Nigel Beale quotes Helen Gardner:
“Critics are wise to leave alone those works which they feel a crusading itch to attack and writers whose reputations they feel a call to deflate. Only too often it is not the writer who suffers ultimately but the critic…”
Beale asks: “Which is great and poetic and all, however, is silence enough?”
To me, the chief function of the critic ought to be explore a work as honestly as possible and to illuminate to the best of her abilities. This means openness and it means being willing to say that a work is weak (and why), as well as showing how it is weak. In other words, you should be able to answer the who, what, where, when, why, and how on it, with an emphasis on the last two.
One should squelch “a crusading itch to attack and writers whose reputations they feel a call to deflate,” if you’re attacking merely to attack, or merely because someone’s balloon is overinflated. For example, Tom Wolfe seems a frequent and, to my mind, unfair object of ridicule among critics. But if you’re rendering a knowledge opinion that happens to be negative, you’re doing what you should be, and what I strive to. Often this means writing about why a book fails—perhaps too frequently.
Good reviews and Updike
Every attempt at review and criticism ought to be good—but that doesn’t mean positive. A review should be “good” in the sense of well-done and engaging might be a negative one. In an ideal world, the book should decide that as much as the critic.
John Updike’s rules for reviewing are worth following to the extent possible. I would emphasize three of them:
1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?
In the end, I think such rules are designed to keep the reviewer as honest as the reviewer can be. I keep coming back to the word “honesty” because it so well encapsulates the issues raised by Beale, Updike, Orwell, and others.
I especially like the “direct quotation” comment because there are no artificial word limits on web servers, meaning that you should give the reader a chance to disagree with your assessment through direct experience. Quoting of a sufficient amount of material will give others a chance to make their own judgments. Merit can be argued but not proven: thus, a critic can avoid silence and unfair attack.
As the above shows, I like Beale’s answer—”no”—which seems so obvious as to barely need stating. I’d rephrase Gardner’s assertion to this: “beware of relentlessly and thoughtlessly attacking.”
The Aeron, The Rite of Spring, and Critics
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, he quotes Bill Dowell, who was the lead researcher for Herman Miller during the development and release of the now-famous Aeron in the early 1990s; I’m sitting in one as I type this. The Aeron eventually sold fantastically well and became a symbol of boom-era excess, aesthetic taste, ergonomic control, excessive time at computers, and probably other things as well. But Dowell says that the initial users hated the chair and expressed their displeasure in focus groups and testing sites. According to him, “Maybe the word ‘ugly’ was just a proxy for ‘different.’ ”
That’s a long wind-up for an analogy that explains how Helen Gardner might be telling us that when we instinctively dislike, we might be reacting against novelty rather than its real merit, as critics and listeners notoriously did during Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. She’s wise to warn us about that danger, because it’s how people who pride themselves on taste and knowledge become conservative, stuffy critics. If we’re saying something is “bad” merely because it’s “different,” then we’ve already effectively died aesthetically because we’re no longer able to expand what “good” means. One thing I like about Terry Teachout’s criticism and his blog, About Last Night, is that he has strong opinions but still very much seems to have aesthetic suppleness.
But the Aerons and Ulysses of the world are exceedingly rare. Dune and Harry Potter aren’t among them. Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland at least might be, which I concede obliquely in my post about it.
Most works of art are, by definition, average.
The question is: to what extent is that a bad thing? Maybe none at all: an average novel doesn’t cause the death or disfigurement of children, or propagate social inequality, or do any number of other pernicious things. Its chief ill is that it wastes time for the person who reads it and perceives it as average (as opposed to the person who reads it and judges it extraordinary, which many Harry Potter readers have evidently done).
Milan Kundera thinks otherwise—in The Curtain, he writes, “… a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.” He gives himself a key out here: the word “consciously.” I doubt many writers consciously set out to produce commonplace books, or do so with that intent, and so may be rescued from the burden of Kundera’s scorn. Like the criminal justice system, Kundera separates those who knowingly commit a crime from those who do so accidentally.
You need to have read widely, however, to be capable of knowing the average from the incredible, and those whose effusive praise for Harry Potter and Dan Brown splatters the web show they haven’t. Hence, perhaps, the hesitance many Amazon reviewers show toward low scores, which one of Beale’s commenters observes.
The Aerons of Art
I now look at the Aeron as beautiful, and to me the over-stuffed office chairs that used to symbolize lawyerly and corporate status look as quaint as black and white photos of Harvard graduation classes without women or minorities. If we’re open to seeing the new, I think we’ll be safe enough in condemning the indifferent and pointing towards the genuinely astonishing works that are very much out there.
Edit: The Virginia Quarterly Review weighs in.