[Ozick's] is a criticism of nourishing potency that finds equal footing with the literature it seeks to augment. Reading her you understand immediately how criticism can itself soar with art, and how the critical essay well done is its own best argument for being ... A sorceress of silken prose, wholly incapable of platitude, of cliché, of even the stray dead phrase, Ozick can make anything happen with a sentence, proving that the valence of sensibility must manifest in style.
One’s faith in Ozick’s 'large project' depends mainly on how willing one is to join her in grandly ignoring the exigencies of the marketplace. The literary novel may be an independent art, but long-form, highbrow criticism is surely rather less so: The amount of such writing that is being published at any given time relates less to necessity and will than to the number of readers prepared to pay for it. And much as we might wish it were otherwise, it’s safe to say that the current supply of superior criticism is more or less commensurate with public demand. More troubling than Ozick’s indifference to these bothersome facts is the aggressive snootiness of her tone...there is something unseemly and excessive about the energy she expends on delineating what she finds vulgar and unsatisfactory in the current literary scene ... She is a subtle reader and persuasive champion of the aristocrats of her cultural hierarchy. The essays in this collection that discuss the work of Bellow, Kafka, Trilling, Malamud, are all shrewd and engrossing and eminently capable of seducing the reader’s agreement. But her zealous efforts to put lesser talents and lower forms in their place are rarely so edifying.
[Critics, Monsters, Fanatics] is bristling with energy, pulsing with electricity, vibrantly alive ... both a testament to her inimitable brilliance and a clarion call for the indispensability of the critical enterprise ... Reading her, we watch a mind stroll about, hungry, fearless, supple, in unrelenting search of truth, beauty, meaning ... Throughout, Ozick emphasizes how once towering figures in the literary firmament have been reduced to minor deities or cast out of the heavens altogether; others hover on the brink of oblivion.
Cynthia Ozick doesn’t write sentences so much as she unleashes fireworks of prose into existence. Her writing—especially her nonfiction work, of which this new book is merely the most recent collection—manages the rare feat of being both lyric and intellectually stupendous, possessed of logophilic beauty and rigorous structure in equal measure. Reading her essays, it’s easy to be taken with the smooth elegance of her arguments, but there is a razor-sharp wit behind the delicately crafted curlicues of insight and analysis ... each section fairly seethes with the turbulent rumbling of her mind, the mere promise of which should send curious readers straight to the bookstore. Rarely a page goes by that doesn’t contain at least one sentence so elegantly conceived, it forces a pause of admiration and reflection.
One hesitates to venture into such rarefied matters without prior approval, but one could infer that she believes that the pure writer/artist works alone in a kind of transcendent state ... Now eighty-eight, Ozick has nevertheless continued to seek an ideal purity in both a literary and a moral sense throughout her career, and she records her findings in Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, a collection of pieces she has previously published in literary periodicals. Each of these dense, allusive and complex essays explicates a facet of Ozick’s ideal purity ... It might be tempting to dismiss Ozick as outdated and impractical, a practitioner of an irrelevant perfectionism, and even to question whether Ozick’s call for ideal purity is a self-protective move rather than a literary one. However, doing so overlooks a potentially broader loss.
I agree with Ozick that we need better literary essays and less bookchat, but I’m not sure her menagerie of cosmopolitan familiars — Trilling, Bellow, Amis (all featured here) — will draw TV bingers back to contemporary literature. Better contemporary criticism — of the kind that sometimes appears here, of the sort she recommends and then forgets — would probably help. Unfortunately, the collection is more lumpy than uneven. Ozick is plainly at her best when she drops the meta-commentary for what she’s after anyway: the 'connectedness' of literary discussion.
Here is Ozick’s real genius. She transforms one metaphor into another — the thread becomes the bright ribbon of feeling ... reading Ozick’s elegance, wit and sublime confidence makes me realize that these are the qualities that academic criticism sorely lacks. It often remains confrontational, angry, guilt-tripping and self-regarding ... Ozick should be permitted her biases. She is a product of her time and place — a time and place that treasured finely honed gifts of reading and the ability to turn cultural history into a bright ribbon of feeling.