Brain Pickings

Cultural Icons on Criticism

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Twain, Sontag, Bradbury, Hitchens, Didion, and more.

In researching my recent piece for Harvard’s quarterly Nieman Reports, exploring the role of the critic as celebrator, I found myself sifting through bountiful marginalia on the subject of criticism, culled from a decade’s worth of reading. Here are some favorites.

Susan Sontag in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980:

Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol.

Mark Twain in Mark Twain’s Notebook:

The critic’s symbol should be the tumble-bug: he deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.

Ezra Pound in A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste:

Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work.

Virginia Woolf in The Common Reader, Second Series:

[Critics] are only able to help us if we come to them laden with questions and suggestions won honestly in the course of our own reading. They can do nothing for us if we herd ourselves under their authority and lie down like sheep in the shade of a hedge. We can only understand their ruling when it comes in conflict with our own and vanquishes it.

Bertrand Russell in A Liberal Decalogue:

Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

John Updike in Picked-Up Pieces:

Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban.

Ray Bradbury, warmly irreverent as ever, in Zen and the Art of Writing:

I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

Criticism serves a lower end than art does, and has little effect on it, but by conveying value it serves a civilizing end.

Oscar Wilde in The Critic as Artist (Upon the Importance of Doing Nothing and Discussing Everything):

Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.

Eleanor Roosevelt in You Learn By Living:

If you consider that you are being criticized by someone who is seeking knowledge and has an open mind, then you naturally feel you must try to meet that criticism. But if you feel that the criticism is made out of sheer malice and that no amount of explanation will change a point of view which has nothing to do with the facts, then the best thing is to put it out of your mind entirely.

Zadie Smith in a Granta interview about writing fiction, with an insight that applies to any art and echoes Bertrand Russell’s wisdom on creation vs. destruction:

Whenever I write a novel I’m reminded of the essential hubris of criticism. When I write criticism I’m in such a protected position: here are my arguments, here are my blessed opinions, here is my textual evidence, here my rhetorical flourish. One feels very pleased with oneself. Fiction has none of these defences. You are just a fool with a keyboard. It’s much harder. More frightening.

Theodore Roosevelt in The Man in the Arena: Selected Writings of Theodore Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Terry McMillan in Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do:

The thing is, the critics hate you when you become commercially successful. They look for stuff to find wrong.

Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything:

What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in A Life in Letters :

I dont mind critisism a bit— — the critics are always wrong … but they are always right in the sense that they make one re-examine one’s artistic conscience.

Joan Didion echoes a similar sentiment in this 1977 Paris Review interview, collected in The Paris Review Interviews, Vols. 1-4:

A certain amount of resistance is good for anybody. It keeps you awake.

Anaïs Nin in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947:

I fear criticism because I fear it will destroy my spontaneity. I fear restrictions. I live by impulse and improvisation, and want to write the same way.

Anaïs Nin in The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5: 1947-1955:

I find in American life an excess of harshness, criticism, little capacity for admiration.

Neil Gaiman, in his fantastic advice to those embarking upon life in the arts:

Someone on the internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid, or evil, or it’s all been done before? Make good art.

And when all else fails, some modern wisdom:

Complement with more collected wisdom from luminaries on the subjects of art, science, love, daily writing routines, and the meaning of life.

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