The Peanut Gallery
I have days when I find myself writing stuff in the notebooks that makes me think, as you, small, select, and precious readers, know all too well: Past it, brain cells turned to mush, over the hill and sliding down the side where everybody dumps all the plastic bottles and old mattresses and rusting car axles and fast-food containers and shopping carts.
The Life Force must be losing whatever brief and superficial interest it had in me; surely these labored banalities are the proof. All I've got is my brain, and look at what my brain is turning out! I think these things, and get moody and nervous and mildly depressed. And then, having temporarily lost my courage, I find ways to waste a lot of time in small quantities (on the Internet unfortunately), and if I am at home in the day I suddenly need a nap. This is what I do instead of bingeing on chocolate or handbags. This is the life of the Critic Without Portfolio. Am I necessary? As far as I can see, no.
THe harbingers are come. See, see their mark;
White is their colour, and behold my head.
But must they have my brain? must they dispark
Those sparkling notions, which therein were bred?
Must dulnesse turn me to a clod?
Yet have they left me, Thou art still my God.
Good men ye be, to leave me my best room,
Ev’n all my heart, and what is lodged there:
I passe not, I, what of the rest become,
So Thou art still my God, be out of fear.
He will be pleased with that dittie;
And if I please him, I write fine and wittie.
Yet if you go, I passe not; take your way:
For, Thou art still my God, is all that ye
Perhaps with more embellishment can say,
Go birds of spring: let winter have his fee,
Let a bleak palenesse chalk the doore,
So all within be livelier then before.
--George Herbert, "The Forerunners"
Maybe you remember this scene from Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth is returning home from her long stay with the Collinses.
``Now I have got some news for you,'' said Lydia, as they sat down to table. ``What do you think? It is excellent news, capital news, and about a certain person that we all like.''
Jane and Elizabeth looked at each other, and the waiter was told that he need not stay. Lydia laughed, and said, ``Aye, that is just like your formality and discretion. You thought the waiter must not hear, as if he cared! I dare say he often hears worse things said than I am going to say. But he is an ugly fellow! I am glad he is gone. I never saw such a long chin in my life. Well, but now for my news: it is about dear Wickham; too good for the waiter, is not it? There is no danger of Wickham's marrying Mary King. There's for you! She is gone down to her uncle at Liverpool; gone to stay. Wickham is safe.''
``And Mary King is safe!'' added Elizabeth; ``safe from a connection imprudent as to fortune.''
``She is a great fool for going away, if she liked him.''
``But I hope there is no strong attachment on either side,'' said Jane.
``I am sure there is not on his. I will answer for it he never cared three straws about her. Who could about such a nasty little freckled thing?''
Elizabeth was shocked to think that, however incapable of such coarseness of expression herself, the coarseness of the sentiment was little other than her own breast had formerly harboured and fancied liberal!
No one else knows what she is thinking. Apart from Jane and Mr. Darcy, it's hard to think of anyone in the novel who would care that she has had this moment of reflection. Only fiction can bring us to this place, inside of Elizabeth's own head, as it were. This is a representation of a single experience happening to one person. It is quite a complex experience; to detail all of the information, feeling, and experience that have brought Elizabeth to this point of self-awareness would take pages and pages. But you know Pride and Prejudice well enough, so you can put it together.
But there's no question: Elizabeth is questioning the feeling, not the language. She hasn't had to revise the facts; Mary King is still plain. Elizabeth is evaluating her own attitude. She finds herself guilty of having thought it perfectly reasonable to wish Mary King married to a man who does not love her so that he can have the use of her money. This is what shocks her--and the casual undeserved contempt for Mary King that it implies.
The choice for Elizabeth is not between being a hypocrite and being openly contemptuous. It is between feeling contempt and not feeling contempt.
Of course, it is not considered nice or polite or democratic to take the side of the paid critic (though, to be fair, she is paid very little) over the enterprising amateur who would like to shout anonymously on the Internet, but that’s precisely what is called for — unless, of course, the enterprising amateur writes better than the paid critic. The answer to the angry Amazon reviewer who mangles sentences in an effort to berate or praise an author is the perfectly constructed old-fashioned essay that holds within its well-formed sentences and graceful rhetoric the values it protects and projects. More than ever, critical authority comes from the power of the critic’s prose, the force and clarity of her language; it is in the art of writing itself that information and knowledge are carried, in the sentences themselves that literature is preserved. The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.
I didn't know there were sides. Did you know there were sides? How come only these? Did some other people get here early and take all the good sides? Because there is not much to choose between these two.
Forgive me, but I'm going to have to spend some time pulling this statement to bits. It one of a sort of panel of essays on criticism that appeared in the New York Times last month. The piece, by Katie Roiphe, is a timeless classic, a very nearly perfect specimen.
