A Critic’s Ars Poetica
By William GiraldiAugust 21, 2018
“WE ARE SURPRISED at first sight,” said English critic Walter Bagehot, “that writers should wish to comment on one another; it appears a tedious mode of stating opinions, and a needless confusion of personal facts with abstract arguments.” It’s true: dancers don’t dance about other dancers, painters don’t paint about other painters, but writers do write about other writers — blame the medium. Dr. Johnson: “An author places himself uncalled before the tribunal of criticism, and solicits fame at the hazard of disgrace” — fame or disgrace helped along by what Bagehot saw as the wily opinions, personalities, and abstractions of other authors.
Of course he was being half sarcastic. In line with Arnold and Wilde, he understood that lasting criticism doesn’t consist of mere opinion, isn’t an advertisement for the critic’s own “personal facts,” and avoids abstraction or theory in favor of how a writer does or does not succeed on the page — how the words are working, what they do or do not add up to. In a piece on Forster, Virginia Woolf seems to disagree with that; the critic, she says, “is merely telling us what moves him and what leaves him cold. Indeed, there is no other criterion.” But what you see in Woolf’s own excellent criticism is no mere “merely,” not simply what moves her or leaves her cold, but how she is moved, by what method or manner she is left cold.
Book criticism in English in the 19th century was a heftier, graver undertaking than much of what passes for criticism today. (By “criticism” I never mean opaque academic theorizing, or faddish cultural studies, or the ungodly rasps and yawps rampant across social media, but serious literary comment as it appears in essay-reviews, or what the British call “literary journalism.”) In her essay “Reviewing,” Woolf speaks of the 19th-century reviewer as “a formidable insect” with sting enough to injure an author and influence sales. To see how Poe meticulously dismantles Longfellow, or how Twain reveals the squealing ineptitudes of Fenimore Cooper, is to understand what Woolf means by the 19th-century critic’s “considerable power” to alter how we read and what we laud.
Many of the most eminent English-language critics and essayists of the 20th century wielded their own brand of delicious influence: T. S. Eliot, Lionel Trilling, Randall Jarrell, Alfred Kazin, Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Hardwick, James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, F. R. Leavis, Frank Kermode, V. S. Pritchett, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal — tastemakers with unignorable style. When they spoke, you listened; even when you disliked what they said, you loved the pointed learning in how they said it.
Today, with the cultural irrelevance of literature all but complete, the critic can seem a wide-eyed loner in rags, atop his crate and hollering into an echoless dark, though the job title has always been a mix of the tenuous and the dubious. Cyril Connolly said that reviewing is “a job in which one’s best work is always submerged in the criticism of someone else’s, where all triumphs are ephemeral and only the drudgery is permanent, and where nothing is secure or certain except the certainty of turning into a hack.” The critic is always “tired with the feeling of obscure guilt that comes after a day spent in this thankless task of drowning other people’s kittens.” So why persist in such a thankless task? Why even begin in the first place?
I began writing criticism in my 20s, in graduate school at Boston University in the early aughts, when I quickly found that no one was eager to pay me for my fiction but that I could cover a few monthly bills with a 1,200-word review. (Anthony Burgess: “Criticism, or reviewing, is something done to pass the time or pay the gas bills. It’s not really a vocation.”) I was enrolled in a seminar with the eminent poet-critic Geoffrey Hill, studying Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Hill took me aside one afternoon to let me know that I didn’t have what it took to be a tweed, didn’t have the calculating mettle and hidebound prose of the standard academic, but that I might have some luck as a reviewer or literary essayist for “the common reader,” as Dr. Johnson and Woolf meant it.
Hill sent me home that day with an alp of essays by the American critics he most revered — R. P. Blackmur, Yvor Winters, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom among them — though much of what I’d learn about literary comment would come directly from Hill himself, from listening to his mode of evaluating Hopkins’s verse, his potent insights into how the words function in their stanzas and lines, singly and in pairs, and how Hopkins’s religio-poetical vision is manifest in his rhythms. Hill’s was an effortlessly stern intensity, a vigorous heft of seeing, that I’ve never been able to forget. Much of what I’ve written, though I write mostly on prose, has been an effort to enact the standards I learned from him, a struggle to become somewhat worthy of his tremendous example, and also a remembrance of the kindness he showed me. When the Hopkins seminar ended, he tolerated my youth’s sputtering exuberance for another semester, during weekly sessions at his office, where he led me in further study of Hopkins.
With Hill’s intervention, I sold my first essay-review that semester, on the Russian writer Tatyana Tolstaya, to the fabled pages of Partisan Review, which then promptly shut down before my piece could appear. But a paycheck showed up in the mail anyway, indeed enough to cover a bill, and since then I’ve gone on having bills. In his essay “The Book-Reviewing Business,” Clifton Fadiman says this: “Literary criticism is an art, like the writing of tragedies or the making of love, and, similarly, does not pay” — though it does pay something, and some of us with greedy little mouths at home will take whatever pittance we can get. Still, the critic best have some other motive, some other need that’s fulfilled by entering into literary comment.
