Since having the opportunity to write and now edit some criticism of art and poetry, I have been asking myself often whether criticism is necessary. What do I get out of writing it? And what I get out of reading it? One satisfying answer I stumbled on came from Roland Barthes. In The Pleasure of the Text – a book I believed I already understood and thus only skimmed in grad school (shh!) — he suggests that the question “How can we read criticism?” is the same as the question “How can we take pleasure in a reported pleasure?” The answer to that latter question is a bit easier: it’s quite sexy to hear someone describe the erotic, especially if you overhear the description. Safe from the ethical responsibilities of being friend and confidant, it’s pleasurable, if envy-inducing, to hear of someone else’s pleasure. Barthes claims that reading criticism means that I must “shift my position… I can make myself its voyeur: I observe clandestinely the pleasure of others, I enter perversion” (Pleasure f the Text, 17).
Of course not all critics are going to offer that clandestine look. But maybe they should. Think of that the next time you pick up the NYRB or read a critique in your favorite literary journal. Is this author allowing you to shift your position, letting you watch her read? Is she letting you into her bedroom as she lifts the pages and smiles?