Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

The judgment of critics

In or about 1991, the playwright David Hare caused a commotion on BBC2’s arts show with his assertion that too many critics and cultural commentators knew how to sneer but didn’t know how to judge. They could appear “critical” by finding some weakness or infelicity in any given book, play, film, dance performance or piece of music, but they either weren’t equipped or simply weren’t willing to arrive at an assessment of the worth of the work in question: whether it was significant; whether its effects on society, a community or the spectators’s spirits were good or bad; how it should be evaluated. In the end, the prolific sneering was not supported by any system of values. According to Hare, if you wanted to be a serious critic, you had to be willing to say that Keats was better than Bob Dylan.

This provoked a response, of course, but it was a response that missed Hare’s point. “Is Keats better than Dylan?” the critics asked, some with a sneer, others presumably suppressing one. But I don’t remember hearing any of them address the more general question of judgment, which had been the one animating the playwright. The Dylan/Keats juxtaposition was merely an illustrative example, but that was what the responders latched onto. In taking such care to avoid Hare’s main point, the critics seemed to be making it for him.

I was firmly on Hare’s side, and excited to hear him articulate so clearly what had been my own uncrystallized opinion. At the time I was still very left-wing, and Hare had a reputation as a theatrical revolutionary. I hadn’t really liked what I’d seen (or, before my arrival in London three years earlier, read) of his plays. But his views on criticism were reassuringly close to my own.

Of course, the obvious thing about judgment is that it can’t be arbitrary. You have to judge according to a standard or a yardstick: a set of conditions or values. For me, with my political views at that time, the selection of an appropriate yardstick was straightforward: any work was to be judged by the extent to which it either shored up or undermined the capitalist basis of the society in which it was produced. Was its effect, objectively viewed, progressive; or was it reactionary or conservative?

The fervour of my socialist convictions lasted barely another two years following the Hare broadcast. I’ve written before that when you change a fundamental belief your other opinions, including those founded on nothing more solid than the one you’ve just abandoned, don’t automatically get replaced by something more consonant with your revised philosophy. My insistence on the importance of critical judgment survived the change in my politics. In fact, the connection between the two has been invisible to me: it’s only now, in starting to write this post, that I see where the commitment to judgment originally came from.

Also around 2 years after Hare’s appearance on The Late Show, I went back to university and, in my 30s, began to study for a BA in English literature. One of the first-year courses was an introduction to literary theory given by Len Jackson (author of the three books in Longman’s series “Foundations of modern literary theory”). In an early lecture, Len said that there are essentially three ways of writing about literature: theory, criticism and scholarship. Of the three, I was immediately sure that the one that appealed to me was criticism.

Theory at the time was dominated by disciples of Foucault, Derrida and similar paradoxical thinkers. I’d already read enough of this to know it wasn’t a path I wanted to follow. I retained enough of my former Marxism to recognize a type of discourse that sounded “radical”, while at the same time purporting to demonstrate the futility of trying to alter actual social relations. It seemed designed (though I’m sure most of its proponents weren’t conscious of its objective effects) to provide students (and still more so their lecturers) with an outlet for their rebellious aspirations without posing a threat to anything of consequence. The only venerable institutions at risk were reading-lists full of dead, white, European males.

Scholarship, in contrast to theory, was admirable, easily undervalued and utterly essential to the whole process of writing about literature. I thought of it as a kind of self-sacrifice, whose practitioners set about reading the boring stuff: contemporary newspapers and pamphlets, public records, personal correspondence and other unexciting material. They held back from reading “the works themselves”, in order to make it easier for other people to enjoy them without making egregious historical and contextual errors. Scholarship was the foundation without which the elaborate theoretical and critical structures would collapse.

As for me, there was no doubt in my mind that what I wanted to do was focus on “the works themselves”. It now seems to me that I must have made a tacit deal with myself according to which, to justify such self-indulgence, I should have to perform important work of judgment and evaluation.

