Today’s reviews are generous, some people say, because it is a nervous time, and an economically capricious time, and therefore no time to be making enemies. Plus, they argue, reading and writing themselves are in a precarious state, and have to be protected. Both points are true, but superficial.More profoundly, we are living in what the nineteenth-century French sociologist Auguste Comte called a “critical” age. Comte defined critical epochs as times of social and political disharmony, when values and traditions were in upheaval and there was no consensus on what society and culture should be. He opposed critical ages to “organic” ones, when harmony, consensus, and unity reigned. Critical ages, as in Comte’s own Romantic era, were times when artistic creation moved faster than critical scrutiny, even though new critical standards were being constructed, destroyed, and constructed again at a rapid pace. Organic ages, on the other hand, were periods when critical standards and artistic traditions were stable and coherent.It’s a rich distinction, one that I often find myself returning to, though my understanding of it keeps evolving. We now live in a critical age, liberating and discombobulating, where everything is allowed but nothing is permitted to take root in a deep or lasting way. Yet even our rapidly proliferating criticism has started to be outpaced by creation—or at least by innovation, in the way that technology is shaping the way we write, think, and disseminate our writing and our thoughts to other people. That inspiring, devouring, confounding breathless flux is the source of our modest and generous criticism.Applying old standards to a time when everyone is throwing everything they can at the proverbial wall to see what sticks is like printing out a tweet, putting it in an envelope, and sending it to someone through the mail. The very fact that reading and writing are in jeopardy, or simply evolving, means that to try to put the brakes of old criteria on a changing situation is going to be either obstructive or boring. In our critical age of almost manic invention, the most effective criticism of what, in the critic’s eyes, is a bad book would be to simply ignore it, while nudging better books toward the fulfillment of what the critic understands to be each book’s particular creative aim. The very largeness and diversity of present-day audiences make less and less relevant the type of review that never gets beyond the book under review. It’s the critic’s job nowadays not just to try to survive and flourish amid ever-shifting modes of cognition and transmission, but to define new standards that might offer clarity and illumination amid all the change. Quite simply, the book review is dead, and the long review essay centered on a specific book or books is staggering toward extinction. The future lies in a synthetic approach. Instead of books, art, theatre, and music being consigned to specialized niches, we might have a criticism that better reflects the eclecticism of our time, a criticism that takes in various arts all at once. You might have, say, a review of a novel by Rachel Kushner that is also a reflection on “Girls,” the art of Marina Abramović, the acting style of Jessica Chastain, and the commercial, theatrical, existential provocations of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. Or not. In any case, it’s worth a try.