Role of the Critic

The Role of the Critic #

Criticism is a pejorative misnomer for someone who describes, analyses and evaluates literature, food, art, music or any other human endeavour. Though they have been around since early times – even before Plato and Aristotle, their hey day began in the 1920’s to about the 1990’s when their influence was eroded by the proliferation of commentary on the internet.¹ Many scholars feel we suffer from an implosion of opinion that has smothered authoritative and informed criticism.

Others disagree. T.S. Eliot, the doyen of modern criticism maintains:

“The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better. There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of. “

Virginia Woolf: “anyone who’s worth anything reads just what he likes, as the mood takes him, and with extravagant enthusiasm.”

While W.H. Auden maintains chief criterion for reviewing poetry - “Pleasure, is not an infallible guide but it is the least fallible."

Dylan Thomas admits:

I, myself, do not read poetry for anything but pleasure. I read only the poems I like.

While his namesake, Bob Dylan:

Art can be appreciated or interpreted but there is seldom anything to understand.

The English satirist Samuel Butler wrote in the mid-seventeenth century the most recognizable today is “A Modern Critic.”

He is a contemptible creature: a tyrant, a pedant, a crackpot, and a snob; “a very ungentle Reader”; “a Corrector of the Press gratis”; “a Committee-Man in the Commonwealth of letters”; “a Mountebank, that is always quacking of the infirm and diseased Parts of Books.” He judges, and, if authors are to be believed, he judges poorly. He praises without discernment. He invents faults when he cannot find any. Beholden to no authority, obeying nothing but the mysterious stirrings of his heart and his mind, he hands out dunce caps and placards insolently and with more than a little glee. Authors may complain to their friends, but they have no recourse. The critic’s word is law.

During the fifties and early sixties too, some literary critics enjoyed the exalted position of undisputed or infallible authorities on selected works of art. Students merely had to cite and conform to their views to receive top marks. Since the seventies views have broadened and today students are expected to seek a more wide ranging view, look at contrasting or dialectical points of evaluations and then “think for themselves”. The purpose of education is not to teach students what to think, but how to think for themselves!

‘Nothing replaces the reader’s responses: the sound of poetry on both the outer and inner ear, the visions of fiction in the mind’s eye, the kinaesthetic assault of total theatre’ Handbook of CriticismGuerin.

Susan Sontag distinguishes between interpretation and sensuality; in Against Interpretation

Sontag attacked critics for:

“usurping and desecrating works of art”.

Al Pacino considers many academics,

often present lofty judgments in arcane inaccessible language, killing any enjoyment.

Regardless, the authoritative critic still fulfils an important role in our understanding of a work of art. Their training in acceptable standards, accumulated wisdom and insights can open new vistas to lead us to a greater appreciation of literature often triggering an original response.

Though the creative power is considered superior to the critical, well informed criticism can illuminate subtle nuances, allusions or symbolism.

Matthew Arnold claimed that:

the study of literature gives you the best vantage point from which to understand an entire society”.

The literary critic is the only one to use the same medium that they are commenting on - words. Art critics don’t paint, food critics don’t cook, music critics don’t sing….. KATIE ROIPHE, writing in The New York book reviews - With Clarity and Beauty, the Weight of Authority has this to say about good criticism:

More than ever, critical authority comes from the power of the critic’s prose, the force and clarity of her language; it is in the art of writing itself that information and knowledge are carried, in the sentences themselves that literature is preserved. The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.


Reviewers are usually people who would have been poets, historians, biographers etc. if they could; they have tried their talents and failed so they become critics”.

Less than six weeks after Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom” was published, Amazon offered more than 300 frankly polarised customer reviews”* –Stephen Burn.

“A critic is someone who enters the battlefield after the war is over and shoots the wounded,” American journalist Murray Kempton.

The danger to avoid as Oscar Wilde pointed out:

“To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticises”.


The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.

Writer Critics: #

Some writers have also given us their views on what they believe is good Art. Coleridge, Eliot and D.H. Lawrence are notable ones.

D. H. Lawrence #

Criticism can never be a science: it is in the first place too personal, and in the second, it is concerned with values that science ignores.

