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How Is the Critic Free?

September 4, 2012 | by

A non-question has recently preoccupied the literary corners of the Internet: How rude should a book critic be? I call it a non-question because its non-answer is the same as for people in social situations generally: it depends. It’s impossible to find a universal rule that licenses rudeness. There’s always going to be at least one observer who feels that a conflict could and should be handled politely. (And who knows? Insofar as politeness is a skill, maybe there's always room for improvement.) Also, there’s always going to be at least one observer who describes as honest what others call rude. But even if you give up on unanimity and settle for a majority opinion, you still can’t formulate a general decision. Try it and see. Was William Giraldi justified in adopting a rude tone about Alix Ohlin’s novel? Was Ron Powers, about Dale Peck’s? Only the particular questions are worth debating, and no matter how many questions like them you answer, you never reach a rule that has the purity of math. The most you can hope for is etiquette.

Is it possible to shift the question toward ethics? What if we ask: How free should a critic be? An idealist might wish to answer that the critic should be completely free in the exercise of his essential function, but what is the critic’s essential function? Is it to describe the book under review? Let’s say you're reviewing a book that rhapsodizes about bodily secretions. And let’s say you’re reviewing it for the New York Times. I know people who will think you spineless if you fail to shock the squeamish as much as the book itself does. But I know others who will be content if your review merely suggests the subject matter with a polite, apotropaic vagueness. There’s disagreement, in other words, about whether a critic needs to be completely free in describing.

Maybe we haven’t correctly identified yet the critic’s essential function, and the disagreement will vanish once we do. So let’s alter the question again: How is a critic free? Along what axis, if any, is a critic allowed complete freedom?

The answer that comes to mind is that a critic should be free to offer his or her own opinion. But suppose a critic is completely persuaded by a book that champions the conservative economic principles of Friedrich Hayek, known today as a hero to Libertarians. Is the critic free to express his or her positive opinion in, say, The Nation? I have no doubt that if The Nation ever assigned such a book to such a critic, its editors would do their duty and brace for letters to the editor. But it isn’t probable that the editors would choose to feature such a book in the first place, let alone send it for review to someone likely to endorse it. True, the constraint occurs before the critic enters the picture, but it’s still a constraint. Reviewers who want to keep writing for The Nation will be sensitive to it. I don’t mean to pick on The Nation, which I write for and am very fond of. Every publication has similar constraints. It’s rare, for example, to see a multigenerational novel praised in the New Republic as heartwarming. Do readers of reviews resent these constraints as a pernicious impediment to freedom of expression? I’d argue, to the contrary, that readers choose their favorite publication in part because of these constraints—because they trust that its reviewers share certain political and aesthetic touchstones.

Maybe, then, the freedom of the critic is to say whether, within the constraints just described, a book meets certain objective standards? A shadow falls over even this limited freedom, because it isn’t possible to find a set of standards that universally apply. It’s sometimes said, for example, that a book should be judged according to the aims that its author has set himself, but if an author isn’t ambitious enough, his book will satisfy him without satisfying anyone else, and a critic ought to be able to say so. Henry James once wrote that “the only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting.” But even though pornography and detective novels are interesting, there are readers who demand more and other virtues. These other virtues don’t perform any better, though. A book that is accurate may be boring; a book that is insightful may be too self-regarding; a book that is politically worthy may fail to challenge preconceptions. One can even imagine a book that is entertaining, accurate, insightful, and politically worthy yet so shot through with an indefinable mediocrity of soul that a perspicacious critic will detect literary failure in its very refusal to give offense to the reigning canons of taste.

The trouble, John Ellis explained in his 1974 book, The Theory of Literary Criticism: A Logical Analysis, is that “literature” is a category like “weeds,” necessarily ad hoc. There’s only so much room in your garden, and there’s a hodgepodge of things that you want and don’t want from the plants growing in it. For any rule of thumb you formulate, there will be an exception. Despite the logical conflict between your criteria, however, you can still weed your garden. As Ellis put it, “We can look at bad weeds and find out what it is about them that makes them such a nuisance; and unless we make the mistake of supposing that all such things must be true of all weeds, there is absolutely no mystery about the situation.”

So critics weed their gardens in the absence of first principles, and I hear that some of them even manage to sleep well at night. But is the critic free? I’d say yes, but only at one step removed from his immediate task. A community is implied by the magazine, newspaper, or website that publishes a critic, and the community furnishes a number of overlapping and contradictory standards of judgment. The critic isn’t free to fail to apply those standards; he isn’t free to say that a weed isn’t a weed. But he is free to revise the standards in the course of applying them, after the manner of a conversation with his fellow critics at the publication. That is, in saying why a book is or isn’t any good, the critic is free to choose which standards to apply—to judge the standards of judgment, as it were—and, if necessary, to invent an altogether new one. His choice of standards in turn helps to define the community of readers around a publication, by attracting some readers and repelling others.

The Internet, though, has lately been breaking down the borders of the communities formed by traditional publications. Your review may have been published in the New York Times, but not even your grandmother would have read it there if it hadn't shown up in her Twitter feed. One doesn’t want to live in a world where The New Republic and The Nation share a subscriber list and agree about the worth of every book they review. But at the moment the internet seems to be trying to force us to. I wonder if the recent excesses of kindness and cruelty in reviewing serve the same purpose as shouting in a dark cave. How large is the cave? Who else is in here? Until you know more, it’s prudent either to avoid giving offense or to sound as menacing as possible.

Caleb Crain is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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