The Critic’s Credentials: On “Rotten Reviews Redux”

By William GiraldiNovember 30, 2012

Rotten Reviews Redux: A Literary Companion by Bill Henderson

IN 1922, FIVE YEARS before E.M. Forster published his immortal Aspects of the Novel, the English critic and editor Percy Lubbock published The Craft of Fiction, a meticulous autopsy of Tolstoy, Flaubert, and James, among other titans, and probably the first book, according to Mark Schorer, “that tried to treat fiction as an art.” Lubbock’s treatment was decidedly different from Forster’s because its methods derived from a formal critical intelligence and not the lightning of creative acumen. You read Aspects of the Novel and are firmly ensconced within the mind of a supreme creator; you read The Craft of Fiction and are expertly chaperoned through the catacombs of literary creation.

If Lubbock’s book has been forgotten as Forster’s has not, it might have something to do with the pervasive suspicion that the best literary comment is always penned by those who are masters of the genre they comment on. (Lubbock published a single unsuccessful novel called The Region Cloud in 1925.) That suspicion was helped along in the first half of the twentieth century by the great poet-critics who tweaked the way the world looked at verse: Eliot and Auden, Yvor Winters and R.P. Blackmur, Conrad Aiken and Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, and perhaps, save Emerson, the most distinguished poetical-critical mind in American letters, Randall Jarrell. Their status as eminent poets allotted their criticism the stab of verity. Should you visit a priest for marital counsel? Probably not.

It hasn’t quite worked out that smoothly with the novel. There are the exceptions, of course — Forster and James, Trollope and D.H. Lawrence, Orwell and Pritchett, Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Hardwick, Updike, Vidal, Martin Amis — but by and large our most necessary and sustained analyses of the novel, especially in the twentieth century, came from critics who were not themselves primarily novelists. Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling published a novel apiece — and Trilling’s racked ambition to be a novelist is well known — but a single novel among alps of the nation’s most persuasive criticism does not a novelist make. H.L. Mencken, Malcolm Cowley, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, Lewis Mumford, Dwight McDonald, Stanley Edgar Hyman, Wayne Booth, Frank Kermode, Jacques Barzun: no novels. Leslie Fiedler bled out two novels among his nearly forty books but you may without repentance forget them. Harold Bloom, too, might have a novel among his plangent catalog but he wishes you wouldn’t mention it. Cynthia Ozick has written beautiful fiction but her prime and indispensable worth is for the literary essay. Denis Donoghue, Andrew Delbanco, Leon Wieseltier, Morris Dickstein: no novels.

This is all to suggest that Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction is every bit as valuable as Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and has been unjustly interred in the bone yard of irrelevance. It’s especially vital now in our present climate of criticism — a climate in which the Net has spawned a cacophony of gabble impersonating literary comment, palaver and vulgate enough to warp you. Literature has always had its leeches, except now the Net has given every one of them a bog to wiggle around in. This wouldn’t be any more of an issue than it is to ignore the wastrel on the corner dispensing pamphlets on anarchy, but as respectable print publications either prune their space for book commentary or else go extinct altogether, more and more criticism — like more and more of everything else — is migrating to blogs and social media sites. Young or new book readers looking for literary analysis are going to have an increasingly arduous chore of dividing the shit from the serious. Worse, the biddable and ovine will gravitate to the shit because that’s where all the buzzing is. If you’ve ever attempted to read a review on Amazon or on someone’s personal blog, you know it’s identical to seeking relationship advice on the wall of a public restroom.

Which brings us back to Lubbock, and to what Stanley Edgar Hyman once dared to name “the critic’s credentials.” Henry James’s close friend and posthumous editor, Lubbock is his most incisive when holding forth on James’s critical capacity. After dismissing the “thinness” and fatuity of a literary evaluation based upon “I like you, I bless you” or “I like you not, I damn you,” Lubbock offers this indelible bit:

If you ask Henry James whether he “likes” some book under discussion, the roll and twinkle of his eye at the simplicity of the question is a lesson in itself, and one that a young critic will never forget. Where, he seems to say, on the loose fabric of a mere preference or distaste will be found the marks of the long wear and tear of discrimination that are the true critic’s honorable and recognizable warrant? It needs a solider consistency to stand the pressure and take the imprint of the accumulating weight of his scrutiny; and certainly there was no light fondness or hasty petulance in Henry James’s praise or blame of a book. A large unhurried mind, solitarily working and never ceasing to work, entirely indifferent to the changes and chances of the popular cry, it was this that gave its sonorous gravity to Henry James’s opinion of the thing that he rated.

