For twenty-four centuries, people who have not written a book have found fame by criticising those who have. We call these literary critics in university, or cunts elsewhere, and I am two years and twenty grand deep on the road towards becoming one. Is this a legitimate career path, or should the government have pushed me into something ‘proper’, like maths (ignoring my U in AS level)?
Well, there is no right or wrong answer. I have had that hammered into me for a decade by teachers, so we will take it as the truth. Sartre wrote criticism as well as fiction, as did Tolstoy, as did T.S. Eliot. Not every critic is Harold Bloom or A.C. Bradley, and many of those who write about writing also write their own writing, right? However, we can never pretend something is okay to do, just because other successful people do it as well — just look at Foucault. So, is there any point in discussing books, and writing about them, instead of just reading more books?
I’d say yes. Our understanding of books can be improved with good criticism of books, and it can act as a guide to help us come up with our own views on books. It can explain allusions, debate what the author was ‘trying to say’ and, at its best, revitalise the book for a new generation of readers. Paradise Lost was dug up by the Romantics and used in a non-Christian context, giving it relevance to the less-Christian intelligentsia of the time. Many Victorian novels were given feminist colourings, like Gilbert and Gubar in the 1970s, or seen through other minority scopes, leading to schools ‘decolonising the curriculum’. Criticism should not be a circle-jerk (looking at you, Shakespeare experts), nor should it be an endless attempt to one-up the author or the reader with the critic’s ideas.
Past criticism was often condemned for being too negative. Golden Age Russia was full of petty back and forths that we now call ‘criticism’. Turgenev said this about Dostoevsky, because he did not enjoy his novel, and Goncharov said that Turgenev copied off him, and Nabokov criticised everyone for not being Nabokov, and… well, you understand how it was. Dostoevsky was often criticised by his peers for being too psychological, yet later German critics, even Freud himself, praised it for being so psychological.
The problem of people overestimating how much people care about them not enjoying a book is far from extinct. Goodreads keeps the fire burning brighter than ever. Here are some glorious 1* reviews of Homer’s Iliad:
J**** says “Homer needed a better editor”.
V***** says it “would have been A LOT better if Homer SIMPSON wrote it”.
P****, who “hates classics”, found the poem from seventh century BC “boring” and “not for them”.
Peer reviewed criticism is often just as bad, just with a better brand of concealer caked on to hide this. In my studies, I have read pieces criticising sixteenth century playwrights for not following twenty-first century morals, pieces written in 2020 about the ‘merits of Shakespeare’ and even some glorious pieces about how Marlowe faked his death and became Shakespeare. Do not take my awareness of this as a sign that I will try to do better. If someone will pay me to write awful takes outside of Twitter, I will be the proud author of “Why Macbeth Needs To Be Taught”, coming to your local JSTOR page in August. I just wanted to be a step ahead and write a criticism of criticism — got to stay ahead of the curve, baby.