How to Be a Big-League Critic

Helpful hints from a professional

Detail from <em>The Letter</em> by Klavdy Stepanov (1893)
Detail from The Letter by Klavdy Stepanov (1893)

Here are 20 useful tips for all of you out there who want, for reasons defying common sense, to write lofty critical essays for prestigious journals:

1. Write that the subject of your choice, “as he [or she] recedes into history, seems more a product of his [or her] time than an agent of transformation.” This can be said of everyone except Napoleon, Jesus, and possibly Freud.

2. In a profile about a corporate executive in the news, it is always a good idea to mingle a classical prototype with a contemporary idiom, e.g., “Like Augustus Caesar, he is at peace with his tradeoffs,” the “he” in this sentence being Mark Zuckerberg.

3. In high-minded discourse on philosophers and their quarrels, see if you can’t summarize the argument in 10 words or less, and conclude with an echo of The Godfather. Thus, “Plato had Socrates, Kojève had Hegel, Pop had Genco—look what I got: Saul Bellow.”

4. To get your article featured on the magazine’s cover, (a) title your piece with a screaming interrogative, e.g., “Will Capitalism Conquer China or Will China Conquer Capitalism?” (b) on the grounds that no one remembers predictions that failed to come through, speculate freely on secret Department of Defense programs operating right now to lay the foundation for human colonies on the moon, (c) announce that something bad is bound to happen “soon,” e.g., the end of the bull market, and (d) use the word “crisis” up high, preferably preceded by a definite article and an unexpected adjective, in a phrase terminating with “in America”—as in “The Faux-Courant Crisis of Confidence in America.”

5. Avoid “alienation” and “iconoclast,” the go-to nouns of the postwar years, and the currently ubiquitous “icon.” What to use instead? I’d come up with something, but at the moment I’m listening to Oliver Nelson play “Stolen Moments” and feeling mellow.

6. State the opposite of the prevailing consensus view, e.g., “Derrida was not really a deconstructionist.” Quote an unintelligible sentence from Judith Butler to buttress your argument.

7. Invent an academic department (“Grievance Studies”) and, from the perspective of a tenure-seeking assistant professor, address a long-thought uncontroversial idea, e.g., the law of gravity, and expose it as a disguise for “privileged fragility.”

8. Speculate extravagantly on the significance of the change from the all-purpose “swell” to the all-purpose “awesome,” and what the change in our discourse says about the larger cultural shifts in our society since the publication of The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman in 1950, the midpoint of a century that has receded into history, with the result that Riesman’s book now seems more a product of its time than an agent of transformation.

9. Licensed by the academically respectable view that the periphery of any circle is worthier of attention than the center, discuss the importance of Albert Camus’ cigarette in defining his Weltanschauung. Or contrast the deep meaning of Hillary Clinton’s headbands of the 1990s with the pantsuits of her presidential campaign as keys to understanding her evolving position on health care. Other irresistible subjects for semiotic analysis include the white streak in Susan Sontag’s hair, Richard Nixon’s prowess playing poker in the Navy during World War II, and the nutty names Marianne Moore proposed for the car Ford ended up calling the Edsel. (Moore favored Utopian Turtletop.)

10. Inspired by the photograph of Camus smoking, write a series of “Having a Smoke With” columns, encounters with such cigarette smokers as FDR, Bogart, Ike, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Barack Obama. A follow-up on the cigars of Winston Churchill, Groucho Marx, George Gershwin, John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro, and Sigmund Freud could be entitled “A Cigar Is Never Just a Cigar.”

11. The underrated ploy: someone is always underrated. Pick that someone to promote. Mickey Rooney could use a lift.

12. The rediscovery ploy: make the case for Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution.

13. Writing about X, a writer of short stories, observe that “authors from Guy de Maupassant to Flannery O’Connor, from Henry James to Ernest Hemingway, were in thrall to the epiphany as the story’s payoff, but X differs radically from this time-tested practice.” The adverb is crucial.

14. Sneak in a swipe at Joyce Carol Oates for writing too much and the late Philip Larkin for writing too little.

15. Have a riposte ready at your fingertips. Addressing the crisis (any crisis), be sure to indicate that “the stakes are enormous.” Be always on the lookout for an “inflection point in the complex trajectory of the relations” between (a) Britain and the European Union, (b) the mind and the body, (c) the Yankees and the Red Sox, (d) the hedgehog and the fox, (e) Ralph and Alice Kramden, or (f) stocks and bonds at a time of rising interest rates.

16. Propound the onomastic theory of identity that would link two individuals with little in common except their last names. You may show that George Clinton and his band Funkadelic (“Free Your Mind … and Your Ass Will Follow”) prefigured Bill Clinton’s predilection for junk food when he was president.1

17. Use a word no one understands or will want to look up: “You can judge a chorus line [or whatever] by its placement on a spectrum of eidetic ability.” No one has ever looked up “eidetic.”

18. A good phrase to use in assessing an avant-garde writer is “his [or her] personal struggle with meaninglessness.”

19. Compare Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man with H. G. Wells’s.

20. Mind the gap and the construct. Along the lines of the generation and missile gaps of yore, discuss the “superstructure” gap, fusing the word’s original Marxist usage with Althusser, Foucault, et al. Or consider “the penis as construct: a strange superconductive conduit, carrying the vital élanof contemporary biopower.” Note the use of “et al.” above. Either it or “[sic]” should appear at least once in anything you write.

1 Beware of juxtaposing persons whose fame has vanished, such as jazz singer Della Reese and Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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