Friday, September 21, 2012

Criticism

But what is intolerable is that the created being should be thus violently stripped of its own precious personality. The violence is none the less odious to the creator, for the ingratiating smirk with which it is offered. Nor is the offence any more excusable when it takes the form of endowing the creature with qualities, however amiable, which run contrary to the law of its being:

"I am sure Lord Peter will end up as a convinced Christian."
"From what I know of him, nothing is more unlikely."
"But as a Christian yourself, you must want him to be one."
"He would be horribly embarrassed by any such suggestion."
"But he's far too intelligent and far too nice, not to be a Christian."
"My dear lady, Peter is not the Ideal Man; he is an eighteenth-century Whig gentleman, born a little out of his time, and doubtful whether any claim to possess a soul is not a rather vulgar piece of presumption."
"I am disappointed."
"I'm afraid I can't help that."

(No; you shall not impose either your will or mine upon my creature. He is what he is, I will work no irrelevant miracles upon him, either for propaganda, or to curry favour, or to establish the consistency of my own principles. He exists in his own right and not to please you. Hands off.)

[Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, Chapter 9]

I've been thinking about this recently, for reasons that are too long and complicated to make sense here. But in general anyone who does a lot of writing that other people see, whether the writing itself is good or bad or, as is more usually the case, somewhere in a mediocre in-between, will discover two kinds of critics. The first kind is the good kind; they may be gentle, they may be harsh, but their criticism is entirely about the internal logic of the work. It is a fact that should be better known that every author fails, or, rather, the only authors who completely succeed are those who cannot think of anything really worth writing. It is always possible, by closely following the structure of the work, this thread or that, to come up with something that would be more in keeping with the inner law of the work than the author could quite manage to achieve. This is true of even those authors who often come as close to perfection as any human author in this life is likely to come, the Virgils and the Austens and the Shakespeares. Every author is a little short. And so the good kind of criticism is that which, respecting the inner work, opens at least the possibility -- not all criticisms pan out, and in fact many turn out to be dead ends, but the good ones at least raise the possibility -- of making the work more what it should be.

A great many people who read and criticize manage to do this -- an impressive number, actually. But a great many people are bad critics. Their criticism is not about the internal logic of the story at all. They do not provide criticisms that help the author write in a better way what he or she is trying to write; they criticize the author for writing the author's story or poem, and not the story or poem that they want written. They want the author to do the work they are too lazy to do themselves, and presume to pronounce on a story they can't be bothered to think through on its own terms. Or, for that matter, can't be bothered to consider whether the story they want is really the story that the author could conceivably write with any integrity, given the way the author writes.

It is notable that this is quite a universal thing. It's easier for them to hide, but one encounters them in nonfiction as much as fiction. And no one is safe from them. Jane Austen was continually harrassed by them. She was once asked to write a romance story, and she replied that she could no more write a serious romance than she could write an epic poem because she would never be able to get very far unless she were allowed to relax into laughing at herself and at others. The most famous instance, however, was the Reverend James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent's own librarian. It probably did not help at the time that Austen did not like the Prince Regent, but as it happened the Prince Regent enjoyed her books, and on learning that Austen was the author, arranged to Clarke give her a tour of his estate. Clark spent the entire time suggesting various elements of a story to her, one about a character remarkably like himself. She politely replied that she could certainly not do justice to such a story, and that to write it properly would require a classical education she did not have. And Clarke replied in a letter by suggesting another story, equally suspiciously like something out of Clarke's own life. And she ended by insisting that she must be allowed to go her own way, with her own style. To Clarke himself she was polite, but she could not help writing up a "Plan of a Novel" for her family, based on Clarke's irritatingly useless suggestions. As it happened, she made lemonade of that lemon, because the Plan is one of the best short pieces in Austen's oeuvre. But the exasperation of such things should not be underestimated.

In any case, I should hasten to note that my commenters here have in general been quite excellent; this is in mind for other sorts of reasons.

9 comments:

  1. MrsDarwin10:15 AM

    Oddly enough, this has been on our minds as well. I've been pondering lately the distinction between literate reading and reading as consumption. Literate reading involves assessing a work on its own merits, by its own logic, and in accordance with the author's intent (and sometimes it involves rejecting the work if the merits are poor, the logic inconsistent, or the author's intent deficient). Consumption is just that: consuming a book for entertainment, or out of boredom, regardless of the merits of the work. Everyone does some of each kind of reading, I think, though people tend more toward one mindset than the other. I think that the vast popularity of genre literature indicates that there's a wide audience for consumable literature, which is more easily swallowed if it follows certain conventions. There's not anything particularly wrong with consumable literature -- who hasn't wanted to read a mystery after a long day or just read a story where one is assured that happiness will prevail in the end? And yet life doesn't fit into formulaic guidelines, and if literature wants to reflect life, it can't either.

    I stumbled on Austen's Plan for a Novel several weeks ago, but without knowing the circumstances of composition. It was funny then, but it's even more amusing knowing why she wrote it.

    You should write a series of posts on Mind of the Maker.

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  2. branemrys11:07 AM

     I think we probably can even distinguish between different kinds of reading as consumption. In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis talks about the reading of the 'unliterary', who only read for the Event, the happening of the work, in much the same way that the unmusical only listen to music for the Tune. He notes that what makes them unliterary is not that that they want the Event -- every reader does -- but that they want almost nothing else; it's not that they like easy vacation fiction but that they will reject even good easy vacation fiction if it offers too much of anything else -- Wodehouse or Jules Verne (say) is too literary for them: "Most of the things which good writing gives or bad writing fails to give are things he does not want and has no use for." So in a sense I think one can argue that there are really three kinds of reading here, due to the fact that there seem to be people who are to literary reading as the tone deaf are to music, and this affects even how they handle reading for consumption (which is the common denominator capable of being shared by anyone who reads for enjoyment at all).

    Lewis also has a good description of what you mentioned about literate reading and bad writing: "We can never know that a piece of writing is bad unless we have begun by trying to read it as if it was very good and ended by discovering that we were paying the author an undeserved compliment."

    I have a few other things in the works, but a series at some point on Mind of the Maker might be interesting.

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  3. Thanks for this post. The idea of a good critic
    focusing on the internal logic of the work hadn't even occurred to me, which is
    probably one reason I've shied away from criticism in general (besides my
    inexperience).  It did seem rather strange to me that if some of my
    friends were philosophers and fiction writers that I'd neglect to offer
    some helpful thoughts on their papers and stories. After all, don't friends
    will the good of friends, even if this be helping fellow scribes be more of
    what they can be?

     

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  4. branemrys2:16 PM

     Right. And while some people write merely for the enjoyment of it, and wouldn't find any criticism helpful or pleasant simply because it's not really what they're doing, in general people find the good kind of criticism interesting and exciting, because it at least can give them better means to do what they were trying to do in the first place. And that's the goal of friendly criticism (which need not, incidentally, be what we usually think of as critical -- for instance,  it can sometimes instead identify the things that work best, and why they work so well).

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  5. MrsDarwin3:03 PM

    Well, it's not going to let me edit that, so here are corrected links:

    Acedia and Me

    Miss Marple vs. Philip Marlowe

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  6. branemrys4:54 PM

     Cleaned it up from backstage.

    An Experiment in Criticism definitely is worth reading at least once; the basic argument of the book is that instead of deciding which books are good and bad on the basis of some arbitrary standard, we should take those books to be good which can be read again and again by people who enjoy reading for its own sake.

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  7. I think quite a few of these ideas on criticism can also
    apply to editing. I'm wondering if the good editor is similar to the good
    critic, suggesting improvements respecting the inner logic of the work, while
    the bad editor basically attempts to become a co-writer.

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  8. Thanks for the link, Mrs. D. 

    Acedia (sloth), now there's one of the bigger vices a writer needs to slay. To be a good writer, one must write (as John C. Wright says) in the same manner that to be virtuous one must practice virtue. 

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