few commenters write with panache, the system is easily gamed by those who want to give their author-friends a boost and others who look to destroy an author's reputation. The critic Morris Dickstein, in an essay published on The Mantle, decried the rise of the drive-by book reviewer:

"To put it simply, the professional reviewer, who has a literary identity, who had to meet some editor’s exacting standard, has effectively been replaced by the Amazon reviewer, the paying customer, at times ingenious, assiduous, and highly motivated, more often banal, obtuse, and blankly opinionated. What works for a website like Trip Advisor, which gives us unfiltered but welcome criticism of hotels and restaurants, most assuredly does not work for literary reviewing, which demands taste, training, sensibility, some knowledge of the past, and a rare feeling for both language and argument. Barring this, we’re stuck with the thumbs-up, thumbs-down school of reviewing. Raw opinion, no matter how deeply felt, is no substitute for argument and evidence. The democratization of reviewing is synonymous with the decay of reviewing."


Ursula Krechel, however, flips the script. Rather than bemoaning the ascendance of anyone-as-critic and the democratization of book reviewing, she sees the proliferation of comments on places like as a professionalization of reading. In respected American publications (both in print and online), professional critics are digging trenches from which to fight their critical battles. Meanwhile, the masses throw grenades haphazardly from all over the place. The danger with grenades is that you only need to be close to your mark to have an impact. 

But what happens if there is not much to discuss? The third critical Cold War is the one in which the critics turn not on themselves, but on the Other. Here Jean-Euphèle Milcé provides a unique perspective. Because Haiti lacks an academic history, and because there is a high degree of illiteracy, it is difficult for Haitian writers to thoughtfully engage their own literary scene. In Haiti, book reviews create a circular relationship of admiration, or as Milcé put it, a way to "flirt with friends." More often serious discussion is that which encounters literature from other cultures, particularly France. There was a time, Milcé recalled, where critics viewed themselves as being "at war" with the French literary scene. Novels were always compared to those published in the French language, as if the French maintained a standard of literary refinement that had to be matched or bested. Today, however, Haitian critical armaments are aimed globally. To be taken seriously as a critic in Haiti, reported Milcé, one must be open to and savvy about world literature. Until Haiti develops a deeper academic and critical history, the critic must keep an eye on foreign soils.

Jean-Euphèle Milcé (via haiti3d)

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union eventually thawed. Part of the heat came from cultural spheres who engaged each other in dialogue. It is this exchange which fires the imagination, constructively challenges a counterpart, and encourages a betterment and refinement of skill. The conversation between the critic and the artist is a necessary action, for it is this give and take that completes a critical aesthetic. Without this reciprocity, one only hears his own voice.

Shaun Randol is the founder and editor of The Mantle. He is also an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York City, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the PEN American Center.