The critic is a reader before he is a writer, a spirited lover of literature, and criticism is one important use to which he puts his reading and his love. To sit before literature in appreciation and awe, to want to have some hand in facilitating literature’s efficacy, to comprehend that literature is, in Kenneth Burke’s phrase, “equipment for living,” a means of enlargement and enhancement and understanding: these are the critic’s prerequisites. He is leashed to no theory, no ideology, no asphyxiating –ism. Like the poet and novelist, he is of no party. His sole loyalty, with Horace and Wilde, is to the duet of beauty and wisdom, to what is well made and usefully wise, to the defense of what is daring and the dismissal of what is not.
Literature is read and criticism written in defiance of the ongoing noise, the ceaseless cyber grating and reckless surrender of calm, and in defense of those solitary spaces where a person desires “to conquer the great wilderness of himself,” as James Baldwin has it — the great wilderness that gives up its secrets only by way of an inquisitive hush, a whispered interiority in which we can be wholly ourselves — in which we can become ourselves. “Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist,” Baldwin writes, “is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid: the state of being alone.” The cultivation of aloneness is the primary distinction of the reader and critic, too.
Criticism is not mere taste; to steal from Dr. Johnson’s definition, criticism means judgment rendered universal through erudition. The authority of the critic surges directly from the assertiveness of that erudition. Assertion differs from expression the way concrete differs from cement. This is precisely how G. K. Chesterton damned Charles Algernon Swinburne, with the charge that it’s all too simple to express yourself — he dubbed Swinburne’s poetry “hysterical, half-involuntary confession” — but another matter entirely to assert yourself, to bring the full register of your erudition, sensibility, and daring to the page. The mind is no lowly handmaid to the heart.
You will often hear the hiss that questions the critic’s credentials. Disgruntled authors and readers would like to know: What makes so-and-so qualified? (Although, tellingly, that question is never flung when the critic praises, only when he damns.) The popular gripe among authors is that the critics who reviewed their books unfavorably just didn’t get them, weren’t the right readers, and were very stupid persons to boot. Review books for more than a while and some version of that gripe will come your way. If you’re a critic who’s also an author then you’ll have occasion to know just how valid that gripe is. When it’s your own book’s turn to stand unbidden before the jury box, expect no clemency. Matthew Arnold named literature “a criticism of life,” and if he’s right about that, then critical essays criticize the criticism, which in turn will be criticized by other critics.
It’s frightening to recall some of the infamous misjudgments from history: Zola condemning Les Fleurs du Mal as merely “a curio,” or Clifton Fadiman dismissing Absalom, Absalom! as “the final blow-up of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent.” Voltaire and T. S. Eliot both considered Hamlet a failure. But it’s bolstering to recall some of the bull’s-eyes: Rebecca West dismantling Hugh Walpole, or William Hazlitt blasting Jeremy Bentham with the immortal line, “His works have been translated into French — they ought to be translated into English,” or Edmund Wilson summing up The Grapes of Wrath with: “It is as if human sentiments and speeches had been assigned to a flock of lemmings on their way to throw themselves into the sea.” Book criticism can be a lot like child-rearing: you struggle to get it right while knowing you’ll sometimes get it wrong, and the child ends up ungrateful either way. Praise a book for the wrong reasons and you might as well have savaged it.
Chekhov compared critics to horse flies who keep the horse from plowing, and Bellow compared them to deaf people who tune pianos. Max Beerbohm, in his essay “The Critic as Pariah,” puts it plainly enough: “We are not liked, we critics. The creators of art do not like us, nor do the men in the street.” Living critics don’t have to worry about being disliked by the people in the street, since those people don’t know or care that we exist. As for the creators of art, well, it’s often a simpler relationship than Beerbohm acknowledged: they like us when we like, damn us when we damn.
A critic will have no trouble convincing authors how great they are, but I’m not sure a critic ever really convinces authors of their faults or changes anybody’s mind about the worth of a book. As in religion and politics, a literary critic is mostly talking like to like. In his novel Slouching Towards Kalamazoo, Peter De Vries beautifully satirizes this reality: during a public debate, an atheist and believer persuade one another to switch positions, with all the goofy results you’d expect. Still, we critics persist, impotent as we are. It comes down to love: to duty, to conviction. It comes down also to celebrating what matters and chastening what doesn’t.
Critics aren’t looking for uninterrupted assent from readers, though that’s welcome if they get it, and they aren’t necessarily looking for the truth about a book, either, though that’s welcome too. H. L. Mencken believed that it was more important to make criticism “charming” than to make it true, though one always strives for truth, for critical accuracy, an Arnoldian disinterest. “[W]ithout this free disinterested treatment of things,” Arnold wrote, “truth and the highest culture are out of the question” — and “disinterested” here does not mean being uninterested but rather being uninfluenced by rampant feeling and the winds of trend. That’s a potent reminder in our current autocracy of emotion, this ethos in which feelings mean more than facts.
