Critical Shortcomings in Cynthia Ozick’s ‘Critics, Monsters, Fanatics & Other Literary Essays’

It's so easy to be distracted by the powerful writing and insightful analysis that one misses Ozick's inability to deliver on the larger thematic promises of her latest collection.

Cynthia Ozick’s latest collection of essays seems poised to take a stand about the value of literary critics. An epigram from Pope decrying “…Those monsters, Critics!” adorns the first page; an early essay closes with the warning that criticism is “how a culture can learn to imagine its own face.” Pedants might argue that her real interest is the shape of contemporary literature as a whole and that critics are merely secondary, but Ozick makes clear that there’s little separation between the two. “Without the critics, incoherence,” she warns. Reviewers will not do; they can only “simulate the skin of a true literary culture… like plastic faux-alligator bags.” And don’t get her started on publishers (“More prone to favor treacle than to honor the real, right thing”). Only the earnest analyst, she contends, the well-read polyglot with an encyclopedic knowledge of literary history and theory and a thorough command of global trends can envision the critical framework necessary to make sense of our disparate literature and bring back the hordes of would-be readers who have abandoned the written word for more visceral entertainments.

If Ozick’s reasoning seems circular — one might as easily push that critics are so rare because there’s no unified culture to write about, or that critics are so rare because there are no readers left to write for, and not vice versa — her concern is not misplaced. The world of letters is in disarray, beset on the outside by a million competing attractions and an anti-intellectual atmosphere while riddled from the inside by the competing concerns of coterie squabbling over the proper ideological system for interpreting and even writing literature. For a time, it seems as if Ozick is set to deliver on those exact promises.

An essay that begins as a review of Alan Mintz’s Sanctuary in the Wilderness — itself an overview of 12 Hebraist American poets lost to mainstream America — turns into a lament of obscurity and a condemnation of America’s cultural myopia that stands as the collection’s finest piece. As an elegy mourning the loss of some of the most beautiful American poetry written in the 20th century, it is rending; there’s something deeply sorrowful about beauty made irrelevant not through malice, but through neglect, and here Ozick taps into that vein with a surgeon’s precision. As a condemnation of the American literary scene’s parochialism, it’s damning: we are all of us complicit, us “incurious illiterates” unwilling to expand our horizons to include those literary cultures lurking just beyond the mainstream. When tasked to point out what’s lacking in our art and in ourselves as cultural consumers, Ozick doesn’t falter.

Such effective insight would be impossible without a first-grade writing style, of course, and so as always Ozick remains a stylist without equal. Each essay contains seemingly a million and one nestled lexical pleasures. At times it’s a matter of metaphors chosen with perfect attention. “History as comedy… trivializes the unconscionable. The blood the clown spills is always ketchup,” she notes in a review of Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest, and the shock of recognition comes at seeing someone pin to this old thought an image and a phrase so new and yet so familiar it already sounds classic. It’s as though we’d said this ourselves, at one time or another.

In other instances, it’s a matter of arrangement. Her sentences hum along with a musical quality heightened by a love of alliteration and an acute attention to rhythm (she adores repetition), all leavened by a playful spirit which assures even the dourest of subject matter remains a pleasure to read about. There’s nothing amusing about the shallow infighting that wracks so much of literature, but to hear her tell it, it sounds a thrill, what with “the thuggish prejudices of gangsters who run rotted regimes, the vengeful prejudices of corrupt academics who propose intellectual boycotts, the shallow prejudices of the publishing lords of the currently dominant languages.” Some sentences even beg to be read aloud: “an indiscriminate welter of wrongs and ordeals levels all woe: it lacks the hierarchy of purposefulness” may work perfectly as an indictment of William Gass’ philosophical shortcomings in Middle C, but on its own it still carries the joy of a perfectly penned lyric. One is tempted to forgive her indulgence of adjectives and adverbs and every other modifier under the sun on the simple basis that the result reads beautifully.

