On the Value (and Fickleness) of Harsh Criticism

by Maggie Clark

I have not relaxed my reading these past few weeks; with doctoral studies near at hand, this summer has felt like the last occasion to read as widely as I prefer for a very long time. For this last gasp of freedom I selected a range of fiction with no fixed or sweeping theme, pulling in particular from authors I have not read much of (or any of) in the past. In the process, I stumbled upon a re-printed novel that impressed me at an unusual juncture: the introduction.

This 2002 edition of A Handful of Dust, written in 1934, features an introduction to the text by William Boyd unlike any I have read before: It is an essay that expressly damns the book with faint praise. For all that the dust jacket extols the virtues of this novel and its author, Boyd spends his opening treatise identifying all the ways in which A Handful of Dust shrinks under the limitations of noted British novelist Evelyn Waugh. I come away from this opening text remarkably disinterested in the book to follow–but delighted by the wealth of insight provided in those few preceding pages. Here, then, I decidedly found the power of the critical voice writ large.

The power of criticism has preoccupied a considerable portion of my thoughts after reading a Salon.com article titled “How to write a bad review,” in which author and reviewer J. Robert Lennon critiques the writing style of the New York Times Book Review‘s William Giraldi. (Yes, I am careful to take Salon.com articles with more than a grain of salt, self-congratulatory as many of the op-ed pieces are, but criticism of criticism remains a fascinating read for me on most any forum–so this seems as good a leaping off point as any.)

Lennon’s thesis is fairly straightforward; after identifying himself as a critical reviewer of a recent work by Paul Auster, he writes of Giraldi’s review of two texts by Alix Ohlin:

I’d like to argue that Giraldi’s review is, in fact, quite nasty, and that mine is less so. And that my other negative reviews over the past few years aren’t nasty at all, even when they’re highly critical of their subjects. There is a good way to write a bad review of another writer, and I don’t think Giraldi is doing it. Whatever the shortcomings of Ohlin’s work might be, his review does its reader a disservice — his glee at eviscerating Ohlin overshadows his analysis, and casts doubt on its veracity. It isn’t trustworthy, which makes it no more valuable than the kind of swooning puff pieces most critics write.

The rhetorical swoop of these last few statements makes me smile–amounting, as they do, to a rather deft descent into hyperbole. Glee at eviscerating Ohlin? This I gotta read. And I do. Giraldi, as it turns out, is no less deft than Lennon in his turns of critical phrase (perhaps even more so)–but his review is also startlingly substantive for someone the subject of so much criticism these past few days. While Lennon’s ensuing list of “how to write a good back book review” bullet points includes the following,

Sixth, be balanced. If there is awful writing in the book you’re reviewing, and you want to quote it, go right ahead. But if the book is 5 percent awful and 95 percent fine, don’t spend 75 percent of your review quoting the worst passages.

this is a poor reading of Giraldi’s process, which also explicitly and at length details the broader failings of Ohlin’s narrative arc:

For a writer so invested in the bland earnestness of realism, Ohlin forces her characters to speak and behave like few humans from reality: her dialogue, by turns stenographic and saccharine, sounds transplanted from the desiccated pages of Danielle Steel. By book’s end you will have counted one rape, one attempted rape, one impromptu marriage proposal, one death by cancer, one attempted suicide, three successful suicides, two car crashes in a 10-page span, four unwanted or unexpected pregnancies for three different women and a miscarriage for a fourth — all of which speak to Ohlin’s narrative technique: when in doubt, impregnate or kill.

It is a mark, perhaps, of my singularity of focus as a child that I remember little from Anne of Green Gables beyond Anne’s growth as a writer–and so first read this paragraph (as I do all similar) in light of a comment Anne makes about the style of Diana’s stories:

Then Diana puts too many murders into hers. She says most of the time she doesn’t know what to do with the people so she kills them off to get rid of them.

To this day I remain acutely mindful of this kernel of wisdom–that death is the easiest and laziest expenditure of narrative tension. If Ohlin’s text is indeed so filled with so many such facile emotional beats, it stands to reason that a considerable level of authorial control will be required to pull off the excess well. As such conscientiousness is clearly absent from the wealth of textual examples Giraldi offers (Giraldi gives many different categories of weak writing therein), I see little reason to believe that a text so mired in sensational happenstance, too, will comport itself in an adequately transformative sense. Giraldi’s review has therefore succeeded in turning me from these two specific works.

Is this unfair to the author? Lennon says yes, and leans on Ohlin’s age for another of his bullet points:

Third, if the writer is just starting out — let’s say, on his or her first or second or third book — cut the writer some slackespecially if you are much more experienced. If you’ve written and published, say, 10 books, go to your bookshelf, pull down your first one, and read a few sentences. Are they awesome? Uh huh, that’s what I thought. Do you remember what it was like to be 26? Do you remember grinding your teeth at night about reviews of your book? Do you remember feeling as though your career would be ruined by one mean word? Do you really want to make somebody feel that way, just because their stuff isn’t to your taste?