So, I’ve believed for at least 30 years that the paramount responsibility of the literary critic is judgment. That’s not as straightforward or simple a belief as it sounds. As I said before, to judge you need a yardstick or set of standards, and I had quickly discarded those I started out with. I wasn’t finding it easy to replace them. The problem is that you can’t use a yardstick or standards that are too fixed or inflexible, otherwise you risk approaching each work with your mind already made up. I concluded that this trap could be avoided only by treating each work as containing — indeed as constituting — its own key. You learn how to interpret (and judge) each book (or poem, play etc) by reading that book, poem or play itself (or by seeing the play in performance). To put it another way, in reading a book, ideally you will be reevaluating what you’ve already read and are continuing to read, in the light of what you’re reading, as you’re reading it. That’s one of the reasons I think rereading is so important.

To be clear, none of this is to claim that I’ve been consistently exercising critical judgment towards everything I’ve read in various genres, styles and forms, over the years since I enrolled for the BA. But I was convinced that, ideally, that’s what I ought to have been doing. Whenever I wrote a book review, or a blog post about a book, or an essay for an academic journal, this sense that I really should be assessing the work by exercising objective, rational judgment, was always present as a kind of lodestone, trying to draw my writing in a particular direction.

Until the week before last. Then, The Observer’s long-standing information technology columnist, John Naughton, posted on his blog a quote from Robert Musil:

Only in the most unusual cases is it useful to determine whether a book is good or bad. It is usually both.

This is from Musil’s Precision and Soul: Essays and addresses. It was unfamiliar to me. It states an obvious, uncomplicated truth, one that I find it hard to believe I’ve overlooked for so many years. Most of us, most of the time, don’t read a book in order to judge it. We read it perhaps to learn something, to find a piece of information, to prepare an argument, speech or essay. We may read it for entertainment, to pass the time or to exercise some faculty of our brain. Ultimately, a lot of reading is done primarily for pleasure of one sort or another. Sometimes, but certainly not always, judgment is desirable or unavoidable.

Sometimes, on the other hand, judgment is just too easy: a way to preempt ostensibly less important but more interesting questions. Many years ago, I came across a truly atrocious paragraph in Timothy Mo’s The Redundancy of Courage. I no longer remember any detail about it except that it was the last paragraph on a recto some way into the book. I finished that book but felt absolved from ever again having to read anything by Timothy Mo, and I’ve taken full advantage of that dispensation.

Something similar happened around the same time, when I was reading The Book of Evidence by John Banville. The novel centres on a violent murderer, who is eventually arrested and brought before the District Court. His senior counsel (SC) makes an application for bail, which is immediately refused. It couldn’t have been granted. Only the High Court has (and then had) jurisdiction to allow bail on a murder charge, something an SC appearing in those circumstances would certainly know. (Senior counsel were rare in the District Court, tending to appear only in cases of murder or drunken driving.)

Reading that passage, I no longer felt I was in the hands of an author I could trust. In this case, too, I finished the book but I haven’t read anything else by John Banville, whether published before or after The Book of Evidence. I suspect that the losses have been mine rather than Banville’s or Mo’s. Till now, I’ve been happy to live with that.

Prompted by that brief quote from Robert Musil, I’ve decided to change my critical (and reading) practice. From now on, I’m going to try to read books (and plays, and poetry, and web pages, and whatever else) for whatever they might have to offer, and not with a constant eye to what I think is the value of the work. “Whatever they might have to offer” covers a wide variety of possibilities, not all equally worthwhile, and I’ll try not to be narrow in my expectations. I’m not sure what that will mean in practice: I want to be more open to what I read; and it’s not possible to be “open” while laying down in advance too rigid a set of criteria. My change of attitude might not make any appreciable difference, either to what I take from my reading or to how I write about it. It will be interesting to find out.

I’ve never read anything by Robert Musil. As a teenager, I was attracted by the cover art and the description on the back of the Picador edition of The Man without Qualities, but put off by the book’s length and the fact that he had never finished it. Decades later, I still haven’t read it. Maybe I should.

Posted by Art on 01-Dec-2020.