Our books today comprise a quick tour through that most maligned and rewarding corner of the Kingdom of Good Letters: book criticism.
On one easy level, book criticism has the rare distinction of being one of the only types of writing every single literate person has done at one point or other. We do it first as children - the most honest and most brutal of literary critics - because on its simplest level, book criticism is simply a matter of telling another person whether or not you liked a book in question.
Further refinements accrue. From saying whether or not you liked a book, it's short step to saying why either way. And saying why necessarily entails saying whether or not the stuff the author tries succeeds, and to what extent. And if it doesn't succeed, why doesn't it? Before you know it, you've launched upon that much--vexed subject, the writer's craft. That ultimate refinement might look forbiddingly rarefied, but the best literary critics never forget its incredibly simple origins.
'The best literary critics' covers more territory than this single entry can encompass, of course. I've got no Addison for you this time around, no Johnson, no Coleridge or Arnold or Macaulay, no Lamb - even though they're all great and will all have their entries in due course (we've been on this little literary excursion for roughly 500 entries, so by now I assume you'll all trust me when I say: sooner or later, I'll get around to everything).
No, this time around we'll just dip in quickly to some juicy, delightful passages from some of my personal favorites in the genre - and some of the greatest exponents of the genre that all of us over at Open Letters strive to continue every month. These are writers I return to over and over again - and they're certainly among the literary figures who taught me how to read in the first place, how to think about reading, eventually how to write about books. The furthest back we'll go this time around is Walter Bagehot, who began his 1869 review of the poetry of Henry Crabb Robinson in this irresistible way:
Perhaps I should be ashamed to confess it, but I own I opened the three large volumes of Mr. Robinson's memoirs with much anxiety. Their bulk, in the first place, appalled me; but that was by no means my greatest apprehension. I knew I had a hundred times heard Mr. Robinson say that he hoped something he would leave behind 'would be published and be worth publishing.' I was aware too - for it was no deep secret - that for half a century or more he had kept a diary, and that he had been preserving correspondence besides; and I was dubious what sort of things these would be, and what - to use Carlyle's words - any human editor could make of them. Even when Mr. Robinson used to talk so I used to shudder; for the men who have tried to me memoir-writers and failed, are as numerous, or nearly so, as those who have tried to be poets and failed. A specific talent is as necessary for the one as for the other.
There's a perfect combination there of the pose of humility and the careful seeding of its opposites, and the combination has the effect of placing all your confidence in the reviewer, come what may. Very, very smart writers (and they didn't come much smarter than Bagehot, despite a certain inclination toward tub-thumping) can use this facile admission of fallibility in just this way to attest to their aesthetic purity, although another of my favorite writers on books (also a passably talented writer of books) actually meant his such protestations seriously:
For my part, I have a small idea of the degree of accuracy possible to man, and I feel sure these studies teem with error. One and all were written with genuine interest in the subject; many, however, have been conceived and finished with imperfect knowledge; and all have lain, from beginning to end, under the disadvantages inherent in this style of writing.
That's Robert Louis Stevenson, and those 'disadvantages' he's referring to are a part of the writing school I'm celebrating today: pressing deadlines, deadpan unfamiliarity with your putative subject, obdurate editors - in short, the pitfalls of literary journalism. The best writers who indulge in this kind of writing find ways to get around these pitfalls, ways to turn them into strengths (not to mention how good such writers get at researching their subjects with incredible speed and depth), and Stevenson was one of those writers, half-apologetic, half-defiant of his own results:
Short studies are, or should be, things woven like a carpet, from which it is impossible to detach a strand. What is perverted has its place there for ever, as a part of the technical means by which what is right has been presented. ... But this must not be taken as a propitiatory offering to the gods of shipwreck; I trust my cargo unreservedly to the chances of the sea ...
Those chances can be harsh - most of the best book-writing is resoundingly out of print today. Usually, the occasional essays authors write for cash and recognition (and free review copies) are collected, dolled up with a new Introduction, printed in low numbers, and remaindered almost instantly. We've seen some critics like that, here at Stevereads, and the reverse is also true: famous authors of other kinds of stuff get their book-writings bound and publicized even if those writings are worthless. Luckily, one of the greatest novelists of the last century was also one of the greatest book-critics, so we'll always have the pure, cool pools of Virginia Woolf's Common Reader series to dive into, always sucking in a sharp breath at the clarity of it all, always emerging refreshed:
In her [Jane Austen's] masterpieces, the same gift is brought to perfection. Here is nothing out of the way; it is midday in Northamptonshire; a dull young man is talking to rather a weakly young woman on the stairs as they go up to dress for dinner, with housemaids passing. But, from triviality, from commonplace, their words become suddenly full of meaning, and the moment for both one of the most memorable of their lives. It fills itself; it shines; it glows; it hangs before us, deep, trembling, serene for a second; next, the housemaid passes, and this drop in which all the happiness of life has collected gently subsides again to become part of the ebb and flow of ordinary existence.
