NYT editor and Nieman fellow Jennifer B. McDonald '13: Gesturing toward criticism

by Guest Blogger

Guest blogger Jennifer B. McDonald is a 2013 Fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and an editor at The New York Times Book Review. She joined The Times as an editor on the national desk in 2005 and was previously an editor at The Washington Post and at CNET News.com in San Francisco. Before becoming a journalist, she danced ballet for 13 years.

I’d like to begin this item with a list, followed by a confession.

The list: Addison, Adorno, Barthes, Bell, Benjamin, Brooks, Burke, Cixous, Coleridge, Derrida, Emerson, Foucault, Freud, Frye, Gilbert & Gubar, Goethe, Greenberg, Hazlitt, Hegel, Horace, Howe, Hume, James, Kant, Keats, Lacan, Lessing, Longinus, Macdonald, Nietzsche, Pater, Plato, Ransom, Richards, Rosenberg, Sartre, Saussure, Shklovsky, Sidney, Shelley, Staël, Trilling (Diana), Trilling (Lionel), Wellek & Warren, Wimsatt & Beardsley, Wordsworth.

The confession: Before my year as a Nieman fellow at Harvard, I’d had little to no exposure to the critical work of these authors. Yet when I arrived here, people insisted on calling me a "critic." Ann Marie Lipinski, the curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, called me a critic. My fellow fellows, journalists from all over the world, called me a critic. It was odd, because throughout my career, including my five years at The New York Times Book Review, I’d thought of myself as an editor and a journalist — and, yes, an avid reader of literature — but almost never as a critic. Did these people, relative strangers, know something about me that I didn’t?

When I applied for the fellowship, I proposed a course of study — literature, philosophy, psychology, poetry, history and rhetoric — that I now recognize as an attempt to assuage the anxiety provoked by the "critic" label. In a year at Harvard, I dreamed, I would do some serious educational gap-filling and emerge a bright, shiny new ball of knowledge, a highly calibrated critical machine. Voilà!

During the final round of interviews, one of my interrogators told me my plan was ridiculously ambitious. You’d need at least six years to get through this, he said. He was right, of course.

In 10 months, I ended up accomplishing something much more modest: I spent a lot of time thinking about the way I think.

Worried over labels, I kept coming back to questions: How does a person become a critic? What does a critic need to know? What should a critic read? How should a critic read? What and how should I read if I’m ever going to live up to the word that keeps getting assigned, inexplicably, to me?

So it was that I landed in Literary Criticism: Major Approaches, a course taught last fall by James Engell. I knew I’d be reading major critical essays by many of the writers listed above. What I didn’t anticipate was that Engell would utter two sentences with the power to resonate far beyond this year: "Criticism is not, ultimately, something one does. It gestures toward who one is."

Suddenly, the mode of inquiry shifted. It was not only about what and how, but also who and why: Who am I? Why do I think the way I do? How do I come across, in life and on the page? What do people read in my gestures, why do they read them this way, and is this the person I want them to see?

It strikes me that "criticism," in Engell’s statement, can be replaced by any other form of art and still make sense: Writing … gestures toward who one is. Dancing … gestures toward who one is. Painting … gestures toward who one is. The playing of music … gestures toward who one is. The "who" behind the "something one does" is what makes the "something" original. To me (and here I cop to my own biases, formed through my experience as a dancer), the "who" is what turns the "something" — the dance, the music, the writing — into "something interesting."

In the past few months I’ve read critics who regard their work as science, not art. I've encountered artists who believe in depersonalizing art, in erasing from the picture the subjective "who," the mysterious "why." The opportunity to argue with these people, across the seminar table or across page and time, has been one of the great gifts of this year. I leave with a reading list significantly longer than the one I brought in (demonstrating the wonderful paradox of education: the more you learn, the more you know you don’t know). By continuing to grapple with these writers’ methods, I hope to inch closer to a critical approach that makes sense to me.

For now, the approach I admire embraces the idea that the critic, like everyone else — student, teacher, reporter, editor, dancer, musician, author — is forever a work in progress. If that’s what my Nieman colleagues meant when they started calling me a critic? I’ll take it.

[Caption: Jennifer B. McDonald PHOTO: Brent McDonald]