Citizen Critics

In an appendix to her provocative new book, Citizen Critics, Rosa Eberly gives her reader what seem to be odd instructions: call a radio talk show, make an argument, and support it. “What I’m asking you to do is to enter the entertainment-oriented sphere of local talk radio and use it to make an argument about something you feel requires comment,” she writes. The assignment isn’t for the reader, it’s one Eberly gives her undergraduates at UT-Austin, but it does suggest one way the reader might approach this book: read the appendix first, then let the chapters answer the question: Why does something as seemingly innocuous as speaking on talk radio–or annoying, depending on what radio station you listen to–have such considerable value as a political act?

Citizen Critics isn’t about radio, but uses it as an example of the “public sphere”–in the words of German theorist Jürgen Habermas, a place where “public discussion among private individuals” occurs. A book intended for academics but readable by attentive, patient people who care about literature, education, and the media, it is part of a series co-edited by Robert McChesney, author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy, [which was reviewed in TO when?]. Eberly’s focus is the literary public spheres surrounding four controversial novels: Joyce’s Ulysses, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, and Andrea Dworkin’s Mercy. In robust, detailed chapters devoted to each novel, Eberly looks at the public contributions (usually letters to editors) by non-expert readers and shows how the themes of these discussions differed from those of literary “authorities,” expert readers and critics who often stole, adapted, ridiculed, or ignored those themes, sometimes even co-opting the terms of public debate for increasingly narrow commercial purposes.

In this sense, Eberly isn’t writing about literature per se but testing the health of American publics, and hence democracy, too. In literary public spheres, she argues, literature becomes newslike–that is, a controversial novel can galvanize people to talk and write about social values, the meaning of art, and the contact between public and private lives. Citizen critics make texts meaningful for each other, reporting from the middle of their private lives on what they read. In other words, they don’t need commercial media–that is to say, mediums of commerce–to tell them what to think or believe. The connection with democracy is this: in healthy public spheres, citizens can engage perfect strangers on the themes of the day. Following rhetorical theory, these themes are called topoi, the ancient Greek word for “places.” Such spatial metaphors aren’t irrelevant, because Citizen Critics maps public discussions in order to help figure out how to protect and engender the public spheres that are necessary for the existence of democracy.

However, public spheres in America are withering. “Few citizens feel willing or able to join the fray anymore,” Eberly writes. “Most novels do not become public issues, at least not in the sense that their publicity leads to democratic participation and public judgement.” Her chapters provide evidence for declining literary public spheres. She writes, “the ‘news’ [Joyce, Miller, Ellis, and Dworkin] offered was to some degree excluded from public debate by discussions of the aesthetic merit of their work or by a media culture that increasingly does not invite citizens to understand their views of cultural products as anything other than demographic preferences.” Hence talk radio, where a semblance of the public sphere–what for Eberly has the potential to be a “sustainable public”–remains.

Non-expert readers are the “citizen critics” of the title, and the chapter on Ulysses in America defines their work most clearly. From 1918 on, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, editors of a literary magazine called the Little Review, published chapters of Ulysses until they were stopped by court order in 1921. In that time, they also printed letters from “Reader Critics,” a small but devoted group of readers who deliberated Ulysses fervently, as if their lives depended on it. Perhaps it is a mark of how far our public spheres have come (and gone) to be surprised to read how one person wrote, “I read [Joyce] each month with eagerness, but I must confess that I am defeated in my intelligence. Now tell the truth,–do you yourselves know where the story is at the present moment, how much time has elapsed,–just where are we?”

Other readers were less sanguine: “I swear I’ve read his ‘Ulysses’ and haven’t found out yet what it’s about, who is who or where. Each month he’s worse than the last…Joyce will have to change his style if he wants to get on.” The editors, trapped in the avant-garde’s paradox, responded by defending a Modernist definition of “the artist” unbound by public taste, while expressing a similarly Modernist distaste for the bourgeois audience who either didn’t subscribe to the Little Review or didn’t understand what was published in it: “Sometimes I grow a bit weary of these kindergarten questions by people who have failed to read before asking,” Heap sighed.

It would suit Eberly’s argument if non-expert positions provided the arguments for the court cases that eventually overturned the ban on Ulysses, thereby providing the earliest legal precedent for what counted as obscene. However, this isn’t true. In 1921, Heap and Anderson were fined and publication of Ulysses halted; in 1933, United States v. One Book Called “Ulysses” overturned the initial ruling. In his decision, Justice Woolsey claimed that Ulysses could not be obscene for two reasons: Joyce was clearly an artist, and much of the novel was too unintelligible to be obscene. This argument showed the power of themes raised and argued by Heap and Anderson. Ultimately, Eberly writes, “Ulysses entered the United States not because of the topoi of citizen critics but because of the topoi of elites, most of which were repeated in legal decisions.” That is, once legal discourse centered on aesthetics, Joyce was safe. That citizen critics “lost” is not important, because “well before its canonicity was settled, Joyce’s book got people arguing with each other, deliberating by writing in public about issues of common concern.” And this, to Eberly, is all that matters.

How to make more citizen critics? Often anonymous, citizen critics are people who write and talk about “issues of common concern from an ethos of citizen first and foremost–not as an expert or spokesperson for a workplace or as a member of a club or organization.” Their material doesn’t appear in bibliographies. In each of the four cases, Eberly finds that they didn’t write about aesthetic issues as much as intelligibility, obscenity, the scope of community, and the limits of government–that is, they took less interest in the artistic value of Tropic of Cancer than they did in how to define a community and how to preserve its values.

There are two ways to look at this. In a way, citizen critics are the literary world’s equivalent to undecided voters in the recent presidential election: unwilling to play by the dominant rules, admired for their independence, yet chastised all the same for their small-mindedness, and–it is important to remember, about swing voters and citizen critics–the demos part of the democracy calculus. On the other hand, it would be easy to romanticize their populism, that desire for sweet, easy, uplifting narrative, their demand for easy language, images, happy endings, the answers. To her credit, Eberly doesn’t wax nostalgic. She doesn’t slam individuals, either, whether they are journalists, academics, or authors of horrific novels. (Bret Easton Ellis is perhaps the best example of misplaced irony run amuck.) The time for condemning the actors has passed.

Onward, to make more citizen critics. That’s why Eberly gives the talk radio assignment to her students. And in the classroom, we have one of the only spaces left where American strangers face each other and talk about what matters. In this sense, Citizen Critics offers the best radical teaching for a radical democracy: strangers bound as one, familiar strangers grappling with a fragmenting unity.

Michael Erard is a frequent contributor to the Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST