Monday, February 21, 2011

The 'Real Critic' and the 'Good Ordinary Critic'

I posted this quote to a Facebook thread yesterday. It’s from an essay in which Randall Jarrell argues that critics had become too central to literary discourse. He satirises the tendency, citing academics who had read thousands of articles about a poem, but had not actually read a contemporary poem in years. He talks of a PhD student who had read everything there was to read about Tennyson’s Ulysses, but had never actually bothered to read Homer’s Odyssey. Jarrell sees the role of the critic to help readers, to open up poems for them; not to maintain discourse with critics and academics, but to create interest among general readers of literary works.

He goes on to differentiate between the ‘real critic’ (who may not actually exist in a pure form) and the ‘good, ordinary critic’:

“...the real critic must speak ill of friends and well of enemies, ill of agreeable bad works and well of less agreeable good ones; must admire writers whom his readers will snicker at him for admiring, and dislike writers whom it will place him among barbarians to dislike. For it is the opinion he offers with trepidation, thinking, ‘Nobody will believe it, and I hardly see how it can be so; but it seems so to me’ – it is this opinion that may be all the next age will value him for; though in all probability it will value him for nothing...

“But I am talking about a ‘real critic’ who would have a very short half-life, one who may never have been on sea or land; let me talk instead about good ordinary ones...What is a critic anyway? So far as I can see, he is an extremely good reader...He is always many other things too, but these belong to his accident, not his essence.” (Randall Jarrell, 1955, ‘The Age of Criticism’ from Poetry and the Age).

I’m with Jarrell all the way here. I think we are very short of the kind of criticism and reviewing he’s looking for in our own age. Many reviews in newspapers speak well of “agreeable bad works” and pretty much ignore “less agreeable good ones.” There is a degree of dishonesty too: that need to watch one’s back, not to speak ill of the influential, to talk up those who've talked nicely about us and bat down those with whom we’ve previously disagreed. It’s all wrong.

Jarrell’s age was different from ours in other ways too. There was plenty of space for reviews and criticism. In fact, many of the top journals had little space for poetry and short stories and were dominated by criticism, and some critics obviously felt their art superior to the poets they criticised. Jarrell counters this and feels criticism is there only to serve the art of poetry.

I wonder if we have reacted too strongly to that generation and now devalue good reviewing and criticism too much. “It’s someone’s opinion, no more important than mine or anyone else’s,” people claim. And of course, that’s true. It is just someone’s opinion. But surely some opinions have to carry more weight than others. If not, then we may as well unpack our brains from our skulls and throw them to the pigs. We don’t have to agree with everything our favourite critics say (nor did we ever have to), but we can at least allow them to make us think, to challenge our received ideas. It’s a basic act of humility, to acknowledge that we have something to learn and that specialists in an art might have something to teach. To deny that strikes me as a form of arrogance peculiar to late-20th century and early 21st century western humanity, an attitude I doubt we will be commended for by posterity.

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