Where truth can be elusive and accuracy obstinate, one must never commit what Leslie Fiedler saw as the critic’s one true sin: dullness. Paul Fussell once contended that the true critic has “an obligation to be interesting.” What’s interesting in a critic? Precisely what’s interesting in any language artist: force of vision, torque of phrase, depth of knowing, seriousness of humor, moral intelligence, an assessment beyond the blurber’s usual clichés of “fascinating” and “brilliant,” and perhaps a willingness to say what others will not in a manner others can not. Daring, in a word.
Bashing the obfuscators of academe, John Crowe Ransom is characteristically blunt: “It is not anybody who can do criticism” — and yet, like the literature it aims to evaluate and appreciate, criticism has no how-to manual, no agreed-upon guidelines. T. S. Eliot’s top criterion for the critic was to be “very intelligent”: unhelpful advice to those of us who understand that we’ll never be intelligent enough, who dedicate our lives to reading in part to make up for massive deficits of knowing. John Updike once attempted to establish a five-rule roster for reviewing, one that fully supported the breed of anodyne, almost masochistic criticism he liked to practice. His first rule is the most relevant: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”
Graham Greene famously divvied his work into two camps: the literature and the “entertainments,” and the critic strives to articulate the difference. Literature both leads us forth from ourselves and returns us to ourselves; it cares nothing for the validation of identity, only for the upending of it. Great books are not echo chambers for our own personalities. We go to them precisely because in their most sublime moments they bestow on us an alien condition, both lesser and greater than human — they allow us to partake in what we are not and can never be. We go to them for their aesthetic splendor, the stab of their humanity, and the beauty, always the unstanchable beauty, of sentences that croon of our rescue from the pat and patently false. Entertainments, on the other hand: Retreat, surrender, satisfied escape.
In my own critical work I’ve tried always to deal, in some way, with how a book is made: its sentences, its narratives, its notions, and how they coalesce to form a book’s armature. I’ve tried always to praise attempts to fashion the world anew, to hail the arrestingly worded, the daring, the commitment to the dynamism and dimensions of language. In much of my work I come to an identical conclusion: that weak language is proof of weak ideas, that style is welded to substance, that the writer’s fate is birthed by the writer’s prose. When I see “vast majority” or “bitter cold” or “outward appearance,” “sum total” or “centered around” or “thought to myself,” I see that the writer doesn’t mind sounding like everybody else, and my ink goes red. Referring to E. E. Cummings, Edmund Wilson once quipped that some writers need correction instead of encouragement. Wilde asserts that “fairness is not one of the qualities of the true critic. It is not even a condition of criticism” because the critic should be “constant only to the principle of beauty.”
For my own purpose, fairness means giving a reliable, disinterested assessment of a writer’s mind and prose, of how that mind and prose function in relation to literature, to the vibrant complexities of the canon. We must not speak of imaginative literature only in terms of the thematic; we must also confront the semantic, which includes the syntactic and the rhythmic. The technical and the ethical are not separate issues. That’s a moral imperative worth emphasizing: the relaxation of standards in literature foretells a relaxation of standards in living.
“Criticism can never be a science,” says D. H. Lawrence, but it does strive for exactitude; it aims to maintain the difference between mere disposition and the might of argument, between simple opinion and hard-won judgment: decisiveness is the thing. It helps to have the heft of the canon behind your views. Like any writer, the critic should be always evolving, always undergoing some revision of sensibility, always developing toward his ideal pitch of style and mind, and so a lot of his more youthful judgments should cause him to wince. If he keeps evolving, he keeps wincing.
The right words matter. When I praise, it’s normally on the level of language; when I don’t, it’s normally because the words are broken. I’ve striven always to do writers the tremendous dignity of considering their minds — since the culture wants to do them the tremendous indignity of considering only their emotions — and language is our most accurate embodiment of mind. Henry James: “[T]he deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer.” With fiction writers, whatever else is in their toolbox (narrative, characterization, setting, dialogue, moral reckoning, et cetera), it is secondary to language, is rendered mute without first being in possession of the right words: dynamic, exact, authentic — what Yeats says is the intellectually surprising word that is also the correct word. Force of mind means, first, force of phrase.
Goethe said that for artists to succeed they must have “a touch of audacity.” For the writer of imaginative literature, audacity is what it has always been, what it must always be: a vital ingredient to art. And criticism has its own commitment to audacity: the daring, per Arnold and Wilde, that attempts to meet novels and poems on equal footing, a daring which understands that criticism is not the red-headed stepchild to literature but one of its necessary and invigorating components.
William Giraldi is the author of the memoir The Hero’s Body and the critically acclaimed novels Busy Monsters and Hold the Dark. He is fiction editor for the journal AGNI at Boston University and lives in Boston with his wife and sons.
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