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On Literary Criticism

This feature first appeared in Verbal magazine (Issue No.5 in May 2007)

When the French author Paul Léautaud (1872-1956) found a play worthless he wrote in his review anything that occurred to him and just about mentioned the piece he was supposed to be dealing with. The authors were incensed but the readers loved his articles. It certainly was an original way to overcome the dilemmas faced by the conscientious critic.

(There is a separate issue, of course, over whom or what is reviewed, besides the treatment of a work reviewed. I suspect that there is an informal ‘magic circle’ in Ireland, North and South, whose members have cornered the market and promote like minds. If they do review each other it is with admiration, which does nothing but corrode the independence of criticism, but I shall return to this in a moment.)

Over a period of many years, I reviewed scores of novels, a genre I prefer to non-fiction, and the books about conflict or ‘international terrorism’ which tended to be pushed my way by editors. The fees were always notoriously meagre and sometimes the commission could be a chore in itself, given that I am a slow reader and some of the novels were poor indeed. But I have a passion for literature and I wanted to improve my skills as a writer by observing how others wrote and whether they wrote well.

Sometimes when you read a review of a book that you are familiar with you wonder if the reviewer is talking about the same book. Many reviewers skim-read. Worse, the historian Paul Johnson once reviewed an 800-page book on the American Civil War and filed his review before he even received the book! His editor, A.N. Wilson, justified publishing it because, “Paul had somehow intuited the true nature of the thing under discussion.” What bunkum.

Any critic has certain responsibilities both towards author and reader. Because I suspected that some of my own novels had been reviewed without being read, my first principle was to read in its entirety any novel I was giving my opinion on.

As a writer you could spend perhaps up to two years of your life sacrificing your family, slogging over a novel which might hopefully put the bread on the table, only for some begrudging critic – “ineffectual men whose early promise proves delusive” according to Balzac – to rubbish your efforts. Alternatively, if you’re in the magic circle, you and your work, even if it is lazy and useless, can be flattered by a cowardly colleague doing a disservice to you, to literature and to the reader.

What I want out of a review is honesty and positive advice and so that was the stance I adapted. Hermann Hesse had a lifelong principle to review only those books about which he could say something favourable. An extension of this ethic I discovered in the writings of Robert Lynd, who distinguished between established authors and the tyro novelist. Lynd said: “We have no right to demand genius of any kind at all. The ordinary book is not planned by its author as immortal literature, and is not published as immortal literature; and to condemn it for not being what it was never meant to be is foolish and off the mark… Even in exposing humbug, however, I hold that a critic should remain as tolerant as he possibly can… A really good writer cannot be injured by hostile criticism except in his susceptibilities; and the reaction against a fierce onslaught on him will probably increase the enthusiastic devotion of his readers.”

With that as a guiding principle I reviewed novels using a sliding scale of criteria towards the first/second-time author and more well-established writers.

Thus, about a novel by one contemporary, best-selling Irish novelist (and erstwhile acquaintance!) I wrote: “The author had an artistic choice to make about the rich material at his imagination’s disposal. He could have written a disturbing, psychological Gothic tale, but opted instead to pile farce upon-farce for comic effect and rely upon dreams and drug-induced hallucinations for surrealism. In certain scenes you suspect he realised the potential but shied away from the task, the challenge – balked at the effort required and the discipline involved.”

Many years later, my former acquaintance was, I felt, still extremely cool towards me, and a writer friend of his, in a bar, some months after the review appeared, angrily told me that Ireland is too small a place for me to be panning/reviewing the work of someone I know. That suggested that we surrender commentary to an exclusive class of critics rather than to our peers.

I disagree. Moreover, if I review fiction I do so for three audiences: myself, the author, and last, but by no means least, the reader who might be buying a book on my credibility as a commentator.

Finally, Somerset Maugham tells a story about Paul Léautaud whom I mentioned above. Léautaud had an insight that few critics have the luck to enjoy. The Vichy radio announced that he was dead. The news occasioned a great number of articles about Léautaud which, he was astonished to find, were laudatory. And that was the last thing he had expected from all those incensed writers and playwrights!