Letter to a Young Critic: William Giraldi Defends True Criticism

Last month when William Giraldi negatively reviewed a new novel, he found himself in the midst of a storm about the role of criticism today. Here, he explains what critics should be doing.

John Abbott / Corbis

What is the mission of the literary critic? Your question puts me in mind of Matthew Arnold's influential 1865 essay "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time," an essay I urge you to revisit whenever you feel you might have misplaced your critical values. Arnold writes of the critic’s “endeavor, in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science, to see the object as in itself it really is." As a novelist who writes criticism as a means of better comprehending my own craft—like Auden, I hardly know what I think until it’s wrestled down onto the page—I might have a rather different mission from Arnold’s, but I do believe fervently that all lasting criticism achieves identical aims, and I’ll try my best to clarify those aims to you.

In The Anatomy of Influence (2011), Harold Bloom channels Arnold when he writes: "Read, reread, describe, evaluate, appreciate: that is the art of literary criticism for the present time." That word, art, is an important riposte against those who would boringly contend that criticism is somehow the red-headed stepchild to all creative writing. How one writes about literature is as much an art form as the fiction or poetry or memoir being written about. (In a brave switcheroo, Arnold suggests that creative work wouldn’t be possible without critical work.) Criticism is not mere taste—to filch from Dr. Johnson’s definition, it is judgment rendered universal through erudition, and your authority as a critic derives directly from the assertiveness of that erudition.

Another vital word in Bloom’s line is appreciate, charged with all Johnson, Hazlitt, and Wilde meant by it—the aesthetic appraisal of the written word, how sublime literature gives pleasure and enlarges the capacity of your mind to think, your heart to feel. But the two most important words are read and reread, because here Bloom means not only the attentive reading of the work under review, but the reading and rereading of all necessary literature, the time-tried classics which have come before and informed our civilization. This call to be a devoted omnivorous reader is part of what rankled so many about Bloom’s theory of anxiety influence throughout the 1970s and ’80s: it was a bit of an inconvenience for us to be told that we needed to be better readers, to understand the minute ways in which a Tennyson poem was forced to reckon with a Keats poem before it could arrive as its own.

Bloom does not mean, of course, that every book is worthy of being appreciated. The question will inevitably come to you: why review a bad book? Your answer might be simple: because it’s my job. And because the pillory of a bad book is as culturally stimulating as the lauding of a good book. Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the former knight who founded the Jesuits and influenced the life and work of one of my heroes, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, writes in his Spiritual Exercises that “man is created to praise.” I mention Saint Ignatius and Father Hopkins not only because I hope you will read them but also as counterpoint to the critical mission: the critic’s task is not to praise. Or rather, the critic is not created only to praise.

That’s difficult for many to stomach because much of what you will review will be written by those who have emerged from the MFA mill and who have been Pavloved into believing that every effort, no matter its anemia or inertia, deserves praise because the writer tried so hard and cares so much. You’ll be confronted by the preposterous sense of entitlement that the professionalization of writing has brought about. The problem isn't that MFA programs homogenize fiction, or that they churn out novelists the way Detroit churns out automobiles, but that they make publication seem like every writer’s apotheosis. The publication of a book doesn’t ipso facto turn the author into an artist—the book’s mind and language have to be original and bold. Literature isn’t a children’s foot race; you don’t a get a medal simply for participating. MFA programs are useful because they allow what every writer needs most: time. But they can be poisonous in their system of false approval—a completely truthful instructor, herself fresh from an MFA, won’t stay employed very long—and in the outsized expectations they foster in their flocks.

If you’re going to be honest with yourself, you must acknowledge that as a critic you have an intellectual and ethical obligation to be outraged by inferior art, to defend your ars poetica with fire or else risk self-immolation by cowardice. If you let by without dispute a failure of language you acquiesce in an affront against literary integrity. The author might be guilty of failure, but when the critic doesn’t call it out he is guilty of something much more odious. Relax your standards in literature and the relaxation of other standards will soon follow.

Try not to stumble into the snare of relativism; defend straight to the scaffold the literary values you know to be enduring, those values you gleaned from the great books, even when—especially when—they run counter to the preciousness of public sentiment. Don’t be swayed by high numbers or groupthink or tribalism: look to history and look around you to see just how wrong—how deadly wrong—the majority can be. Don’t pander to the “literary” snipes who live their dreary lives online, that legion of wonks who are mere tourists in the land of literature. Let Twain give you courage: “Whenever you find you are on the side of the majority, it is time to reform.”

And if you are confronted with overwhelming indolence in a book you have been assigned to review? Dare to suppose that the writer is independent enough to handle harsh criticism. Always do writers the tremendous dignity of considering their minds; the rabble will do them the tremendous indignity of considering only their feelings.

