Most critical writing today is bad, bad, bad.* And by 'bad' I mean bad. Not the kind of 'bad' Michael Jackson told us he was but the kind he really was: creepy middle-aged pedophile bad, your favorite uncle arrested for masturbating outside a playground fence bad, The Day the Clown Cried bad. That kind of bad... Several years ago when I was reading a lot of academic criticism, I eventually reached a point where after reading the first few sentences of an article (or sometimes only the title), I could predict with impressive accuracy exactly where the writer was going and how she would get there. A lesbian feminist reading of Willa Cather? I would think. Well, surely the critic will begin biographically with Lillian Faderman on nineteenth-century same-sex friendships and then bring in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick on James for a bit of textual analysis to seal the deal. She will then end with an epigram from Adrienne Rich. If I could correctly guess this much after two sentences, why bother with the rest of the article? When I couldn't satisfactorily answer that question, I stopped reading the stuff.
When literary criticism ceased to be an arena for intellectual gamesmanship (Edmund Wilson, Irving Howe, Lionel Trilling) or even brinkswomanship (Susan Sontag, Germaine Greer) and became a necessity of academic careerism, it rotted, then bloated, and eventually withered into predictable formulae, in much the same way that literary fiction, once synonymous with risk-taking experiment, has now academically hardened into an easily characterized genre.
That this sorry situation need not be, that we could have a literary criticism not only good but great, that criticism need not hold literature object-like at arm's length but can itself become art, can be as beautiful and provocative as a Modernist poem--these propositions can be easily proven with only a small amount of reading. Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael is a great example of criticism as art; likewise its precursor text, Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature. Shelley's "Defense of Poetry" is a masterpiece of prose, as is Walter Pater's Renaissance, as is John Ruskin's criticism (Ruskin, of course, being the eminent Victorian critic most likely to be arrested for masturbating outside a playground fence), as are Virginia Woolf's essays and the ironically Montaignesque meditations of William Gass and Gore Vidal. John Berger's essays point toward an art criticism that's as granite-hard and endlessly engaging as a great art object; Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence is as much Blakean prose poem as criticism of poetry; Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae is an outrageous work of comic art, criticism in the spirit of a novel by Philip Roth or Erica Jong; Oscar Wilde left us a handful of critical essays that are originally and exemplarily artistic, and he should have lived to leave us more. Robert Hughes's The Shock of the New and Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era are works of art in different registers that can be easily seen as two divergent views of the same Modernism. We might also mention Salman Rushdie's Imaginary Homelands, Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic (AKA The Old, Weird America), Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, Sontag's essays, Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, Walter Benjamin's essays and Arcades Project, even, at a straining, straining stretch, Derrida's Glas... The list is long--long enough to imply that the only reason criticism is so bad today is that critics lack the talent, courage and/or motivation to do it better.
*I speak of criticism, the academic kind, and not reviewing, which is as bad as it ever was.