"It is not considered nice or polite or democratic..." You have to stop and gaze at this opening, because it is constructed with a breathtaking economy and slickness. When Ms. Roiphe uses the word "democratic" you must picture her making that quotation marks gesture with her fingers. It belongs in there with the other canting formalities we put on to make ourselves agreeable to other people. When we offer to share our chocolates with other people, it's only because it's considered polite, not because we take any pleasure in their pleasure. Who does? Come on, be honest!
We have to take her word for it that these people--the lady Catherine de Bourghs and Mr. Collinses of Ms. Roiphe's social universe, if you will--are quite without any ethical or humane view of the matter, as she doesn't raise that possibility at all. Paid book reviewing is in crisis and you must take her side. I mean criticism's side (I'm sure she was just kidding there). Stop listening to those mealy-mouthed hypocrites!
Everybody is driven by vanity, ambition, and the desire to cut a figure in the world, to profess opinions they don't have. And so you need to be told where to get the opinions that you are to profess as your own. Ms. Roiphe tells us what is not considered nice, polite, democratic, but she doesn't tell us who is making this judgment or why I should pay them any mind.
Why does she even hang out with such people? New York is a big place. I'm sure she could find lots of people who openly despise the opinions of those who haven't had all the advantages (educational, financial, and social) that float one into the exclusive real estate of the New York Times Book Review (it doesn't pay much, though!).
Perhaps she has found her real milieu, because the piece is a brave stand against the sort of riffraff you get nowadays. I never get tired of hearing about them, myself. (You can supply your own commentary on this poor fellow, if you like.) However, apart from the stare that the successful social climber bestows on the uncouth and filthy upstart breathing on his heels, there is a plan:
The answer to the angry Amazon reviewer who mangles sentences in an effort to berate or praise an author is the perfectly constructed old-fashioned essay that holds within its well-formed sentences and graceful rhetoric the values it protects and projects.
If I were literature I'd be all, like, "No, no, I'm fine, really! No need for you to come over at all!" Because this proposition is like the kindly neighbor who hears you have a cold and wants to bring you some of her special homemade chicken soup that tastes like ass.
More than ever, critical authority comes from the power of the critic’s prose, the force and clarity of her language; it is in the art of writing itself that information and knowledge are carried, in the sentences themselves that literature is preserved. The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.
And I like to know that an airline pilot can find the tip of his own nose with his index finger, but I don't actually believe that that's how he flies the plane. When I am filling the notebooks, and I find phrases like "force and clarity" creeping into my prose, that's when I know I have lost traction. That's when I see the gates of the Critic's Graveyard swinging open for me. As for "graceful rhetoric"--well, if you ever see me do that just take the pen away and put me in front of the TV till the Lord comes to call me away, is all I ask you.
Why should the critic's function be a secret? To preserve the franchise, I suppose, like being an Illuminati or a Mouseketeer. It is apparently essential for the critic to know that she is not like those people, The Entity Formerly Known as the Audience. Or possibly, just putting the word "secret" in a sentence helps to make it beautiful and mysterious. Just as putting the word "precisely" in a sentence makes it more precise, and writing "force and clarity" means you are writing with force and clarity. Although possibly she means that the critic's function is not a "kept" secret, just the kind of secret that exists because nobody cares. I've got lots of those; I can't give them away.
Being a custodian of beautiful sentences certainly sounds like a safe job, and I'd be the last person to offer to detain any critic who wants to gather up her skirts and her manuscripts and depart the fray, or as the libertarians say, Go Galt. By all means go! We'll manage without you somehow! But they never do go, do they? It's like this Chekhov story I just read where the daughter of a respectable widow runs off to "cohabit" with a neighboring landowner, who is, unfortunately, still married, though separated from his wife. The mother takes to her bed, of course, and there is an aunt in the house, and all we know about the aunt is that every day she orders the servants to carry her bags and boxes downstairs, and then at night, when she still hasn't actually left, has them carried upstairs again.
Also, beautiful sentences about what? Just beautiful sentences?
And then what?
I try writing beautiful sentences and--nothing. Apparently there are some people who can do it on demand. I can't. Perhaps it's a result of my degradation as a Critic. I do not get paid (not even a little, and in matters of literary judgment I am hopelessly accustomed to thinking for myself. It is one of the perks of being a literature major that I really enjoy. You'd have to pay me a lot to give it up--and no one has even made me an offer of a little. So it is harder for me to keep my mind up to that level of refinement. I cannot remember a time in my life when I could just summon up a beautiful sentence. Sometimes a beautiful sentence kind of sneaks up on me while I'm writing about a subject, but that seems to be the best I can do.
