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Cynthia Ozick’s Critical Mass

For more than thirty years, Ozick has led the way in affirming the role and responsibility of the critic.

Ulf Andersen / Getty Images

Unlike the literature it marshals as its subject, literary criticism frequently finds itself in the position of having to defend its existence, of taking breaks from dealing with fiction and poetry in order to deal with itself. Wordsworth, himself an elite critic, considered criticism an “inglorious employment.” Most writers resent critics the way criminals resent judges. A critic’s pen, though, is not a gavel only; judging is just one component of what he does.          

What does he do? Here’s Northrop Frye in 1961: “The critic’s function is to interpret every work of literature in the light of all the literature he knows, to keep constantly struggling to understand what literature as a whole is all about.” Frye’s term “function” puts you in mind of Matthew Arnold’s authoritative 1865 essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” in which Arnold concedes that “the critical power is of lower rank than the creative,” but “the elements with which the creative power works are ideas.” The best critics supply those ideas, which in turn help forge what Arnold dubs “the moment,” the perceptual milieu, “the intellectual situation of which the creative power can profitably avail itself.” The artist’s daemon rises and thrives only “when criticism has done its work” of generating “a current of true and fresh ideas.” Cleanth Brooks, channeling Arnold in 1951, was more succinct: “Healthy criticism and healthy creation do tend to go hand in hand.” In a very real sense, literature doesn’t fully live until criticism completes it.

For nearly four decades, Cynthia Ozick has been among the most vigorous critics in the land. Across six collections of critical nonfiction—including her latest, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays—she wields an apprehension of uncommon exactitude and style. Hers is a criticism of nourishing potency that finds equal footing with the literature it seeks to augment. Reading her you understand immediately how criticism can itself soar with art, and how the critical essay well done is its own best argument for being.

Whether by denigrating the dud term “Kafkaesque,” parsing Lionel Trilling’s noble ineptitude as a novelist, or considering how the Shoah should and should not be depicted in literature, Ozick is always affirming the role and responsibility of the critic. Leading by example, by robust doing, has rarely looked better. What’s more, her prepotent aptitude as a novelist and storywriter—she has authored eleven books of fiction—works to lend the job title “novelist-critic” some of the same prestige as “poet-critic,” its more reverberant counterpart. In this, Ozick is kin not to those critics she has helped bring into focus—Harold Bloom, George Steiner, Gershom Scholem among them—but to those critical-creative titans of twentieth century British literature: Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, pp. 224, $25

Informed by her exquisite temperament—Oscar Wilde believed that temperament was the key to any strong critic—Ozick’s essays steadfastly ask the crucial questions, not only How did a writer or book or idea come to be? but What is the literary mind? What is literature? She responds to literature in the only way that really matters: With a surging reciprocity, a consummate force and flooding of her selfhood. She advocates for no theory, no obfuscating unliterary agenda, and she has no time for those who do, the academics “destined to vanish like the fog they evoke.” Literature is pleasure—it is beauty and revelation and wisdom, or it is not literature. Criticism matters because “envisioning society whole by way of contemplation of its parts, the delicate along with the tumultuous, the weighty together with the trifling, is how a culture can learn to imagine its own face.”

At the start of Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, Ozick is clear: “Without the critics, incoherence.” Here she applies the full, uncovering pressures of her perception to Trilling and Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and W. H.  Auden, Kafka and Harold Bloom, William Gass and Martin Amis. Here, too, is an education in writers who might have slipped by without your notice: German theologian Leo Baeck, Czech novelist H. G. Adler, and the American Hebraists of the 1930s, “a Hebrew-intoxicated band of ascetics,” poets, and translators, one of whom, Abraham Regelson, was Ozick’s uncle. This ravening versatility has always been one of her most valuable traits: from poetry to fiction to theology, from secular culture to sacral creed, the pedestrian to the prophetic, from the usual American maestros (Henry James, Truman Capote) to those under-read oracles from other worlds (Bruno Schulz, Gertrud Kolmar).

 A sorceress of silken prose, wholly incapable of platitude, of cliché, of even the stray dead phrase, Ozick can make anything happen with a sentence, proving that the valence of sensibility must manifest in style. If we have no reason to remember a writer’s language then we have no reason to read her. With Ozick, you’ll want to remember much: George Eliot was a “flouter of the received moral will,” Hannah Arendt was “so proudly sealed in intellect that nothing could penetrate the armor of her synthesis,” H. G. Adler was “a man condemned for the rest of his days to carry, and care for, and inconsolably preserve his own umbilical cord.” On Malamud’s linguistic program: “smelting a new poetics that infused the inflections of one tongue into the music of another.” On his sensibility: “its wounded openness to large feeling.” On Bellow’s language: “Its energetic capaciousness captures and capsizes American English with an amplitude and verve not heard since Whitman.” On Augie March: “an extravagant release into the impetuous comedic buoyancy of a manifold America.” Name another English-language critic who composes with such transformative torque.