Part of the critic’s job is to unsettle the status quo, to force self-examination, and the way to do that most effectively is not by praising the masters on their thrones, but by being forthright about fiction that represents the vast middle stratum. You’ll be dealing with people for whom thinking is not a particularly strong skill set—they feel very much, they react very well, but they don’t have much talent for thought. I’ve heard tell of those social media sites where most of them dwell and they sound to me like the event horizon of a black hole. I strongly suggest you spend your time reading instead.

You might be fearful of the epithets elitist or snob, or of collecting enemies or hurting feelings, and I understand that fear, but then you must resign yourself to a career of equivocation, one that allies you to those manifold custodians of kitsch, to the enablers who surrender literary values to the emotions of an author. What reader and writer shouldn't strive to join the most elite of his trade when the antithesis of elite is always and everywhere the mediocre, the ineffectual, the footling? Try to remember also that a blistering review won’t earn you enemies, only reveal them. Unfortunately, no worthy cause is without its enemies, and I don’t need to tell you that the sanctity of literature is a worthy cause. More important, a blistering review—if it is written as a candid assertion of your principles—will strengthen existing friendships and earn you new friends whose worth surpasses those who have revealed themselves as your foes. When you are truthful, and especially when the need has arisen for you to be viciously truthful, you will always find yourself in illustrious company.

When is it permissible to be over the top in a positive or negative review, to unshackle your enthusiasm for genius or your disdain for dross? The landscape before you will let you know; sometimes over the top is the only way to conquer a mountain. And besides, the climber who goes over is always more exciting than the walker who goes around. In other words: don’t be afraid to cultivate a style. If some confuse their need of a dictionary for your use of a thesaurus, that’s OK. Remember what Shaw wrote in the preface to Man and Superman: “He who has nothing to assert has no style,” and, “Effectiveness of assertion is the Alpha and Omega of style.”

Effectiveness of assertion—that should be both the creative writer’s mission in making art and the critic’s mission in judging it. Assertion differs from expression the way concrete differs from cement. This is precisely how Chesterton damned Swinburne, with the charge that it’s rather simple to express yourself—he dubbed Swinburne’s poetry “hysterical, half-involuntary confession”—but another matter entirely to assert yourself; that is, to bring the full register of your erudition, sensibility, and recollected emotion to the page.

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But the question that focuses on style or delivery is a dodge from the pertinent question: are you right or wrong in your praise or censure of a book? It’s fun to recall some of the famous misjudgments from history: Zola condemning Les Fleurs du Mal as merely “a curio,” or Clifton Fadiman dismissing Absalom, Absalom! as “the final blow-up of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent.” Voltaire and T.S. Eliot both considered Hamlet a failure. It’s instructive and more fun still to recall some of the bull’s-eyes: Hazlitt blasting Jeremy Bentham with the immortal line, “His works have been translated into French—they ought to be translated into English,” or Edmund Wilson summing up The Grapes of Wrath with, “It is as if human sentiments and speeches had been assigned to a flock of lemmings on their way to throw themselves into the sea.”

In Eliot’s essay “The Function of Criticism” (1923)—another nod to Arnold—he defines criticism as “the common pursuit of true judgment.” I believe that true judgment can be had, that the discerning critic is able to prove how one book is better than another book. That proof resides always in the language. Language doesn’t lie. A cliché can’t hide itself. Platitudes can’t pretend to be meaningful. Solecisms can’t convince you they are something else. Easy verbs and indolent adjectives will never have potency. An assault of the quotidian will never be intellectually charismatic. You can’t dress up sentimentality as emotional truth. No amount of rouge will ever camouflage rhetoric and sophistry. Propaganda and dogma will always reek of immorality.

Defenders of the middling and bland might try to counter with the tired retort, “He’s not a good writer but he’s a good storyteller,” which is rather like saying, “His food tastes like shit but he’s a good cook.” Is he not telling the story with sentences? If the sentences are broken how does the story work? How can a novel be approached through anything other than the sentences on the page?

Eliot and the New Critics ruled the critical scene for so long and with so heavy a hammer that they turned a perfectly sensible way of reading into a loathsome pedagogy. The shift away from that intense focus on language happened not only in the academy but also in Manhattan offices, when the publicity machine aimed the floodlight away from the book and onto its author. The whole world of criticism and reviewing has been debased because the critic now is pressured to perform as part publicist. Don’t allow yourself to get entangled in that marketing apparatus. The New Critics’ focus on language, on “close reading,” is how every literary assessment should begin. Forgive me if I state the resoundingly obvious but you might be surprised to know how many among us eschew the resoundingly obvious: the writer’s race, religion, gender, or politics have nothing at all to do with your judgment of how his or her words are working on the page.

