Smart Reads: In Praise of Kathryn Schulz in Praise of George Eliot

This comes several weeks late and a bit out of left field, but I would like to say a few words about the art of written criticism and the power of eloquent praise. In particular I would like to praise Kathryn Schulz’s praise of George Eliot in a recent issue of New York Magazine. I’d like to think there are others in the world who can be genuinely moved by a piece of criticism, but I suspect there aren’t many of us. What for most may be snobbish babel is often music to my ears. I’ve given up on reading Susannah Clapp‘s exquisite theater reviews for fear of succumbing to an insane urge to buy a flight to London. I devour Maureen Ryan‘s TV recaps, even of shows I don’t watch, with rapturous glee. And recently, reading Kathryn Schulz waxing poetic about Middlemarch made me immediately pick up a copy of the novel at the nearest Barnes and Noble. I dare you not to wonder whether you should do the same:

“As a rule, I am allergic to the adjective ‘best,’ which asserts only the inferiority of all other things—not a useful or appealing function, for those of us who are promiscuous thing-lovers. But here is one benchmark of a book, and a very difficult one to achieve: whether, while you are immersed in it, it mutes all other claims upon your taste and convinces you it’s the greatest thing ever written.”

Is it normal to start sweating when reading a piece of literary criticism? Schulz goes on to say things like “I am not sure any other writer has ever captured with such precision what it is like to be a member of our species.” (Seriously, read the article.) There’s just something irresistible to me about a writer feeling so passionately about a piece of art, they can infect you with their own passion. “Promiscuous thing-lovers?” Be still my beating heart. I find there are no superlatives too super if the enthusiasm is convincing enough – the more improbabale the claim the better when it’s delivered in the context of a joyous, unabashed rave. Similarly grand reviews that come immediately to mind include Matt Zoller Seitz’s almost divine admiration of the movie Gravity, or Emily Nussbaum’s claim that the fourth episode of season 3 of “Louie” is so good she doesn’t even want to talk about it, or Ben Brantley’s euphoric revelations about the recent Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie. There are basic rave reviews, and then there are odes that double as mini-masterpieces.

These writers inspire me in a way that seems somehow twice as thrilling as experiencing the piece of art itself; I sit in awe of the critical expression while also seeing the object of scrutiny again through their far more insightful eyes. Artists who have suffered at the hands of gleefully vicious reviewers who use their powers for evil may disagree, but I will always consider criticism to be its own sacred art form.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go read Middlemarch.


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