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book review

Literary critic Cynthia Ozick’s latest collection shows the power of criticism is still alive

The eminent novelist and literary critic Cynthia Ozick may be 88 years old, but her newest collection of essays is bristling with energy, pulsing with electricity, vibrantly alive. As a recent New York Times Magazine piece lamented, despite her eminence, Ozick is no longer widely known or read. “Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays,’’ her 18th book, is both a testament to her inimitable brilliance and a clarion call for the indispensability of the critical enterprise.

The book takes its epigraph from that most notorious of critical goads and that most critical of creators, Alexander Pope: “Authors are partial to their Wit, ‘tis true./ But are not Criticks to their Judgement too?/ . . . Those monsters, Criticks!’’

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For the myriad authors who’ve felt the sting of Ozick’s lash or the coolness of her contempt, her monstrosity is indubitable. But part of Ozick’s intent is to make manifest the invigorating, clarifying, generative power of so-called critic-monsters.

The collection’s opening salvo is as much plea as it is lament. After a brief consideration of the once mighty but now largely unread Edmund Wilson and George Orwell, Ozick poses a question that is, alas, rhetorical: “[T]oday there are a number of first-rate writers of criticism who are at work full-time; but are there enough to make what can be called an expansive literary culture?” She ends her pithy introduction with this dire maxim: “Without the critics, incoherence.”

The first full-length essay, “The Boys in the Alley, the Disappearing Readers, and the Novel’s Ghostly Twin,” which made a splash when it appeared in Harpers in 2007, explores the “situation of the contemporary novelist” at a time when “[a]mbition, even of the kind termed naked, no longer invites elitist denunciation.” Ozick considers the changing face of literary ambition as reflected in the feud between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus, an argument about audience and aspiration, fame and fidelity to ideals. According to Ozick, the real problem for contemporary novelists is the dearth of their critical equivalents: “What is missing is an undercurrent, or call it, rather (because so much rests on it), an infrastructure, of serious criticism.” This sentence, with its sinuous unfolding, its self-correction in the service of lucidity is quintessential Ozick. Reading her, we watch a mind stroll about, hungry, fearless, supple, in unrelenting search of truth, beauty, meaning.

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A self-proclaimed “fanatic” on behalf of the indispensability of literature to not only our pleasure but also our very survival, Ozick repeatedly issues bleak warnings about the state of our culture. Musing on the decline of the American Hebraists “reveals an abyss of loss.” Pondering “The Lastingness of Saul Bellow,” Ozick ruefully underscores how most of his once illustrious contemporaries have failed to sustain their reputations or hold onto a substantial readership — an example of what she calls elsewhere “the dying of the imagination through the invisibility of the past.”

Throughout, Ozick emphasizes how once towering figures in the literary firmament have been reduced to minor deities or cast out of the heavens altogether; others hover on the brink of oblivion. Stirring, provocative, luminously appreciative assessments of Bernard Malamud, Harold Bloom, Marilynne Robinson, and more stand as a bulwark against diminishment and decline. For Ozick is not at all the critical vulture she’s been cast as; in “Transcending the Kafkaesque,” she defends Kafka against the appropriations of his biographers and the obfuscations of his legend; in “Novel or Nothing,” she looks at Lionel Trilling’s unsuccessful fictions with an empathetic eye.

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The book is fierce, pugnacious, confrontational, but it is also wistful, delicate, elegiac. Even as she throws off sparks and throws down gauntlets, Ozick’s vision shines with a serene imperturbability. She writes with wild abandon and disciplined restraint, emotional extravagance and epistemological scrupulousness.

I didn’t agree with all her assessments, and I found the book’s organization into sections titled “Critics,’’ “Figures,’’ “Monsters,’’ “Fanatics,’’ “Souls’’ less than helpful. But Ozick provides her own defense against readerly quibbles and quarrels: “A critic is nothing without an authoritative posture, or standard, or even prejudice, against which an opposing outlook or proposition can be tested.”

Suffused with longing for an era when serious novels mattered, critics wielded a fructifying power, and rollicking intellectual debate galvanized a culture, “Critics, Monsters, Fanatics’’ both looks back nostalgically and gestures forward urgently. Ozick’s voice is bracing in its untrammeled honesty, its incisiveness, its willingness to assert authority, hold us to high standards, take stands.

CRITICS, MONSTERS, FANATICS, AND OTHER LITERARY ESSAYS

By Cynthia Ozick

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 211 pp., $25


Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’