Literary bouts are pretty much par for the course in the world of literature and there have been some pretty good match-ups. Only recently there was the dust-up between Jonathan Lethem and James Wood, the literary critic whose mixed review of Lethem's novel The Fortress of Solitude eight years ago inspired an essay that examined the role of critics and the expectations on both readers and writers alike (the essay, "The Disappointment Author," can be found in his latest collection of essays The Ecstacy of Influence).
Now jumping into the fray are two literary heavyweights Rita Dove and Helen Vendler. This latest ringside bout occurred after Vendler wrote a scathing review for The New York Review of Books of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, which Dove edited. The former Poet Laureate replies in a letter to the editor. Without having read Ms. Vendler's review, I cannot say in detail what her objections were to the anthology, but Dove does lay out a pretty well-thought out response to the objections she raises about the review. But a more important point at which she levels her sharp scalpel (and which Lethem likewise addresses in his essay) is the role of the critic and the recognition of intent and expectation in literary works. This is an important question, especially in light of the current economic situation in an industry that is proving more indifferent to critics and book reviewers alike. Should the critic measure her analyses/reviews based on the writer's intent and whether the author successfully or unsuccessfully fulfilled those intentions? Or should the critic's expectations of what literature ought to achieve be the basis for determining whether a singular work reaches and/or transcends those expectations? And what ought writers and readers expect from a reviewer in determining which books are worth their time and effort?
As a reviewer on this blog, I find myself weighing more in the corner of intent---this is mostly due to the fact that I am a writer myself and am always preoccupied with my intentions in whatever I am working on. Whether I liked the work or not, I am most interested in whether or not the work achieved what it set out to achieve.
However anyone stands on this issue, I'm sure it will be a subject that writers, critics, and readers alike will be grappling with well into the next year.