The touch stone is emotion, not reason. We judge a work of art by its effect on our most sincere and vital emotion, and nothing else. All the critical twiddle-twaddle about style and form, all the pseudo-scientific classification and analysing of books is mere impertinence and most dull jargon.

A man who is emotionally educated is rare as a phoenix. The more scholastically educated a man is generally, the more he is an emotional boor.

A critic must be emotionally alive in every fibre, intellectually capable and skilful in essential logic, and then morally very honest.

And learn, learn, learn the one and only lesson worth learning at last. Learn to walk in the sweetness of the possession of your own soul.

By the nineteen-twenties, (at 35) Lawrence wants his writing to indicate, and his readers to embrace, “the animal aloneness that human language only seems to overcome; bodies may come into contact, but not souls”.

Eliot – On Poetry #

“The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better. There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of.“

Poets often deliberately use incantation and repetition in an attempt to cast a spell over their readers, allowing them to escape reality and enter the world of dreams, imagination and fantasy. Poetry can resonate and hypnotise the responder. > “My words echo/ Thus, in your mind”.

Eliot later examined the ineffability of communication in The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock where he has his persona admit:

“That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all.”

And this, and so much more? —
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:

Why criticism Matters #

“Good sparkling writing captures the dizzying swirl of events, from the quotidian to the earth-shattering, with meticulous, acoustically spellbinding language, and makes for riveting reading. Good writing inscribes a restlessness and probing into word choice and the structures of the sentences themselves, which quiver with the anxiety to get things right, to see the world as it is – and it does so succinctly.”

Nikki Gemmell writes: we live in the age of opinion­ — offered instantly, effusively and in increasingly strident tones. Much of it goes by the name of criticism, and in the most superficial sense this is accurate. We do not lack for contentious assertion — of “love it” or “hate it,” of “wet kisses” and “takedowns,” of flattery versus snark, and assorted other verbal equivalents of the thumb held up or pointed down.

This “conversation” is often lively. Sometimes it is fun. Occasionally it is informed by genuine understanding as opposed to ideological presumption. But where does it leave the serious critic in the evolving role of influencing taste, careers, and canons.

As well, the creative composer tends to experiment and test the boundaries of their craft; critics need to accept and tolerate innovation. Instead of assuming new ways of writing indicate a falling in standards or a return to a philistine dark age, critics need to recognise innovation as a means of keeping in touch or maintaining relevance in evolving cultures. In many areas critics have the power to make or break new releases of books, movies, music, and restaurants.

In recent years creators have successfully sued critics for unfair reviews, while others such as Kenneth Tynan’s 1955 review is credited with rescuing from oblivion Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.

Negative criticism can reflect badly on the critic.

The Times Literary Supplement, on June 21, 1917 review of T.S. Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock had this unsigned criticism:

“The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry”.

The most insightful acumen of this reviewer was the absence of a name.

Or one panning a pilot of “Fawlty Towers” by John Cleese:

I’m afraid I thought this one as dire as its title – It’s a kind of “Prince of Denmark” of the hotel world. A collection of clichés and > stock characters which I can’t see being angthing but a disaster.

In May of 1974, after reading through a pilot script written by John Cleese and his then-wife, Connie Booth, a clearly unimpressed “comedy script editor” by the name of Ian Main sent the above memo to BBC Television’s Head of Comedy and Light Entertainment – a Letter of Note resurrected by BuzzFeed “to give solace, and hope, to creative people everywhere”.

Just remember, no one has a monopoly on what a work of art means – everyone finds something different in it and your opinion is just as valid as anyone else - including the composer.

Good criticism should provoke underlying questions, spurring readers to think for themselves.

Kant called this the task of enlightenment; it is certainly the mark of good criticism.

It is vitally important to realise that good works of art are complex, ambiguous, conflicted and problematic – they do not provide answers, merely raise important issues many of which are not resolved. No one is an absolute authority on interpretation of the text and each reader has as much entitlement to adopt a view as the next.

As Howard Jacobson says,

“a book should be something you grapple with, otherwise there’s no point.”

And Oscar Wilde’s famous bon mot:

The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you”.

Rather than subscribe to any ideological approach or adopting the arcane language of any perspective, the reader should develop their own response from an individual perspective. Avoid literary jargon like:

“Virginia Woolf depicts toxic masculinity and its dominating influence in a society founded on male supremacy”.