That of course is genius writing about genius, a rare and stunning combination - but I submit that it happens more often in book-criticism than any other field of writing, for reasons that are pretty obvious once you start thinking of them. Reading is one of the most personal things anyone, including writers, can do - even on deadline and badly hung over, that's a deep well to tap. There are charlatans aplenty, of course, stupid, mulish faux-readers who scan pages for a living only in order to find the shopworn little collection of literary prejudices they haven't changed since high school (the mind recoils in horror at the prospect of a Collected Michiko Kakutani). But there are also entirely wonderful times where even the bagatelle indisciplines of an inveterate autodidact can be brought to a perfect pitch by the fires of reading passion. The best example of this in the 20th century was Randall Jarrell's Poetry and the Age, in which our singingly honest critic tackles the very question of what it is to be a critic - at times obliquely, as in his shouted exhortations to young critics:
Write so as to be of some use to a reader - a reader, that is, of poems and stories, not of criticism. Vary a little, vary a little! Admit what you can't conceal, that criticism is no more than (and no less than) the helpful remarks and the thoughtful and disinterested judgment of a reader, a loving and experienced and able reader, but only a reader. And remember that works of art are never data, raw material, the crude facts that you critics explain and explain away. Remember that you can never be more than the staircase to the monument, the guide to the gallery, the telescope through which the children see the stars. At your best you make people see what they might never have seen without you; but they must always forget you in what they see.
And at other times directly, seeking classification:
What is a critic, anyway? So far as I can see, he is an extremely good reader - one who has learned to show others what he saw in what he read. He is always many other things too, but these belong to his accident, not his essence. Of course, it is often the accident and not the essence that we read a critic for: pieces of criticism are frequently, though not necessarily, works of art of an odd anomalous kind, and we can sympathize with someone when he says lovingly about a critic, as Empson says about I. A. Richards, that we get more from him when he's wrong than we do from other people when they're right.
In that first duty of the book-critic, the duty to be out there reading and reporting back, Jarrell is always nothing less than superb - reading him on the heart-breakingly few authors he ever bothered to write about always throws a new and blinding light on those authors and on the process of reading itself.
That process gets its most sensitive, probing, intelligent evaluation from a writer we don't fist think of in this metier: in 1961 C. S. Lewis published An Experiment in Criticism, and it's an astonishing, humblingly brilliant prolonged meditation on the nature of both reading and writing about reading. I could fill an entry this long simply by quoting the best of Lewis' virtually limitless store of great lines: "We are so busy doing things with the work that we give it too little chance to work on us. Thus increasingly we meet only ourselves." "Forced to talk incessantly about books, what can they [critics] do but try to make books into the sort of things they can talk about?" "I would say that every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less. Entertainment, in this sense, is like a qualifying examination. If a fiction can't provide even that, we may be excused from inquiry into its higher qualities." "The best safeguard against bad literature is a full experience of good." "The ideally bad book is the one of which a good reading is impossible." "If we have to choose, it is always better to read Chaucer again than to read a new criticism of him." And so on, smiling the whole time.
The 'experiment' in Lewis' book is tongue-in-cheek daring: to read books, to return to a more honest reading of them, to give to each of them that "inner silence" that, Lewis maintains, is the only path to any book's heart. "The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender," Lewis writes, and he's alive to the differences between people who read and people who don't:
In that way, the judgement that someone is unliterary is like the judgement that 'This man is not in love', whereas the judgement that my taste is bad is more like 'This man is in love, but with a frightful woman.'
But his own allegiances couldn't be more clear:
Those of us who have been true readers all of our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated.
And he reserves his closest approximation of scorn not for the unliterary but for bad critics, who would have no place in the world that resulted from his novel 'experiment':
Thus one result of m system would be to silence the type of critic for whom all the great names in English literature - except for the half dozen protected by the momentary critical 'establishment' - are as so many lamp-posts for a dog. And this I consider a good thing. These dethronements are a great waste of energy. Their acrimony produces heat at the expense of light. They do not improve anyone's capacity for good reading. The real way of mending a man's taste is not to denigrate his present favourites but to teach him how to enjoy something better.
Most book-critics - even the best ones (some of whom I've had the privilege to work with) - never achieve this kind of elevation; Lewis did perfectly what they must often do quickly and as best they can. But there's a real art to be found in those fast-honest appraisals and condemnations, especially if they, too adhere to Lewis' call that they be entertaining. And if you get some insight, a good line or two, and maybe a new discovery in the bargain, well then the gods of shipwreck have been kind.