Chasing the novel in Jaipur
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Today, the canon no longer coheres, and "the average work of literary fiction appears and vanishes from the scene largely unnoticed and unremarked". Therefore, barring the couple of serious novels that interest a wide cross-section of readers, what utility is there, she asks, in shredding to pieces a novel that most readers may never pick up? Therefore, she says, "the critics who have a choice usually prefer to call attention to books they find praiseworthy", especially since space for criticism aimed at the general reader is shrinking. "Most of the readers drawn to such publications," she says, "want to be informed of the best new books and to read criticism that enhances their understanding of and appreciation for those books." The rightful space for the negative review, she contends, has moved to criticism of popular television, where more people have "that slice of culture in common".
In a thoughtful essay, Mendelsohn frames the problem differently, within a larger defence of the serious critic. It could be that the current questioning of the reviewing culture stems from the fact of critiquing being taken out of the hands of the qualified critic ("people who, on the whole, know precisely how to wield a deadly zinger, and to what uses it is properly put") and the argumentative space being defined by online blogs and comments. Strong reaction without the requisite erudition, he says, is not criticism. Neither, he argues, is erudition sufficient to be a good critic — taste, or sensibility, "the reagent that (gets) you from the knowledge to the judgement" is equally important. The point is to get a better measure of able criticism, he says, not to limit the possibilities of the craft by framing guidelines for what and how the "serious" critic may go about the task.
Either way, each of the two arguments highlights the current dilemma in how the general reader is to be expected to obtain a reading list from literary criticism, and taking the debate forward would be useful. Meanwhile, with Jaipur's deliberations underway this weekend, it may also be time to ask what the role literary festivals could be playing in creating a shared literary space.