So circumstances seem to have placed me among the anonymous shouters of the Internet. Because I use swear words sometimes, and hell, I am one of those secrets nobody cares about. I was secret when secret wasn't cool, as it were. Whatever it is that is supposed to have happened to the Literary Critic and Book Reviewer--the loss of privileged status for one's opinions, the disappearance of an audience, the complete absence of demand for one's services, the fact that people who know little or nothing about literature come to their opinions about books and publish them without consulting me--has already happened to me. I am past fearing whatever it is that is to be feared from the knowledge that there are several billion people in the world who are not interested in what I do, or in how much I care about it. What have I to fear? I'm so low that when I want to find my intellectual and social inferiors I have to look upwards. I left and nobody even knew I was there, and I have no idea where I'm going. I got some money for criticism a few times. And now that I have reverted to amateur status I am not even enterprising.
My irrelevance is my own. It is, if you will, my real medium. I do not need to account for it by suggesting that it's because people write stupid reviews on Amazon. Answer what? It would be as if all my real painter friends were worried that my efforts at watercolor painting undermined their authority as painters, and needed to answer them. They don't paint in reaction to me.
The exclusive franchise of the paid literary critic is not a literary idea. It is a money-and-status-and-power idea. It is the critic worrying, not about literature, but about the status of the critic, which she conflates with the authority of the critic. So she finds a marker, a credential, "beautiful sentences," that will protect the critic's status, which she somehow thinks is the same as protecting literature. Because you can't actually damage Great Expectations by reading it and having wrong opinions about it that nobody cares about.
The status of the critic has always been in question. Because look, since we are calling a spade a spade and not being nice or polite: most professional critics are living off the prestige that was attained for criticism by a few great critics. They aren't adding to it. They do not know the origins of the literary capital from which they draw the small remittances that support their status.
It may seem that I am unkindly singling out this one writer for "berating" but the reason I was struck by this piece is because it is so superfically reasonable that it is representative of the voice of a whole industry--it is as perfect a specimen of professional cant as you could ever hope to see. It is the cant of the freshman composition teacher. It is the cant of the literary agent or editor who only wants authors who can write "great prose." (You don't want to know how long I puzzled over that one.) It is the cant of that one really tough teacher at Creative Writing School--everybody wants to get into his classes because he has contacts in the business and knows what editors want. It is the cant of the hack critic who reads the next product of the Creative Writing School teacher's workshop, the product that has made its way through the agent and the editor to the big table in the front of the bookstore where all the novels sound exactly alike and are about nothing. But the critic, who doesn't have the wit to know when she is bored, praises its competent execution--which is the only thing she
To represent this system of "quality control" and your participation in it as some sort of heroic endeavor to keep up the values of literature is even more ludicrous than the image of the New York Times critic as cultural misfit and outsider. If you think you find any support for criticism by singling out some anonymous writer's awkward and naive prose in order to share a genteel titter of self-congratulation over it, or by sneering at the unknown young man in the coffee shop--whose thoughts, on the basis of his beard and his youth, you speculatively conjure out of your well-worn stock of received notions--you have stooped lower than I could ever reach, low as I am. If you had a meaningful vision of criticism, you would be too busy and intent on it to waste time in such cheap irrelevancies. But this is what you do with the privilege of the space you have been given, and I am going to conclude that this is what you think that space is for. These sneerings are vanity and they are meant to appeal to the reader's vanity--worse, to their fear of appearing to be identified with these two losers. That's how you recruit people to the side of literature in its time of crisis, is it? Nice. I'm sure Tolstoy would be impressed.
What happened to Balaam often happens to real poets and artists. Tempted by Balak's gifts, popularity, or by false preconceived ideas, the poet does not see the angel barring his way, though the ass sees him, and he means to curse, and yet, behold, he blesses.
This is just what happened to the true poet and artist Chekhov when he wrote this charming story "The Darling."
The author evidently means to mock at the pitiful creature — as he judges her with his intellect, but not with his heart — the Darling, who after first sharing Kukin's anxiety about his theatre, then throwing herself into the interests of the timber trade, then under the influence of the veterinary surgeon regarding the campaign against the foot and mouth disease as the most important matter in the world, is finally engrossed in the grammatical questions and the interests of the little schoolboy in the big cap. Kukin's surname is absurd, even his illness and the telegram announcing his death, the timber merchant with his respectability, the veterinary surgeon, even the boy — all are absurd, but the soul of The Darling, with her faculty of devoting herself with her whole being to any one she loves, is not absurd, but marvellous and holy.
It's Tolstoy's heart, not his theories of politics and the woman question, that move him to tears at this story even as he recognizes its comedy. What he understood about Olenka in this story you can see best in Anna Karenina. That quality of lovingly inhabiting the life of others is the greatness of Anna Karenina. When he wrote this piece he had pretty much given up on the kind of psychological and moral intuition that makes his best work so electrifying. It is the long-slumbering great artist in him that rises up--as the artist in Chekhov rose up and took charge of the story--to defend this poor dingbat Olenka from her creator's contempt and place her out of reach of the reader's contempt. He loves this story. He loves Olenka. It is all kinds of awesome. Not a word in it about beautiful sentences though. (You know, small and select readers, to find this passage online I had to wade through all sorts of inanities and stupidities about Tolstoy. I hope you appreciate it.)