Who are some of the critics you admire, and why?
There are lots of them. At a pinch, I would probably nominate William Hazlitt as my favourite critic for the sheer vitality of his prose. But I’d hesitate to choose. The twentieth century produced an extraordinary number of great critics and they all tend to have different virtues. A brilliant close reader like Christopher Ricks can be inspiring, but a bluff journalistic critic like Edmund Wilson can be great on his day too. Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis has always struck me as a major critical achievement. There are critics I admire because they have taught us to think about culture in new ways, critics like Walter Benjamin or Roland Barthes, but in general I tend to be drawn to critics who can combine depth of knowledge with an accessible style, people like Frank Kermode or Susan Sontag, or some of the old New York intellectuals – Elizabeth Hardwick or Lionel Trilling, for example. A lot of the literary theory that was a big deal when I was at university resulted in some very interesting thinking but it didn’t produce much in the way of good writing.
One of the fascinating things about criticism, I think, is that an individual critic’s obsessions, weaknesses and blind spots can be important too, because in their way they can also help to clarify certain arguments and distinctions. I often disagree with James Wood’s criticism, for example, but I invariably enjoy reading him. His anti-‘hysterical realism’ campaign was wrong-headed in all sorts of ways, but it identified a faultline in contemporary fiction and got people talking. Daniel Mendelsohn, Adam Kirsch and Laura Miller are good contemporary critics, and I think Andrew O’Hagan’s cultural criticism is always excellent. There are music critics I like, as well, particularly Alex Ross, Jon Savage and Jim DeRogatis, though of course when it comes to rock criticism you can’t go past the doyen Lester Bangs: fearless, passionate, brilliant, slightly crazed and completely hilarious.
James Ley is the editor of Australia's newest literary publication, the Sydney Review of Books, our (online-only) answer to the London Review of Books and New York Review of Books. This is an excerpt of a longer interview.
(crossposted at the usual place...)