In a recent issue of The New York Times, in an article entitled “Is Everyone Qualified to be a Critic,” two writers discussed what it takes to be a literary critic.
Adam Kirsch wrote, “The roots of criticism lie not in judgment but in receptivity and response. Everyone, upon encountering a work of art, has some kind of response, ranging from boredom or incomprehension to amazement and gratitude. In this sense, everyone really is a critic, in a way that not everyone is a painter or a poet. It requires some special talent to create an artwork, but any conscious person will have a reaction to that artwork. What makes someone a critic in the vocational sense is, first, the habit of questioning her own reactions — asking herself why she feels as she does. Second, she must have the ability to formalize and articulate those questions — in other words, she must be a writer. To be able to say what you feel and why: That is the basic equipment of a critic.
“It is in pursuit of this articulate self-expression that a critic finds herself needing to make comparisons and judgments. To explain why a certain novel moves her, she naturally starts wondering about what makes it different from another book that left her cold. Then she begins to ask what features of the book produced this reaction: Is it the handling of plot, or the lifelikeness of character, or the quality of the prose? In this way, appreciation passes into analysis, the next stage of criticism — trying to figure out how a work of art does what it does. And when you have had enough of these thoughtful encounters with different kinds of works, you can claim expertise — which is not a credential or a stick to beat people into submission with, but simply a shorthand for extensive aesthetic experience.”
Charles McGrath wrote, “If for a start we require that critics know what they’re talking about — that their judgments are actually informed — the field thins considerably, and if we also insist on taste and discernment, then the number of valuable and useful critics dwindles pretty drastically.
“A valuable critic is someone whose judgment you can rely on and learn from, which is not to say someone you always agree with. . . . in deciding which critics are worth attending to, literary critics especially, we can at least insist on readability — on clearness of expression, some stylishness, and even a sense of humor. Criticism may be a minor art, but it’s an art all the same, and critical writing ought to be pleasing in itself and not just piggyback on whatever work it’s discussing.”