Crit, as in critical essay. Or, should I say, The Critical Essay (as if t’were royalty)? The answer is, they’re out there in abundance. On the one hand we have their inbred cousins the “Review,” and on the other, more rarely, we have the in-depth “Feature.” But both of these are like satellites to the proper planet of the critical essay.
In the U.S. we are taught vaguely to write them (often just above the level of Chinese 5th graders), we are made to read them (primarily in the humanities) throughout our collegiate career, and, some of us, the crazed and slightly nerdy, even begin to enjoy them. But once we bounce out of the university atmosphere we find that our old friend the critical essay is nowhere to be found, and, even worse, if we use the mere style of the critical essay we are looked upon as freaks and anachronisms.
Yet there is an abundance of critical essays in all subjects and covering sundry matters. Actually, abundance is too frugal a word, more like a metastasized tumor of Godzilla-like proportions (made of paper, of course). I know of this because for a brief time I was, like Dorthy creeping in on Oz behind the curtain, part of this world.
However, these heaps and heaps of critical material–sometimes trickling down to us lowly peasants through well-read reviewers and authors–is cloistered within the university system. Locked away under academic key and code and accessible only to the purveyors of such materials or to those who want to pay.
This system was pointed out in the most tragic way possible with the case of Aaron Swartz. As the New York Times reported:
“[I]n July 2011, he was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloading 4.8 million articles and documents, nearly the entire library.
Charges in the case, including wire fraud and computer fraud, were pending at the time of Mr. Swartz’s death, carrying potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.”
Swartz, under the cloud of such draconian charges, took his own life. Since then JSTOR has opened up some of its vaults to the public: “JSTOR announced that it would open its archives for 1,200 journals to free reading by the public on a limited basis.” In effect, acquiescing to what Swartz was attempting to do: provide free access to critical essays.
This case is an extreme example of the inaccessibility of critical essays. All one has to do for news articles, reviews, video, and interviews is type in a quick internet search, but for the most part this is not true for professional and peer-reviewed critical essays. Yet there is resistance to this long-entrenched system, not only from those outside the system like the late Aaron Swartz, but those within as well.
One crusader against closed-access is my friend Dr. Martin Paul Eve of the University of Lincoln in the U.K. Among his projects are Alluvium, and Orbit: Writing Around Pynchon; both are open access internet journals that provide critical essays free of charge to the greater public. Another initiative of which Eve is a leader is the Open Library of Humanities, whose mission is:
“The Open Library of Humanities aims to provide a platform for Open Access publishing that is: Reputable and respected through rigorous peer review. SustainableDigitally preserved and safely archived in perpetuity. Non-profit. Open in both monetary and permission terms. on-discriminatory (APCs are waiverable)Technically innovative in response to the needs of scholars and librarians. A solution to the serials crisis”
Projects such as these are not only beneficial to academics and non-university scholars (and universities themselves), but are also a boon to the general reading public. Since leaving academia-proper a year or so ago, open access journals have helped me to continue my interest and love for critical essays without having to dish out a large sum of money to do so. And I’m sure I’m not the only person out there that appreciates these free intellectual meals.
Another possible benefit that may arise with the wrenching open of academia’s critical libraries will be a return to more critical writing within mainstream media. As noted by Christopher Hitchens in this essay, our culture has been becoming less critical and more quip-ish (or Tweet-ish); more apt to ingest the quick slogan or media bite than to read a long and well reasoned essay. The effects of this have not only been detrimental to our critical faculties and reading abilities, but more importantly, to our political thinking and decisions. I mean, come on, “Yes We Can” isn’t really a political philosophy is it?
So maybe, if we’re lucky, “crit” will be coming back into our general society, dripping off the eaves of academia (sorry Martin, had to do it) and down into the lower echelons of society. And with it, perhaps, a return to philosophies and opinions defined by pages and paragraphs, not bumper stickers.