Similarly, when she exalts her favorite authors it’s so easy to be taken with her exuberance that one might overlook Ozick’s tendency to ignore her own imperative to connect these figures to the current scene she is so quick to decry. A celebration of Bellow or Malamud reveals much about these giants, but what it doesn’t reveal is exactly how they influenced the overall shape of our literary culture, or what influence they had on the welter of writers working today. Ozick isn’t wrong when she warns that “the dying of the imagination [comes about] through the invisibility of the past”, or that the key to criticism is tracing lineage. Anybody hoping to make sense of American letters would have to look to these men — and to Kafka, and to Auden, and to Trilling, and to every other author she rightly adores. But they would also have to connect these past luminaries to the present and the future or they would risk isolating them as an aberration unrelated to everything they are said to have shaped. The present makes no sense without the past, and the future is difficult to chart in its absence, but conversely, the past left unconnected to either is an irrelevant fiction

It’s not a thread utterly ignored: she will occasionally give it a tug, as when, in an essay about Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka, she takes time to decry the way contemporary writers have made a hash out of the term “Kafkaesque” and reduced the author’s supposed “transcendence” to empty cliché. The effort feels slack, though, as if Ozick is pulling at this strand to make sure it’s still connected to something larger before putting it down to pick up one more personally concerning. She presents Adam Kirsch and Daniel Mendelsohn as examples of what contemporary and future critics might strive to be, only to turn immediately to lionizing a list of well-known and long-established critics.“Poetry had not yet fallen into its present slough of trivia and loss of encompass, the herding of random images of miniscule perspective leading to a pipsqueak epiphany,” rails Ozick when contrasting contemporary poets to the imminence of Auden, but there’s something missing. She provides no examples. She calls for people to map this landscape and yet, when she’s presented with the chance to do so herself, she only musters vague generalities about how ugly it all looks and schoolmarm scoldings so directionless one starts to wonder if she were blind. The “vernal aspirants who crowd the horizon with their addictive clamor” she decries might actually be a marching barbarian horde or they might simply be the treeline, wobbling in the thick summer heat: it’s difficult to say, when she provides no details.

This is not to say there are none to offer up. Poetry is overrun with “miniscule perspective(s) leading to… pipsqueak epiphanies”, so why not take to task the Tony Hoaglands and the Billy Collinses while maybe tracing their lineage back, when she has the chance? She rightly tackles Franzen for his self-serving, critical pettiness in the opening chapter, so why not assail him for all his faults as a writer of self-aggrandizing, self-validating fantasies that have given rise to hordes of shallow imitators hiding behind the mask of concerned global citizens to give the plumbings of their own petty egos a legitimacy they hardly deserve?

When a writer rightly espouses that “no [work] is an island entire of itself”, she owes readers an analysis of the wider context. So why does Ozick seem to dwell on even her subjects as if they belonged to some ideal never-land? No matter what your feelings on Harold Bloom, there’s no denying his titanic influence on our literary culture; it’s only right that in a collection ostensibly devoted to exploring the state of American letters she dwell on his enduring importance. But a chapter devoted to Bloom in this context can’t afford to merely offer up the same praise Ozick has given him his entire career, beautiful though it is. At a time when dry sociological readings have become the critical voices de rigueur and Bloom’s much maligned School of Resentment rides high, his rhapsodic vision is more important than ever. It must be defended against all present charges if it is to endure.

Further, it’s not adequate that the section entitled “Souls” offers up a nuanced look at the moral difficulties of Holocaust literature, no matter how insightful. Nationalistic sentiments are on the rise the world over, stoked by authoritarian strongmen spewing racist demagoguery: in the face of this it seems inadequate that Ozick’s cutting criticism of Amis’ The Zone of Interest dwell only on his tendency to rationalize and even trivialize the actions of Nazi officers, no matter how correct her analysis is. At its worst, the collection recedes into a foggy nostalgia. So much so that it can begin to sound embittered. Even, occasionally, like the work of a crank.

Ozick isn’t a crank, of course: decades producing vital literary criticism and excellent fiction have insulated her from any such charges. If she won’t provide a clearer idea of what this present she so maligns actually looks like or a developed vision of the future to pursue, though, it feels as if she’s receding out of laziness, or bitterness. Or, worst of all, abdicating her responsibility. That’s certainly what it sounds like when, in an early essay on Trilling she offers that “when we look around at the contemporary scene, we are in the dark, we cannot tell who will live on into the next generation.” It’s as if to insulate herself against any suggestion that she hasn’t done her work. Such evasions do not hold, though. Not when Ozick herself declares in the opening that a critic “not only unifies and interprets a literary culture, but has the power to imagine it into being.” There’s something worse at work here, undergirding Ozick’s beautiful prose and her nuanced portrayal of many of her old favorites, that suggests she has given in to a kind of despair.

One hopes that it’s only temporary, though: she isn’t wrong when she suggests that strong critical voices are necessary more now than ever before. It would be a shame to lose a voice as vital as her own to fear.

RATING 7 / 10