So let me warn you of the marketing arm-twist that all young critics feel: in a world in which books have become culturally marginalized, the critic's role is no longer to assess the writer’s mind and prose, but to serve as a press agent of sorts, to find an angle that will make the book relevant. They’re pressured by some editors, and the culture at large, and their own greed to be noticed and nice, to spend their words not on the genuine critical mission but on the author's personal history, or movie prospects, or physical appearance, or whatever else is ancillary to the actual words on the page. But the critic's task is to write about how an author's work fits onto the interconnected mosaic of literature, not how it fits into People magazine.

There’s also a real danger that the critic's own ambitions as a novelist will compromise her critical acumen. If you’ve made a rule never to pen a strongly asserted negative review because you’re worried about colliding with the writer at a party, not only have you missed your true calling as a cheerleader but you’ve entered a profession in which no one will take you seriously. Any critic who also writes fiction, especially in a climate as competitive and anxiety-ridden as ours, has to acknowledge and confront and overcome her fears that if she’s too bold, if she asserts her values too aggressively, it could damage her prospects down the line. Just remember that a sycophant has no real prospects.

Of course a critic should never fire a shot for the attention. (Anyway, in a culture that doesn’t esteem books very much, those sinister plans will almost always disappoint you.) A negative review has to be an earnest assertion of dissatisfaction or disgust with the author's failure on the page. No lasting critic of literature has ever had malignant motives against the author (and never mind what you might know about how much Bloom hates the person of T.S. Eliot—he’s an easy chap to hate). When the review copies arrive, I ask my wife to tear off the covers and rip out the bio and acknowledgments because, if I can help it, and if the writer isn’t a paragon such as Nadine Gordimer, I don’t want to know anything about her that might unconsciously affect how I process and appraise her book.

As a serious writer of fiction you already know that the only real way to improve your craft is by steady immersion in the best novels and stories, and you might choose not to let anyone challenge you on the word best. Time has proven what best means; it’s reliable in that way. Oroonoko is not Middlemarch, not even a little bit. Just as your fiction improves by a steady diet of the great novels, your criticism improves by study of the great critics. I’ve mentioned already some critics from the past who have given me direction and sustenance, but I’ve failed to steer you toward the divine Elizabeth Hardwick and also toward Henry James’s seminal essay “The Art of Fiction” (1884), in which he remarks that “the moral sense and the artistic sense lie very near together,” and that “no good novel will ever proceed from a superficial mind.” Call out those superficial minds when you spot them—Hardwick herself was fearless in that way.

Don’t forget the living greats. If you aren’t reading every essay by Morris Dickstein, Cynthia Ozick, Sven Birkerts, D.G. Myers, and Walter Kirn, then you aren’t preparing yourself to write your own criticism. As a young novelist-critic you should also be studying your peers: Nathaniel Rich, Christopher Beha, and Joshua Cohen, for starters. It is your obligation to tackle every essay by Ruth Franklin and Daniel Mendelsohn. You might disagree with Ms. Franklin’s or Mr. Mendelsohn’s assertions in a particular piece but you are not permitted to dismiss them, or ignore them, because the large intelligence manifest in their prose demands that you deal with what they are asserting (and Ms. Franklin’s masterful book A Thousand Darknesses will teach you how the literary critic handles the hell of history portrayed in fiction).

There is no middle path through this wood: defend the literary values of intellectual dignity and aesthetic pleasure or acquiesce in the debauching of thinking and feeling. Our species would go a long way toward full maturation if more writers and critics would declare zero tolerance for every book that insults the intellect with bathos and debases language with bromides. A critic should not balk at savaging what is bad just as he does not shy from praising what is good. Disputation and dissent serve the necessary task of evolution, of alteration, and unless you believe that nothing in our literary culture requires alteration, you as a critic are duty-bound to shout “No!” in thunder when a book transgresses against originality and vigor.

In ABC of Reading (1934), Pound has this mighty assertion: a critic “of understanding can no more sit quiet and resigned while his country lets its literature decay, and lets good writing meet with contempt, than a good doctor could sit quiet and contented while some ignorant child was infecting itself with tuberculosis under the impression that it was merely eating tarts.” Hold literature to the standard of the sublime and ecstatic; applaud attempts to fashion the world anew; applaud a commitment to the dynamism and dimensions of language. You came to literature because you love it, because you understand that it is the only way to live a meaningful life. But love is not enough. Embolden your will, hone your mind, and speak the truth as it speaks to you.

Editor's note: In an earlier version, Joshua Cohen was mistaken as Josh Weil. We regret the error.