Everyone’s a critic, but should they be?
Everyone uses criticism, but does everyone do it well?
We live in an age of criticism, an age that destroys a thing to find out what it is, an age that loves to criticize and has all but forgotten how to edify. For this reason, you’ll often find me criticizing critics and critiquing their criticism here in the comments and elsewhere. Hell, this whole series spent defending common things is aimed at that.
I would be doing a great disservice if I did not also defend good critics early on. Because a critic, as the history of the word hints, is a judge. And as the recent battles over Supreme Court justices shows, we need good judges. To the degree that an unjust law is no law at all, an unjust judge makes bad calls, putting innocent men in prison and letting the guilty go free. And a bad critic does the same thing: slamming down good books and praising bad ones.
Porter Anderson taught me some good things at the first UnCon (2014) about criticism and I’ve thought through this since then:
What makes a good critic?
I’ve come to agree with Porter when he said that one of their functions is to help authors write better. A critic is a sort of post-mortem editor who shows the flaws in a book once it’s too late to fix them.
As a law student becomes fit to judge by studying the nature of law, the precedent of the court, and bounds of logic, so a student of criticism becomes fit to judge a book not by its cover but by studying the nature of good art, the precedent of the history of art, and the bounds of beauty. That is, you become better at judging a book by something other than its cover only by reading broadly and deeply, reading the old books, and pushing the limits in your own work.
One thing makes for bad criticism and we should get that out of the way before we can defend good criticism:
Lying. Obviously, lying is not only wrong but completely antithetical to a craft founded on truth-telling. However, lying abounds in the critical community. Oh there’s a certain smug self-righteousness in those who stick up their nose at paid Amazon consumer reviews, in those who say, “A paid Amazon review isn’t a real review.” But critics have been getting favors for their good reviews and putting in “a good word for a writer friend” for years. As gatekeepers, there was a time when you needed to know a critic in order to even get a bad review. That hasn’t changed. It’s just shifted hands. That crap taints objectivity. There’s also the dishonesty of the idea of a “guilty pleasure,” a critic who lists off classic literature but whose “guilty pleasure” is Stephen King novels or another who reviews literary fiction but fills their days with whatever Hugh Howey is selling. Look. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. At all. If it’s a pleasure — a true and beautiful pleasure, not some vice posing as a pleasure — then there’s absolutely no guilt in it. As a critic, to lie about what you spend your time reading and loving and resonating with is, essentially, to lie about your deepest convictions of what makes good literature. Still other magazines refuse to print reviews that gush. To be honest? I would never have read Station Eleven without Porter’s gushing. I’m glad he gushed. I believed at the time that to read a novel Porter would not shut up about would be to read a very, very good novel. Neither I nor my wife nor my book club back in Joplin were disappointed in the find and remain grateful to him for the recommendation.
Having agreed to tell the truth to one another, let’s move forward with a brief list of what makes for good criticism. Call them our exhibits for the defense, if you will. Good critics:
- Carefully read what they criticize. A good book should stand up to two readings: one for your heart and one for your head. Even a bad book — even the worst book — is worth giving the author a fighting chance. That’s the fundamental principle undergirding the freedom of speech: truth rises to the surface. Any given is innocent until proven guilty just like the defendant standing before the judge. If we hope to knock down errors and heresies and the stupidities of the Men Kampfs and Fifty Shades of the world, then we must do so intelligently: there’s nothing that will hurt our cause to expose ignorance more than remaining ignorant of our subject matter. Read it twice or play nice. Aquinas’ statement to seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish will serve you well. Even if you can’t read it all the way through before you review, save the “always” and “never” statements for the true experts on the book in question. Sometimes is sometimes sufficient for the busy reviewer. But even that phrase “busy reviewer” is telling: try your very best to make your living at something other than criticism. It’ll make all of your criticism more charitable and therefore more accurate and palatable when you honestly do have harsh words for a bad author.
- Remember that they’re ignorant of the subject matter. It’s very, very, very rare for a critic to know more about a given subject than the author. In the case of memoir and autobiography, it’s impossible. How many Russian submarine captains read The Hunt for Red October? How many lawyers of mid-50’s lynching trials read To Kill a Mockingbird? Very, very few. Don’t fool yourself.
- Never equate authorial chronology with publication chronology. As an author, I can say that someday I will revise the first novel I wrote and publish it. It will come out long after I publish my first novel. Therefore anyone who interprets my first novel written and umpteenth novel published using the historical events happening in and around the time of publication will be dead wrong. What’s more important is to understand what one person called “The daily weather of the mind” of a given author — the ways they think, the symbols they use, the arguments they believe, and the totality of their work. The only way to do that is to let the work speak for itself and to read it without any regard for silly autobiographical details in the author’s life, the publication date as relates to historical events, or anything else that exists outside the world of the narrative or the flow of thought.
- Refuse to start with the unconscious wishes and start instead with the conscious ones. It may or may not be interesting to pretend you’re a psychiatrist and to evaluate an author’s wish fulfillment or past trauma or whatever. But this evaluation must always yield to the evaluation of what the author was clearly trying consciously to do. Any rendering of To Kill a Mockingbird that paints Harper Lee as an unconscious racist would clearly be way off base no matter how many Freudianisms and Jungianisms one drums up. Any rendering of Harry Potter that favored death over love on the grounds of Rowling’s alleged suicidal thoughts would WIDELY miss the point. Start with what they clearly say and then work out from there into what they may not have intended to say, but wherever you end up, thou shalt not put words in the author’s mouth that contradict their novel’s thesis.
- Never comments on the composition. Unless you’re a friend of the author or have a clear interview on the passage in question, you have no reason to discuss whether a given passage took a long time or a short time, a lot of study or a flash of inspiration, to compose.
- Judges whether the novel is both beautiful and true. At the apex, beauty and truth are one. Here on Earth, we parse them apart and tend to favor one over the other. That’s how true screenplays can make for hamfisted, awful films. It’s also how people paint rather beautiful and hopelessly meaningless paintings. A great work of art will snare us with its beauty and sing a song so true that it matches the resonant frequency of our souls until we shake. When you critique, critique both the aesthetics and the ethics — or the philosophy — behind a given work. If it’s false, it’s not good. And if it’s ugly, it’s not good. The only way to do that is to, as I said above, begin with the author’s intent and move outward to see if their subconscious took that kernel of an idea and radiated it out into the world in myriad fractals beyond their own comprehension. Interpretation of any novel’s beauty and truth, therefore, is a dialog that begins with the author and ends with the reader.
And if you can do that, like the good judge, you’ll find yourself defending pure and innocent and honorable and powerful novels and convicting those that are guilty and shameful and that monger fear in their audience. Tomorrow’s authors and readers will thank you for your work. Why?
Gerard Manly Hopkins said the just man justices. In the same way, the man whose life matches the criterion of beauty and truth is alone fit to criticize. Or as Jesus said, “Do not judge or you too will be judged, for to the measure that you judge it will be judged to you. How can you dig out that speck of sawdust from your neighbor’s eye while you have a telephone pole sticking out of your own? First remove the plank and then you will be able to see to remove the speck.”
In short, we need good criticism because we need self-assessment and a willingness to change our minds.