PEN World Voices Festival Dispatch: “The Critic’s Global Voice”

By Mythili G. Rao

The Critic's Global Voice event, featuring Jean-Euphèle Milcé, Ursula Krechel, and Mikhail Shishkin (moderated by Albert Mobilio), took place on Wednesday, May 1.

Reports of the death of American literary culture have been, well, at least a little exaggerated.  There’s no other way to explain the steady stream of lively essays bemoaning the health of book reviews, book critics, and literature itself. “Like hazing, reviewing is inflicted by the old and popular on the young and weak,” Elizabeth Gumport wrote, dismissing the genre in n+1. Literary culture is in the midst of a “long slide, reflecting not just a hard market but the manners of a bygone world,” as Michael Wolff recently put it in a churlish column predicting the demise of the New York Times Book Review.  At any rate, “most contemporary literary fiction is terrible,” J. Robert Lennon griped in Salon.

But what of the rest of the world?  Are we to believe that such assessments hold true for the public dialogue about books—and the role of “professional” readers—in other languages, other markets, other cultures?  Bookforum editor Albert Mobilio put the question of the role of criticism to writers from Russia (Mikhail Shishkin), Haiti (Jean-Euphèle Milcé), and Germany (Ursula Krechel) in a Wednesday night PEN festival discussion of “The Critic’s Global Voice.”

In Germany? “It is shrinking,” Krechel said of the real estate afforded reviews in the media.  “When I was young, I worked as a critic and it was wonderful,” she said—both as a way to make money and a way to engage with the work of her contemporaries.  However, today, she observed, such work is simply no longer financially viable.  A similar shortage of critical dialogue characterizes Haiti, according to Milcé. Speaking through a translator, he explained that high levels of illiteracy make it difficult for cultural criticism to thrive in Haiti (which is, after all, “a relatively young country”).   As for Russia? “Russia is a very special country,” Shishkin began, elliptically. “Everything is the same but upside down.” Shishkin explained that with most novels widely available on the Internet free of charge, reviews have long ceased to serve the basic commercial function of pointing potential readers towards new works worth their attention.  Instead, Shishkin complained, reviews in Russia’s mainstream publications exist  largely as  (transparent) propaganda; for Shishkin, the politicization of Russian literary culture strips it of its value (“I don’t read literary critics in Russia,” he confessed).

This seemed to be a point all three agreed on—that the existence of great literature is hardly dependent on the existence of robust criticism.  For Milcé, Haiti’s literary community is just that—a small, supportive, tight-knit set of passionate writers more interested in celebrating one another’s works than critiquing it.  Meanwhile, Krechel pointed out that even if review sections are shrinking, Germany’s attention to literature in translation remains robust.  “Germany has a long tradition of translation,” she said. “We are very proud of this openness and we are very good translators.”  Though “minor” German authors complain about foreign writers crowding out the market, Krechel concluded it was a small price to pay for “proportionate” representation of world literature.

When Albert probed his panelists for their take on some of the American literary community’s favorite topics, however—gender inequality in reviews, the value of invective as entertainment, and the consequences of self-publishing, among other subjects—they seemed mildly flummoxed.  Jean railed against “useless” and “unfair” reviews and then recanted: “I didn’t mean to send all the critics to Guantanamo.” he said.  When it came to charges that criticism as we know it is doomed to obscurity and irrelevance, the panelists seemed skeptical that the critic ever occupied a rarefied place to begin with.  “I’m really not sure it’s useful to be playful on the subject of a book,” Krechel said. “I don’t really trust the person who needs a book to be playful.”


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