With the online annexing not just of our culture, but of our very existence, the barb “everyone’s a critic” is now almost literally true. As the tyros flag-wave and flail, it becomes much more difficult to soften the dissonance in order to hear the sweet notes of good taste. Ozick goes taut against the degradation of standards, the dearth of deep knowing. She remains unshakable in insisting not only that good taste exists but that it is worth a staunch defending against what F. R. Leavis once dubbed “the common petty reactions of the literary world,” except what Ozick means is really a sub-literary world, the botchery and puerile uniformity that so often passes for criticism. All across the net, she writes, “reviews are mostly random and trivial and shrunk to fit the hither-and-yon notice of cafeteria-style readers.” Amazon’s forum for reviews—those “tsunamis of incapacity” by “unlettered exhibitionists”—represents “a new low in public responsibility.” With Ozick you can count on the elemental satisfaction of being in the hands of a critic who knows exactly what she thinks of something and refuses to balk or hedge, pander or equivocate. Critical judgment, she knows, whether of literature or culture, “ought not to be tentative, or it is flat and useless.” 

Ozick makes necessary distinctions between the reviewer and the critic: “A reviewer is, in effect, the opposite of a critic.” By this she means that “the critic must summon what the reviewer cannot: horizonless freedoms, multiple histories, multiple libraries, multiple metaphysics and intuitions.” The average reviewer, meanwhile, more and more busies himself with scratching down how a book made him feel, how it does or doesn’t mesh with his own identity-driven outlook. Always be suspicious of a reviewer who defaces his notice with “I feel,” as if his feelings matter one way or another to the success or failure of a book.

Ozick’s derision of average reviewers and online scribblers with their “short views and skimpy topicality” has lofty precedent. In his 1816 essay “On Common-Place Critics,” William Hazlitt delights in castigating the dominant literary gabbers of the hour. “A set of people who have no opinions of their own,” they are a “troublesome sort, who would pass for what they are not.” You can spot the commonplace critic straight off because “he always tells you either what is not true, or what you knew before, or what is not worth knowing.” He “thinks by proxy and talks by rote.” If that doesn’t sound like the ceaseless gales of cyber babble, I’m not sure what does.

What both Hazlitt and Ozick are actually insisting upon is intelligence. Criticism, said Irving Howe, “is very hard to do,” by which he meant very hard to do right. “To be a first-rate critic you need a first-rate mind,” and here Howe repeats Eliot’s maxim that to qualify as a critic, “there is no method except to be very intelligent.” The second part of Eliot’s formulation doesn’t get around as much as it should:But of intelligence itself swiftly operating the analysis of sensation to the point of principle and definition.” That’s precisely what Ozick does so well: The wedding of the cerebral and visceral in pursuit of moral verity. She has a relevant sense of the psycho-emotional underpinnings of poetic structure and the socio-religious roilings of character, and how they coalesce to help reinforce the plinths of literature. Moral without moralizing, Ozick harnesses sharply reckoned insights in her evaluation of what Allen Tate once named the “specific moral problems” of literature. What Ozick writes about Malamud pertains equally to her own intense abilities: “His aesthetic is instinct with the muted pulse of what used to be called moral seriousness, a notion gone out of fashion in American writing, where too often flippancy is mistaken for irony.”

Ozick might have scant praise for “certain young critics who favor flippancy and lightness,” those mistaking mentality for intellect as they waffle through an incandescent void, but her essay “Writers, Visible and Invisible” should be digested immediately by every budding, sweating striver in the lit game: “Fame, by and large, is an accountant’s category, tallied in Amazonian sales. Recognition, hushed and inherent in the silence of the page, is a reader’s category; its stealth is its wealth.” And this necessary reminder, which indicates the difference between not only success and failure on the page, but between reasonable sanity and perverse anxiety: “Writers are what they genuinely are only when they are at work in the silent and instinctual cell of ghostly solitude, and never when they are out industriously chatting on the terrace.” Those terrace-chatters make a show of what should remain a solemn interiority. “The fraudulent writer,” says Ozick, “is the visible one, the crowd-seeker, the crowd-speaker . . .The fraudulent writer is like Bellow’s Henderson: I want, I want, I want.”

Cynthia Ozick is 88 years old now, crafting essays with the same sparkle and muscular excellence as those that appeared in her debut collection, Art & Ardor, in 1983. Wilde believed that “the influence of the critic will be the mere fact of his own existence,” and you take his point, though mere existence won’t quite do. One must be blessed with Ozick’s spirited stamina, the vibrant and vital lastingness of her vision, the uncut adamancy of her will—a steeled perseverance in the face of a culture largely indifferent to the literary mind. Ozick fulfills the critic’s chief role, not only to condemn the contemptible, or applaud the deserving, but to aid our appreciation of literature’s efficacy and effort, and to provide us with the perceptive grammar for what we see but cannot name. Why read serious books? “To catch hold of the tincture and pitch of the hour, the why of the moment, the why of what led to the moment, the why of what may come of the moment . . . the why of what is honorable and what is not, the why of what is true and what is a lie.” Reading Ozick means a realization of our hope that literary comment will not be abandoned to those for whom literature is an occasion for mob-think or else a route into a windowed office in the English building. Reading Ozick means, too, a blessed communion, the thrill of entering a mellifluous mind thinking things anew.