Cultural Icons on Criticism
Twain, Sontag, Bradbury, Hitchens, Didion, and more.
By Maria Popova
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.
Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol.
The critic’s symbol should be the tumble-bug: he deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.
Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work.
[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.
Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban.
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.
Criticism serves a lower end than art does, and has little effect on it, but by conveying value it serves a civilizing end.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.
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.
A certain amount of resistance is good for anybody. It keeps you awake.
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.
I find in American life an excess of harshness, criticism, little capacity for admiration.
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:
Published March 4, 2013