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Introduction to Focus: Writers and Activism through Criticism

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 5, July/August 2013
pp. 3-10 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0080

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A pernicious socio-political tendency is currently forcing American culture into a revolving inertia in which information and participation are redefined as a busy inchoate multiplicity of vapid infotainment that threatens to reign supreme on the airwaves, the Internet, and in the culture at large. The mainstream publishing industry is in a tailspin of confusion and vapidity. The era of the newspaper is dead; and objective, informative journalism a distant, and largely deconstructed, memory. My point is not simply to bemoan the inevitable splintering of a dumbed-down public discourse. My purpose is to reinforce a living tradition of American writing that continues to toil in the hopes of creating direct, empathic representations of the deterioration of social responsibility and social justice, and the threat that this deterioration poses to the individual and the community. These literary artists, whom I call creative critics, feel the responsibility to activate the reader, and the public. They work to reverse the fixating inertia that results in static citizenship and passive observation. Framed through a crucial trope of American literature, the aim of the creative critic is to “move” the reader.

Unfortunately, much academic writing continues to serve a very small population, largely concerning itself with esoteric questions of aesthetics and philosophy. In contrast to the countercultural indoctrination camps that the Right suggests university classrooms have become, they are more often intellectual spaces dedicated to considerations of the formal qualities of literature and literary history. Programs that do focus on historicizing cultural work, on analyzing the forms of power as depicted, challenged, and reified in narrative, such as women’s studies, American studies, postcolonial studies, and ethnic studies, are either under attack (as in Arizona) or underfunded because they are seen as having no utility or vocational value (as is the case everywhere else).

The role played by the contemporary noise-machine outlets of major media has successfully drowned out matters of serious, public concern. The election of 2012 and its aftermath shows that no political actor is willing to do anything more than mention economic inequality, the rampant nature of xenophobia, the rising tide of overt, institutionalized racism, the effects of globalism, the emergence of free market theology, and the slow murder of the environment which has been its most repellent and dangerous result. The presidential debates proved that no one is particularly interested in discussing poverty or the reach of a corrupt plutocracy in America. Rather, all the discussion continues to be geared around the middle class, a now largely imaginary, context-free category with lessening relevance in the twenty-first century.

Into this political and cultural vacuum steps the creative critic. Creative criticism is my designation for American literature that consciously creates a sociohistorical critique through the invention of a narrative, most often fictive, that does two things: provides a sociohistorical context within itself that represents the external social order of its time and place, and then provides a narrative impetus that meaningfully analyzes the political, economic, and social issues inherent in that context. It borrows the conscious focus on the social sphere that Social Realism produced (especially in its heyday, approximately 1850–1930), but does not insist on a realist or naturalist technique or poetic, nor does it eschew the idea of the importance of individual identity formation or the complexity involved therein. From the Chicano movimiento and other civil rights movements, creative criticism borrows a focus on communal, cultural, and personal identity, history, and economic issues, but without espousing a prescriptive identity. It borrows from the counterculture at large a desire to create a readership capable and willing to intervene in contemporary American politics and its social and cultural institutions. It attempts to clarify what is almost completely obscured in contemporary mainstream political discourse and in a mainstream publishing industry that is replete with moribund visions of the sorry state of a middle class suburban whiteness flailing in the final days of American empire, but that seems completely uninterested in questioning the connection between the two. In answer to Emerson’s call, the creative critic endeavors to “Speak…now in hard words, and to-morrow [to] speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again.”

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