At 26 myself, I feel well suited to answer this appeal to mercy upon the Yutes with a single word: Nonsense. Granted, I have no books out of my own; being rather newly and rarely published, what stories of mine have been disseminated to date have been met mostly with silence, a few very kind reviews, and a few critical ones, to boot. I am in that precarious period of trying to build enough name brand capital to sell a full length manuscript–so certainly, every bit of good press helps.

But so, too, does the bad. “A Plague of Zhe” was well received by some, but thought too misanthropic by others. I was especially delighted to end up reviewed by Lois Tilton, a woman who makes an exceptional and rigorous practice of evaluating science fiction and fantasy offerings from the most prominent magazines in the business. What she said of “A Plague of Zhe” was not particularly positive, but I loved it all the same:

A misanthropic point of view here, if we include AIs among the anthropic. The characters are quite a collection of misfits and dysfunctionals. Given these circumstances, it strains belief to suppose the situation could have been allowed to continue as long as it had.

I envisioned a rather sprawling galactic enterprise where broken embargos on planetary exploration would be tacitly permitted when they served greater human interests–and the consequences of such breaches, only (reluctantly) addressed when they yielded undeniable catastrophes among the natives–but I do not expect to get my articulation of such nuanced world-building right all the time, let alone at first. Nor do I expect it to be recognized all the time, by every reader, even if it is.

Heck, the first SF story I published–a story that won me a Parsec Award–has dialogue in it that makes me wince to this day, though no one else has ever commented on it. (They would certainly get no argument from me if they did.) So yes, I recognize that I will grow further in my writing. I acknowledge weaknesses in my current writing. And I hope to all heck that the stories I write down the road will make me blush furiously upon rereading the old.

But I also hope that a voice of experience never stunts that growing process by giving me more praise than any single work of mine is due.

Indeed, while Lennon views teeth-grinding and careerist anguish as things to be pitied on the pages of a book review, I regard these future miseries as much anticipated (and especially privileged) staging grounds for my further development as a writer–just as writers before me have found them to be for centuries.

A few years back, for instance, I did some research on Lord Byron that turned up the fascinating history of his own, crushing exposure to damning early criticism. If you will forgive the descent into academic sophistry, here is the relevant excerpt in full from an essay of mine:

In 1808, The Edinburgh Review published a critique of Hours of Idleness, a poetry collection. Two hundred years later, neither that scathing review nor its target work of juvenilia occupy any considerable place in contemporary literary consciousness. Nonetheless, the incidence of this review proves integral to the development of that poetry’s author—George Gordon, published Lord Byron—who himself still entertains enough cultural weight that even outside academic circles he may be recalled as “an English Romantic poet” by the casual bibliophile. With these facts at hand the modern reader might be inclined to apply the smugness of hindsight upon the severity of this early review, wherein author Henry P. Brougham reached past the individual works in Byron’s first collection to upbraid the very nature of the writer himself:

“His other plea of privilege, our author rather brings forward in order to waive it. He certainly, however… takes care to remember us of Dr Johnson’s saying, that when a nobleman appears as an author, his merit should be handsomely acknowledged. In truth, it is in this consideration only, that induces us to give Lord Byron’s poems a place in our review, beside our desire to counsel him, that he do forthwith abandon poetry, and turn his talents, which are considerable, and his opportunities, which are great, to better account.” (Rutherford, 1996)

Yet to read the works themselves, excerpted in the article or whole (Byron, 1807), is to find precisely those streams of juvenile subject, theme, and construction as first caught Brougham’s ire. Though controversy would follow Byron throughout his published life, and he would later be observed by the likes of William Wordsworth as quite comfortable amid criticism so long as his “Genius” was always at least tacitly acknowledged (Rutherford, p. 5), at the time of Brougham’s review Byron’s talents were in their infancy: they merited no special note.

The question then emerges: What changed? What factors contributed to the growth of the writer, and further, were these chronologies of both quality of work and reaction to criticism merely correlative, or concretely causative? John Cam Hobhouse, Byron’s friend, suggests an answer in his personal copy of Thomas Moore’s Life of Byron, the marginalia of which cites Byron as “very near destroying himself” on the occasion of Brougham’s review, yet later finding outlet for his frustration by expanding a work of satire (originally just about English Bards) to its full, published title of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. Moore himself notes that another friend, attendant to Byron’s first fit of “excitement after reading the article[,] inquired anxiously whether he had just received a challenge,” and in Byron’s own diary it emerges that the initial salve for his agitation, three bottles of claret and a good dinner, was not enough to dispel Brougham’s charges: neither eating nor sleeping was easy “till [he] had vented [his] wrath and [his] rhyme … against every thing and every body.” (Rutherford, p. 4)