The long wear and tear of discrimination. The true critic’s honorable and recognizable warrant. The accumulating weight of scrutiny. In other words, “James’s opinion” was no mere opinion at all, no “mere preference or distaste” swayed like wind chimes by “the popular cry.” What a critic likes and feels is immaterial; it’s what a critic sees and thinks that matters. But that is precisely what you’ll find spattered across the Net and in many a newspaper east to west: unlettered opinions with scarcely more authority than the feral scratching in Cro-Magnon’s diary. The critic’s credentials — the assertion of an aesthetic and moral sensibility wedded to a deep erudition — haven’t changed since James’s day; and yet with scant exceptions our culture seems to have misplaced the requirement for those credentials.

Bloggers and other online epigones are the impetus behind editor Bill Henderson’s reprisal of his 1987 bestseller Rotten Reviews. (Henderson is the publisher of the long-standing Pushcart Prize series, a labor of love and annual celebration of literary journals for which he deserves to be sainted.) Now called Rotten Reviews Redux, this priceless little compendium boasts a new preface by Henderson in which he castigates the “unfettered, unedited, unfiltered, and ridiculous rage” rampant on the Net. But it’s not necessarily the foppish rage that so incenses Henderson — it’s the anonymity: “Anonymous online critics ambush unprotected writers in bursts of verbal automatic rifle fire.” We now live, according to Henderson, “in an online Wild West.” The image is apt, whether or not your business is literature. “All civility gone. Empathy, balance, decency, knowledge, out the window. Everybody a blogger. Everybody an instant critic.”

That’s a pretty accurate description of the online culture of masked assassins. But as for serious criticism: James and any of the abovementioned critics would have taken issue with “empathy” and perhaps “decency” — the peerless Mary McCarthy would have cringed — since in this case the nouns mean the same thing and in any case have no bearing on the true critic’s mission. F.R. Leavis, in his best book of essays, The Common Pursuit, offers memorable attributes for the critic during his discussion of Robert Bridges, the poet responsible for editing and delivering Gerard Manley Hopkins to the world: “What he exhibits is a complete security; a complete incapacity to doubt his competence or to suspect that the criteria by which he condemns, condones, corrects and improves might not be appropriate.” Leavis snatched his title from T.S. Eliot’s essay “The Function of Criticism” — a nod to Matthew Arnold’s seminal essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” — in which Eliot defines criticism as “the common pursuit of true judgment.” Empathy is required of us when dealing with children and animals and people in need, but empathy in criticism hinders that Eliotic pursuit of truth. Is it not downright ethically repugnant for a critic to tailor his estimation to the slender emotions of an author?

The vitriolic, lawless picture Henderson draws of the online literary mob is of course only half complete. Because he doesn’t pass much time on the Net — bless him — there’s another side Henderson might be unaware of: a community of coddlers who approach literature as if it were a Sunday knitting circle. On Twitter and Facebook, on their own websites and blogs, this feel-good community praises one another in pastel colors. (For specifics, see Jacob Silverman’s “Against Enthusiasm” in Slate from last summer.) Literature to these online cabals is a social event and not an artistic endeavor; they congregate to swap recipes of cuisine no discerning person would ever care to eat. The idea that a novel can be garbage, and that a critic has the imperative to call it such, is anathema to their aspartame outlook; these vast middle-strata scribes have turned to writing, apparently, because Habitat for Humanity is too demanding. The concept of incessant community in literature is preposterous to begin with. In his Nobel speech Hemingway delivered a truism only a counterfeit could deny: “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” and of course he means that writing at its best must be a lonely life. All those dysphasic Tweets and Facebook posts and status updates of the status-less? They're an easeful substitute for the hellish emotional and psychological confrontation that genuine literary work requires.

Henderson disapproves of the harsh criticism collected in Rotten Reviews Redux, and in this he might be surprised to find himself aligned with those hoards of online coddlers. It’s simple to dismiss jacklegs with no critical cunning, but how do we deal with exalted writers cutting down other exalted writers? As Anthony Brandt remarks in his introduction, “One of the pleasures of this wicked collection is watching the great being terribly wrong about the great.” Brandt quotes James twice and Henderson quotes him twice more. On Wuthering Heights: “a crude and morbid story.” On Our Mutual Friend: “We are convinced that it is one of the chief conditions of his genius not to see beneath the surface of things . . .We are aware that this definition confines him to an inferior rank.” On Middlemarch: “A treasure-house of details, but it is an indifferent whole.” On Whitman: “Mr. Whitman’s attitude seems monstrous. It is monstrous because it pretends to persuade the soul while it slights the intellect; because it pretends to gratify the feelings while it outrages the taste.”

