“What’s so Great About Pauline Kael?”

Don’t ask me why, but the library around the corner had a mint condition soft-cover copy of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon on their remainder rack for $1 (I know, I know, how utterly poetic of them), so of course I bought it, but then I got to wondering, “Didn’t Pauline Kael once have something to say about Harold Bloom?,” which led me to Google (“harold bloom pauline kael”), which led me to this potentially interesting Kael thread (at MUBI.com), the interest of which I note is “potential” because all I’ve done is scan a few bits from it (and I still don’t know the answer to my original question).

5 thoughts on ““What’s so Great About Pauline Kael?”

  1. Part of the discussion on the MUBI thread (I read pages 1,2, and 13) revolved around questions of subjectivity and objectivity. One person linked to an excerpt by Leo Charney where he argues Kael was “explicitly privileging subjective response over ‘objective’ standards”, adding, “Valorizing subjective response becomes, for Kael, an anti-authoritarian gesture, an act of empowerment.”

    One answer to the question at the top of this post is that, for those of us who think Pauline Kael was great, her insistence on the importance of subjective response was liberating. I’d argue, though, that this approach worked well for Kael because of the breadth of her knowledge outside of film … she could review a movie of a Henry James novel and help illuminate the novel along with the film. That’s why I call her approach one of “expansive” subjectivity … while she is famous for her personal reactions to films, she was always more than just a teenager with a diary.

    The question is this: do you think her style of subjective criticism was ultimately influential in a valuable way, or in a destructive way? I’m very much on the side of valuable, but there are dangers in simply imitating Kael, just as Lester Bangs, as great as he was, through no fault of his own inspired a lot of crappy copycat writing.

    But if you believe in a relatively hardcore notion of objective standards in art, you will find Kael’s “greatness” to be puzzling, at best.

    Me, I’m glad for her influence. Critics (rock critics in particular, I think) write differently because of Kael, even if they’ve never read her. To point to a recent example, Rob Sheffield’s marvelous books are driven by the way he integrates the personal with the music (personified, perhaps, by the subtitle of one, “One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut”). I don’t just learn about “Rob Sheffield” when I read these books, I learn about music, and its place in our culture. And I learn more because of the subjectivity behind the writing.

    As for Kael and Bloom … I’m at a loss.

  2. “The Western Canon” has essential Austen and G. Eliot essays. I still consult the appendix.

  3. “do you think her style of subjective criticism was ultimately influential in a valuable way, or in a destructive way?”

    I think I’m uncomfortable with the word “subjective” here because I don’t think any critic or writer can be anything but. If it’s a question instead about Kael’s deeply personal, colloquial style–her willingness to bring her own story and her natural speaking voice into her reviews–then I would say it was probably both inevitable and a good thing, given that I’m having a difficult time thinking of a critic I care about whose work lacks personality or a distinct voice (though there are degrees of differences; Christgau is wildly personal and colloquial compared to someone like Simon Frith, though I would assume each of them write somewhat close to how they talk).

  4. I agree with you about the inevitability of the subjective. But the part of the discussion that I read in the MUBI thread included arguments about the possibility of objective criticism, and some people argued both that it existed and that it was a good thing.

  5. I will try to read through some of that. I’d love to know who they would cite as an example of an “objective” critic.

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