While Byron happily reported that “after the first twenty lines, he felt himself considerably better” (Moore, 1839, p. 69), the satire that emerged from this initial burst of literary frustration was no less constructive, for though it criticized Walter Scott, the piece ultimately drew Scott and Byron into closer correspondence, followed by a shared, lifelong respect as both men and authors (Rutherford, p. 36). So successful was this critical work at forming friendships between Byron and those it lambasted (for instance, Lord and Lady Holland), that though the piece met with some acclaim and accumulated three pursuant print runs, Byron later disavowed the work and “suppressed it completely, forbidding even the republication of any of the existing versions” (Rutherford, p. 4). Vigour restored, Byron thus set out, with Childe Harold in 1812, to begin a new record with the critics and his literary friends—one that would find him ever-after in the alternating throes of wild success, depressive falling outs, and all the more reactive verse (pp. 5-8).

These circumstances come most keenly to bear on the context of collaboration when contrasted with Byron’s later entreaty that he receive “no opinions whatsoever, either good, bad, or indifferent, of yourself, or your friends, or others, concerning any work, or works, of mine, past, present, or to come,” arguing that, just like printed reviews of his work, “these do not interrupt, but they soil the current of the Mind.” As Byron went on to explain, his intent was “to keep [his] mind free and unbiassed by all paltry and personal irritabilities of praise or censure;—to let [his] Genius take its natural direction, while [his] feelings are like the dead, who know nothing and feel nothing of all or aught that is said or done in their regard.” (p. 8) But would that same “Genius” ever have arrived at such a state of perceived isolation and distinction had Byron’s first, middling work of juvenilia not first been so cruelly received by critics, when the incident is well-documented as having instigated a flurry of reactive literary growth?

In short: let history, not propriety, diminish the sting of a critic’s protest. I certainly hope that when it comes time for me to face such fire (if indeed I will ever be so lucky) I can compose myself better than Byron likely would have if given a Twitter account of his own at the time–but if I can’t, let that also be held as testament to no one’s failings but my own. (And may I then have the dignity to learn from that second humiliating experience, too.)

And yet… and yet…

I return to William Boyd’s delightful introduction to A Handful of Dust, in which he makes a few failings of the author perfectly clear–but also highlights, however inadvertently, just how much the industry of literary criticism has changed over the last century (or perhaps routinely changes to suit the imminent popularity and acclaim given specific authors therein).

In the category of authorial limitation, we learn from Boyd that A Handful of Dust was deeply personal for Waugh, affirming Waugh’s status as “one of the most confessedly autobiographical of writers” by creating an inconsistent and unforgiving portrait of a cheating wife on the back of Waugh’s own failed marriage and upended romantic interlude.

We learn, too, that “Waugh wrote very fast and he always had financial reimbursement for his writing very close to the forefront of his mind,” and struggled between two narrative forms (“the Dickensian apostrophe” versus the “modernist injunction, ‘show not tell'”), which likeliest led to the inconsistency of quality found throughout the text–some scenes written with great poise and precision; others almost ham-fisted in their interiority.

But Boyd’s treatment of Waugh’s writing methodology is equally fascinating, for in these sections, we learn that the ending to A Handful of Dust “is essentially Waugh’s short story ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ stapled on”–so much so that Waugh ran into copyright issues when serializing his novel in Harper’s Bazaar (due to the short story’s prior publication in America), and ended up writing a new ending for the serial release.

While Boyd is tough on the consequences of this action (“In the light of this evidence I find it very hard to accept that there is some schematic master-plan for A Handful of Dust“), Boyd is remarkably generous in his description of the underlying practice itself, writing that Waugh “was an assiduous recycler and re-user of his own experiences and other writings and A Handful of Dust is evidence of his economy–both Ninety-Two Days and ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ were press-ganged into solving the problem of his novel’s conclusion.”

Can you imagine such a kindness as the word “economy” being imparted on Jonah Lehrer, the journalist most recently scandalized for recycling his own work, plagiarizing others, and fabricating quotations from others still?

Admittedly, then, the fabric of literature emerges from a tangled skein of imminent popularity and fluctuating popular practice. Evelyn Waugh was popularized in an age long before digital records could allow for the kind of wholesale apprehension of redundancy and outright plagiarism that afflicts memoirists and journalists today. In the Romantic era, conversely, poets routinely plucked and repurposed lines from one another with nary a nod to their influences–even while, like Lord Byron, many extolled the singularity of literary genius as a thing thriving best apart from critical culture.

But while a broad historical reading of literary criticism I think correctly calls upon us to evaluate our priorities (are we better as a culture of stringent novelty under strict copyright reform, or as one that regards remixing and recycling as fundamental fixtures of artistic practice?), I can see no legitimate reason to dispel the function of criticism–even very harsh criticism–in its entirety, and at least one serious consequence in its absence: the loss of an invaluable (and quite likely transformative) education for the author under scrutiny.

May no writer who longs for success be spared, then, the test of personal fortitude that only another’s fighting words can bring.