The first two novels aren’t difficult to tackle: Wuthering Heights is indeed “a crude and morbid story” next to James and especially the late James. No critic whose name has endured has ever argued that Brontë’s gift for storytelling could lie on the same plane as James’s leviathan genius. And if Dickens doesn’t see deeply enough for James in Our Mutual Friend, well, compared to James every other novelist in English save Saul Bellow has cataracts. It’s also true that Our Mutual Friend, with its perplexing characters and wayward narrative, doesn’t equal the sublime achievements of Bleak House and Great Expectations.

But about James’s views of Middlemarch and Whitman one can only shrug and maybe say that the master was momentarily out of his mind. To claim that George Eliot’s masterpiece — for some of us the masterpiece of nineteenth century British fiction — is “an indifferent whole” rather misses the point on purpose. Here one must keep in mind James’s aesthetic and formal program: he despised artistic looseness and once described British fiction as “a paradise of loose ends.” So when James asserts that Middlemarch is “an indifferent whole” he means that its narrative structure is looser than he himself would have allowed. Read The Ambassadors — for James it was his most finely executed book — right after Middlemarch and you’ll register immediately the difference between the loose and the taut. James didn’t care that Eliot’s grand social and moral vision required that looseness because he wouldn’t allow that there was more than one way for artistic genius to be manifest.

As for the divine Whitman — our exuberant homegrown Dionysus, our anointed crooner without whom American character would be neutered — he assailed James’s refined sensibilities and so his comments indicate more about James himself than they do about Whitman. Despite Lubbock’s insisting that mere taste never factored into a Jamesian appraisal, Whitman “outrages” James’s taste. But James was an artist and thinker for whom taste was not subjective, not a simple matter of preference, not susceptible to the climes of human caprice. Taste for James was a dignified outcropping of one’s intellectual and moral faculties, so what he really means in his remarks is that Whitman danced like a dervish, which was exactly what our nation needed during that dark night of the soul when he penned his deathless hymns. Henderson touchingly dedicates this volume to Whitman, and Brandt asks us to consider whether or not we “would have had the courage or the insight in 1855, say, to recognize the greatness of the author of Leaves of Grass when the rest of the literary world, almost to a man, was calling him a clown.” Well of course we would have.

Henderson scares up some extremely funny barbs, and that’s a topic that might deserve finer scrutiny: negative criticism as comedic art form, as living example of Twain’s perfect observation, “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.” In 1912 a French editor named Marc Humblot sent a rejection letter to Proust that contained these lines: “My dear fellow, I may perhaps be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can’t see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.” The hilarity of that derives from its diction and tone, as it must, but it’s funny also because you know you’ve felt the same way about sections of In Search of Lost Time — you’ve felt the same way while acknowledging that Proust’s narrative is a mimesis of the intricate mechanism of memory, and that those thirty pages are at once tedious and glorious. Funnier still is this quick swipe by someone at The Independent writing about Maugham’s Of Human Bondage: “Its ethics are frankly pagan.”

Henderson could have included some other caustic gems sprinkled throughout letters, interviews, memoirs, and essays: Waugh calling Proust “mentally defective”; Baudelaire insulting Voltaire as “the king of nincompoops”; Vidal’s characterization of Updike as “just another boring middle-class white boy”; Noel Coward calling Wilde “a tiresome, affected sod”; James Gould Cozzens declaring, “I can’t read ten pages of Steinbeck without throwing up.” These verdicts, like most of the verdicts in Rotten Reviews Redux, might supply weight to the erroneous impression that literary comment is a fickle affair, prone to personal weather, but they also have the benefit of being both fun and prodding. If you aren’t already inclined to think of Cozzens as a complete ass you might just try to understand where he’s coming from.

Anatole France insisted, “We may despair of knowing, we must not despair of judging,” and yet it is the charge of responsible critics to know before they judge, to assert erudition in assessment, to bring a lifetime of reading to bear upon any book under review and in that way hold writing to the most rigorous intellectual and aesthetic standards. A world with no deservedly antagonistic reviews would be a literary Disneyland: a wretched uniformity of pleasantness. No dissent, no plurality. A place of whitewash and monotony where happiness is the province of denuded minds. We have a name for an environment of ceaseless sun and no storm: it’s called the desert. “Literature always thrives best,” wrote Mencken, “in an atmosphere of hearty strife.” The moment we stop fighting about books is the moment they cease to matter. Right or wrong, contemptuous or comical, the critics Henderson has collected understood that literature is not a play date for mutually reassuring peddlers but rather the highest possible calling in the arts.


LARB Contributor

William Giraldi is author of the novels Busy Monsters and Hold the Dark, the memoir The Hero's Body, and an essay collection, American Audacity. He is an editor for the journal AGNI at Boston University.


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