Auden on the True Task of the Critic, What It Really Means to Be a Scholar, and Why Malevolent Reviews Are Bad for Character
“The only sensible procedure for a critic is to keep silent about works which he believes to be bad, while at the same time vigorously campaigning for those which he believes to be good, especially if they are being neglected or underestimated by the public.”
By Maria Popova
In the preface of her magnificent nonfiction collection of riffs on books, the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska made a vital distinction between traditional literary criticism and her own approach to reading and writing about books. Noting her disinterest in the former (which Susan Sontag called “cultural cholesterol”), Szymborska wrote of the latter: “I am and wish to remain a reader, an amateur, and a fan, unburdened by the weight of ceaseless evaluation. Sometimes the book itself is my main subject; at other times it’s just a pretext for spinning out various loose associations.”
Long ago, long before I came upon Szymborska’s wonderful sentiment and found in it consolatory resonance with my aversion to classifying my own reflections on books as “criticism,” I wrote an essay for Harvard’s Nieman Reports about the critic as celebrator — about the notion of refining and elevating our shared standards for what constitutes good art by celebrating the most worthwhile examples and refusing to allot the opposite any space in our public discourse; refusing, above all, to expend energy on bile and laceration, however intellectually elegant.
I remembered that old essay recently in encountering a passage from the altogether magnificent The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (public library) by W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973) — that trove of the beloved poet’s wisdom on writing, originality, and how to be a good reader, received as a birthday present from a dear friend.
Auden begins with a definition of the critic’s central animating principle and its singular psychological challenges:
If good literary critics are rarer than good poets or novelists, one reason is the nature of human egoism. A poet or a novelist has to learn to be humble in the face of his* subject matter which is life in general. But the subject matter of a critic, before which he has to learn to be humble, is made up of authors, that is to say, of human individuals, and this kind of humility is much more difficult to acquire. It is far easier to say — “Life is more important than anything I can say about it” — than to say — “Mr. A’s work is more important than anything I can say about it.”
Auden considers six key duties of the critic to the reader, one or more of which each good piece of criticism should fulfill:
- Introduce me to authors or works of which Iw as hitherto unaware.
- Convince me that i have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
- Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
- Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.
- Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”
- Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.
The first three of these, Auden argues, require scholarship — a faculty both demanding and poorly understood. (Incidentally, Szymborska herself — a peer of Auden’s one generation removed — believed that to be a poet is necessarily to be a savage rather than a scholar.) Auden considers what it actually means to be a scholar:
A scholar is not merely someone whose knowledge is extensive; the knowledge must be of value to others. One would not call a man who knew the Manhattan Telephone Directory by heart a scholar, because one cannot imagine circumstances in which he would acquire a pupil. Since scholarship implies a relation between one who knows more and one who knows less, it may be temporary; in relation to the public, every reviewer is, temporarily, a scholar, because he has read the book he is reviewing and the public have not. Though the knowledge a scholar possesses must be potentially valuable, it is not necessary that he recognizes its value himself; it is always possible that the pupil to whom he imparts his knowledge has a better sense of its value than he. In general, when reading a scholarly critic, one profits more from his quotations than from his comments.
(Or, as Montaigne memorably articulated this curatorial aspect of scholarship half a millennium earlier, “I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”)
The remaining three services, Auden argues, require that the critic excel not in knowledge but in insight:
A critic shows superior insight if the questions he raises are fresh and important, however much one may disagree with his answers to them. Few readers, probably, find themselves able to accept Tolstoi’s conclusions in What Is Art?, but, once one has read the book, one can never again ignore the questions Tolstoi raises.
But Auden’s most pressing point deals with the critic’s moral orientation toward malevolence or benevolence. He argues that the former is moot effort, for the public life of art has a built-in self-correction mechanism — bad art perishes over time by virtue of its own badness. The critic’s role, therefore, ought to spring from benevolence and focus on nourishing the roots of goodness rather than weeding out lifeless badness. He writes:
The injunction “Resist not evil but overcome evil with good” may in many spheres of life be impossible to obey literally, but in the sphere of the arts it is common sense. Bad art is always with us, but any given work of art is always bad in a period way; the particular kind of badness it exhibits will pass away to be succeeded by some other kind. It is unnecessary, therefore, to attack it, because it will perish anyway… The only sensible procedure for a critic is to keep silent about works which he believes to be bad, while at the same time vigorously campaigning for those which he believes to be good, especially if they are being neglected or underestimated by the public.
Auden addresses the most common defense employed by the smug perpetrators of literary savagery (whose high horse, in my book, is a Trojan rationalization for the sheer sadistic pleasure they take in showing off the might with which they can rip another’s labor of love apart):
Some critics argue that it is their moral duty to expose the badness of an author because, unless this is done, he may corrupt other writers. To be sure, a young writer can be led astray, deflected, that is, from his true path, by an older, but he is much more likely to be seduced by a good writer than by a bad one. The more powerful and original a writer, the more dangerous he is to lesser talents who are trying to find themselves. On the other hand, works which were in themselves poor have often proved a stimulus to the imagination and become the indirect cause of good work in others.
You do not educate a person’s palate by telling him that what he has been in the habit of eating — watery, overboiled cabbage, let us say — is disgusting, but by persuading him to try a dish of vegetables which have been properly cooked.
With this, Auden turns to the heart of the loathsomeness of malevolent reviews:
Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off.
Complement The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, an invigorating read in its totality, with celebrated writers on how to handle criticism, Virginia Woolf on how to read a book, and philosopher Daniel Dennett on how to criticize with kindness.
* If troubled by the gendered language of the era, find levity in Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant commentary on the subject.