Whenever I said I was a literary critic, the majority of people outside the university environment thought that meant critic as in ‘critical’, and forgot or never knew that it was actually related to ‘critique’. There is a big difference. The dictionary’s prime definition of ‘critical’ is ‘containing or making severe or negative judgements’. The word ‘critique’, by contrast, is described as both a ‘commentary’ and an ‘art’ whose basis lies in the Greek word for discernment (kritikos). For me criticism is valuable when it is practiced as an art of discernment, and somewhat shoddy when it is used as a whip of negativity intended to make its wielder feel powerful. Alas the history of criticism is littered with instances of the latter, and although history works its natural justice, we have to wonder what the real cost to art might have been. For criticism is a parasite, and one that is regularly in danger of devouring its host.
Take, for instance, the critical reception to Willa Cather’s novels. Cather’s entry onto the literary scene was facilitated by a group of critics who were fed up of Boston tea parties and wanted to see something striking being written about poor, ordinary people. This happy accident meant that Cather’s early novels about farming in Nebraska, eccentric for the time, met with critical success and were vaunted for displaying ‘the eternal tragedy of man’. But Cather unwittingly walked into a fight with her first post-prairie book, One of Ours, about a young farm boy who enlists and dies for his ideals on the battlefields in France. The real bone of contention was the notion of idealism. The books that were then gathering acclaim were showing the horror and butchery of WW1 (like e e cummings’ The Enormous Room) and Cather’s work was regarded by the new wave of prominent male critics to be silly romantic nonsense. The fact that the book was a popular success and a contentious Pulitzer winner only made the critics madder.
From here on in, Cather’s works were dismissed by the people whose voices mattered. They found her best novels – A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House, Death Comes For The Archbishop – old-fashioned, insufficiently experimental, dull. The best Edmund Wilson could come up with was to call A Lost Lady, ‘a charming sketch’, a judgment that entirely misses the passion, the bitterness and the tragedy of that novel. Worse was to come when literary criticism moved into Marxist and Leftist territory in the thirties. Her novels were then seen as failures to understand economics; Clifton Fadiman declared that she had ‘no report to make to us on the America of her time’, clearly forgetting that the America of middle-aged Cather’s time probably was located in the nineteenth century. The virulence of the critics wounded Cather deeply, and she developed an entrenched and defensive attitude. She became a recluse, manic about her privacy. When friends died, she requested her letters to be returned and then burned them. (Whilst critics may read her papers, it is still forbidden for them to quote from the letters that survived.) Her later books never regained the quality of those written when the force of criticism was so strongly against her, and whilst she remained a very popular writer, she remained a very misunderstood one.
Cather did have supporters, but they were not helpful. She was the champion of the Catholic critics, and the conservative Right, who saw her work as redemptive and uplifting, things which it most certainly is not. After her death, ‘her admirers gathered up her abused corpse and took it back to their fort, whilst the rest of the world forgot about her,’ as Joan Acocella memorably describes it. Or at least until feminism came along. The feminists swooped in on Cather and restored her to her rightful place as a great writer, but they wanted something for their trouble and Cather, with her male narrators and her less than victorious female characters, refused to provide it. The critics were stumped for a way to appropriate Cather until queer theorists recognised the potential in her intense female friendships, her unmarried state. Cather’s novels were then read as texts full of ‘gaps’ and ‘fissures’ into which latent or disguised homosexuality or simply conflicts over femininity could be inserted. One could only imagine the fiercely private Cather spinning in her grave.
But was any of this criticism justified? Was it an example of the art of discernment that I suggested is the real business of the literary critic? Joan Acocella, whose book on Cather I’ve been summarising here identifies the worst of the problem as resulting from political approaches in criticism, approaches that demand specific attitudes from novels and have no qualms about bashing texts around a bit if they do not naturally arrive in the correct shape. Apparently the latest thing is to upbraid Cather for the way Pueblo Indians are represented in her novels, which does seem ludicrous in works that are wholly anachronistic to such modern concerns. Whilst politics can’t be removed from literary discussion, Acocella argues that it does no favours to focus on political matters to the exclusion of everything else. But I think there is a bigger question lurking here, a question about our intrinsic critical approach to books, which has increasingly been to place demands upon them – demands that in many cases the authors could not have seen coming – and to claim justified disappointment if those demands are not met.
I don’t think it’s fair to simply bash the critics and theorists here: every generation of critics takes its own preoccupations to the literary world and seeks to work them out through texts old and new. This is one way of keeping the old stories refreshed, one way to show that they still have value and relevance despite their age. And no matter what critics say about them, the books remain the same. They are stolid, unperturbed parents, even if their churlish or petulant children fuss futilely at their feet. Every fresh wave of criticism adds to our understanding of books, even if at the cost of a little deformation. And perhaps most importantly, critics are themselves subjected to formidable pressure over the course of their training. In education there are many barriers to be overcome, most of which rely on candidates being able to express opinions that please the hierarchy and comply with the currently fashionable form. Contributions to the field of knowledge are just as rigorously policed as those to the field of art; critics as much as writers, have a living to make, and will do so by the competitive means available. Or if you like, as a society we get the criticism we deserve.
But I’ll return once again to this notion of discernment, which we could split up into its component parts of what is insightful, what is appropriate and what is accurate. If the doctrines of Marx, the avant-garde, feminism and queer theory did not find satisfaction in Cather’s work, it is quite possibly because her novels were not appropriate places to explore them. In fact, I think Cather was profoundly feminist, in the way that she wrote about exactly what she wanted from whichever gender viewpoint suited her. But my point here is that if we want to be insightful critical readers, we have an obligation to listen to the story first and figure out what it is doing, not impose constraints according to we want it to do. I suggest that we have to practice humility, and embrace above all the acknowledgment that our own attitudes, political or otherwise, may well be subject to gaps and inconsistencies themselves. Anyone can turn up to a novel with a shopping list of criteria to be fulfilled; if we want to be accorded authority, then we have to be able to do something more interesting, and more profound, than declare whether our boxes have been ticked or not. Essentially my point is that there is an experience of reading that we cannot change, that may be good or bad or indifferent according to our subjective responses, but an interpretation of a book, a critique of it, is a product of intellectual choices. The very best critics, the ones that history will not render foolish, work to eradicate the knee-jerk response that what may not fulfill our expectations is necessarily bad and not worth reading. And I think we owe this courtesy to contemporary novels more than any others; what novels might Cather have written, late in life, had she benefited from critiques that made her own work more interesting to her, that stimulated her by accurately pointing out her strengths and flaws rather than dragging her into battles that were entirely irrelevant to her writing? As criticism continues to be blindly demanding, so the courage of writers is undermined – and ultimately we are the losers.