On its ’10 Questions’ page at the back of Time Magazine, May 11th, there was a series of responses from Harold Bloom, who is a literary critic and Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University. He comes across as an iconic, contrary, interesting figure, and while he was teaching at Yale while I was there, I never met the man.
In the ‘interview’ he makes several points about literature which interested me. (He also discussed students and Yale and Naomi Wolf: of less interest.)
He was asked whether he was ever tempted to write a second novel, after The Flight to Lucifer. His response was that on re-reading The Flight to Lucifer, he decided that writing fiction was not for him. He was then asked what qualifies him to be a critic if he isn’t a novelist or a poet. His answer was that he loves books. To my mind, that’s a good answer. To be a competent critic, one does not need to be a writer, but one must be an educated, insightful, voracious reader. Good writers do not necessarily make good critics, and good critics can be poor writers. What good writers and critics have in common is a love of reading.
He also says that ‘we live in an age of visual overstimulation’ and that the ‘pernicious screen’ destroys the ability to read well. I’m not sure that it destroys our ability to read, but it certainly can distract us from reading, and I think this is particularly true of young people.
Bloom says that writers should read ‘only the best and most challenging and traditional’. I don’t agree with this. I think writers, as readers, need to experiment. I find that when I read a book that is not one of the ‘best’ or is not ‘traditional’, my horizons are widened. I can see mistakes that were made, and I can evaluate new approaches and techniques. This is part of my learning process; sticking to the best, traditional literature narrows my vision.
Time asked Bloom whether he is familiar with ‘websites that provide reviews by common readers’. Bloom’s response: “Their effect upon the mind is not good. They do not enlarge and make the mind more keen and independent. Reading is not in that sense a democratic process. It is elitist. It has to be elitist.” What a lot of bullshit! Bloom comes across as a dedicated elitist who wishes to protect his own sublime position as a critic. While it may be true that many of the reviews posted on, for example, Amazon.com are cursory and less than insightful, it does not follow that such reviews should be deplored. Many readers have a desire to express their views on what they have read; to deny them the opportunity to express those views may take away part of their incentive to read. Besides, a sophisticated review reader can find the wheat amid the chaff. Reading is not a democratic process? That’s a ridiculous statement! If he meant that literary criticism is not a democratic process, I would agree.
Someday, I would like to meet Professor Bloom.