Everyone’s a Critic

by John Boland

Book clubs are everywhere and if they encourage people to read good books and to analyse and articulate their thoughts about what they’re reading, that’s undoubtedly a good thing – just as Socrates assured us that the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined book is probably a waste of time, too.

The only problem with book clubs – not to mention blogs and those “reader’s reports” for Amazon – is  that they encourage the notion that everyone’s a critic, that if you can put together a sentence (or even if you can’t), your views are just as valid as those who write professionally about books for newspapers and magazines.

It all comes down to judgment, of course, and the point about professional critics is that the best of them carry the authority they’ve accrued through studying their preferred subject, reading widely and carefully and then formulating opinions based on the taste and discernment they’ve acquired through their painstaking devotion. Also (though this shouldn’t need to be said), they must write well, too, in a style that the reader finds engaging.

Everyone has their own style, of course, and it’s not really definable, though readers know it when they see it. The great cricket and music writer Neville Cardus defined style as “a natural easy expression which is not anonymous,” which is as good (and modest) a description as I’ve come across. Certainly my critical heroes – from Shaw, Pritchett, Orwell and Tynan to Ian Hamilton, Clive James and David Thomson – have a “natural easy expression” which is anything but anonymous and which you read for the sheer pleasure of their prose.

They also have discrimination, so that whether you agree with them or not they encourage you to evaluate and perhaps re-evaluate your own responses to the book or music or play or movie they’re writing about. In other words, everyone’s not a critic, or at least not a critic to which you should pay heed.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Anthony August 2, 2012 at 1:34 am

Taste and discernment acquired through painstaking devotion?

If a person gets a book, catches onto its meaning and appreciates its unique kind of shading, they’ve nothing to learn from a critic, unless they’re looking for reassurance or a master of some sort.

We don’t need to be told how to respond to life, when we have our own judgement; and likewise, we don’t need someone telling us how to respond to a book.

Their response can be enjoyable to read, but that’s a different thing; that’s because they write their own thoughts well: amusingly or incisively.

A critic never made someone like a book. A good critical essay shows well why the critic likes the book, that’s all. If you read it and like it yourself, it’s not because of what the critic said. Just as if you read a book the critic didn’t like, you may well like it. If the critic writes well as to why he doesn’t like it, the worst that will happen is that you’ll still like the book but as a guilty pleasure, if you’re not a self-assured person, as you’ve allowed your respect for the critic’s intelligence interfere with your own independent judgement. But you will continue to like the book.

Your blog post is pointing towards a a canon of taste. A place for everyone and everyone in their place.

The best of critics are not arbiters of taste, because they are only human. The best critics are simply good writers. The aspect of life they write about is a specialized experience, reading, and their reactions to it.

If they are a good writer, and their favoured topic is writing their reactions to books, that there’s the recipe for a critic, that’s a born critic.

All those things you say a critic has and acquires – ordinary, intelligent readers see those things in the book as they’re reading and enjoying, although they can’t articulate it as well as the good critic/writer, as ordinary readers don’t have that gift of expression – but that certainly does not mean they’ve been deprived of their gift of reaction while reading.

That would be like saying, when you meet someone in real life, you don’t understand them as well as someone who can characterize them wittily. But of course you do, in many instances.

Also, Clive James may have something in his writing, but underpinning it all is not valuable judgement, as he wants to bed every art object in the English speaking world to make a notch on his headpost, in just the same way he regards women, going by his memoirs – memoirs that don’t show how he felt as a juvenile, but how he still feels as an old man reminiscing.

My point there is, Clive James’s subtley of response is undermined by his flawed, human judgement about life, as he expresses it, despite all his learning. I mean, this is vague, but it comes across in his writing; there is something very tiresome or boastfully self-regarding…

To grant to a critic all that you do in your blog post is to sell your independence, of which you should be more sedulous as, without it, it feels like everything else has been taken away from you as well – the rug on which all the rest of you is laid.

Criticism is some of the finest writing, like Johnson, or Chesterton on the female Victorian novelists, or James on Stevenson and Hawthorne – but if those writings are taken as guides for the perplexed – as they are lamentably recommended to be taken – then that’s giving to the critical writer what he’s not due. It’s not more or less than he’s due: it’s what he’s not due at all – your own judgement.

Henry James feels quite definitive when you read him on R. L. Stevenson in his extended articles, just as he is in his book on Hawthorne. All good critical writing, as all writing, comes from a well-spring of deep affection – all goodness does, just the same with writing.

Yet I cannot think he has made me read or re-read Hawthorne or Stevenson with new appreciation. I read them the same way, within my same limits. My sense and sensibility has not been expanded. All that’s been added is admiration of another man, James, who read these writers with the loveliest zeal and joy and celebrated them most deservedly. Now, I’m over-reaching and not expressing a good point here.

But then the party’s over and it’s back to the ordinary reader, just him and the celebrated author again, just the reader and Hawthorne or Stevenson…

The fact remains, a critic cannot appropriate other readers’ reading experiences just because he expresses his own experience so well. That is not the way life works. It could only work that way if the other reader was a clone of Henry James, or whoever the critic might be.

A person might read a book and discuss it with another, and it may hold a place in their hearts. They might joke about certain favourite parts at certain times. That’s not below fine criticism, though it’s not a reaction that can ever be put in print.

For no sensible reason that I can see, except lack of confidence, critics are conceded to be intellectual pontiffs. They are good writers, that is to say they express their own experience in words very well. They have a written voice.

The matter gets suddenly and deeply entangled when they are thought arbiters because of this. There are no arbiters for what should be your own experience. If you allow an arbiter, it just means you are delegating your faculty of judgement to another, getting them to do your thinking work. That can never be done. It’s wishful and illusory.

No, one has one’s reactions; and they do not lose their authority because they go unexpressed verbally or badly expressed verbally or remain obscure. Life, I think, could not operate in such a way. That would make desperately bad sense.

There are many ways of absorbing and expressing our reactions in life. If I can say it like this: the written word is not the last word.

Anthony August 2, 2012 at 1:58 am

The worst thing a critic can accrue is authority, as you were mentioning. It muddies the water.

Someone dislikes a book and they’re fine with that. No problem. They’re told it’s a great book. Big problem. Possibly life long problem, as intellectual confidence is very fragile. We are terrified of being stupid. And there are plenty of people to terrorize us with the fear of being stupid.

The book they don’t like is a great book. If only we were as self-assured on this matter of books as we are in life. When we dislike someone – we just don’t take to them or don’t trust them in some way – our good genes and upbringing kick in and do us service. We act on our judgement, on our dislike of this person in front of us. We don’t give a damn for the eloquent praise of someone who likes that person and we don’t worry that we’ve missed something.

We cut our losses and happily accept we weren’t born to like everyone. That’s the healthy response. But some other, unhealthy way of responding is rife in the intellectual disciplines. There are plenty of remunerated, appointed people to scare us and prevent us getting to this finer part of our adulthood. But ultimately, we prevent ourselves.

Man is free but everywhere in chains, as Rousseau said, those chains being our own.

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