John Free­man on crit­i­cis­ing the crit­ics

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - John Free­man John Free­man is a for­mer ed­i­tor of Granta and the au­thor of How to Read a Nov­el­ist.

The Critic in the Mod­ern World: Pub­lic Crit­i­cism from Sa­muel John­son to James Wood By James Ley Blooms­bury, 240pp, $39.99

JUST when you think crit­ics must be among the most te­dious peo­ple on the planet, along comes a book such as James Ley’s The Critic in the Mod­ern World to gen­tly re­mind you this is not the case. Crit­ics, like writ­ers, are ir­rev­er­ent, self­ob­sessed men and women trapped in the same meat comets in which we all ar­row into the world. Sa­muel John­son had squinty eyes, a hor­rif­i­cally ugly face and boarded a re­tired pros­ti­tute in his London home for years. Wil­liam Ha­zlitt died broke in a Soho room­ing house, his last words as acidly ironic as much of his prose: “Well, I’ve had a happy life.” Matthew Arnold fired back at his crit­ics like a blog­ger of to­day. TS Eliot wrote some of his nas­ti­est reviews while his life was fall­ing down in flames.

Such de­tails, spar­ingly used but glo­ri­ously de­ployed, res­cue The Critic in the Mod­ern World from be­ing the kind of earnest book re­view­ers will read and un­der­line and ar­gue with in their sleep. The act of crit­i­cis­ing, which Eliot ar­gued came to us as nat­u­ral as breath­ing, th­ese days re­duced in many forms to “lik­ing” and “shar­ing”, came from some­where, and Ley charts its evo­lu­tion through the lives of six ma­jor fig­ures.

The six are the afore­men­tioned John­son, Ha­zlitt, Arnold, and Eliot, plus Lionel Trilling and James Wood of The New Yorker, who is seen by many as the lead­ing con­tem­po­rary critic. Ley him­self is a prom­i­nent critic and ed­i­tor of the Syd­ney Re­view of Books. The six are no­table, he says, for be­com­ing fig­ures — not just by­lines — who thrust them­selves to the cen­tre of cul­tural de­bate and rein­vented its terms.

Still, here is a good place to quib­ble with Ley’s pa­ram­e­ters. Surely in the three cen­turies he con­sid­ers a woman has made a mark: Vir­ginia Woolf, Mary McCarthy, Zadie Smith? Or some­one of colour? James Bald­win?

By not in­clud­ing any such fig­ures, Ley loses the op­por­tu­nity to com­ment on changes in writ­ing, its use as a tool of wit­ness and artistry, that feel es­sen­tial to lit­er­ary cul­ture to­day. Surely there is some re­la­tion­ship be­tween the ero­sion of re­spect in crit­i­cal au­thor­ity and the re­cent ex­pan­sion in the num­bers and types of voices who have en­tered the crit­i­cal fray. Bald­win and Smith, for rea­sons other than their colour, have found them­selves at the cen­tre of th­ese de­bates, as did Woolf or Ed­ward Said.

No mat­ter; Ley has cho­sen his lot and reads their works and lives with a thor­ough­ness that bor­ders on the foren­sic. Most im­pres­sively, he tracks the arc of crit­i­cism across a shift­ing field of time and his­tory.

In the book’s be­gin­ning, the right to vote and lit­er­acy were not givens. God was, how­ever, for most peo­ple. There was no mid­dle class. The English lan­guage had lit­tle con­sis­tency. The novel had just been in­vented. News­pa­pers didn’t ex­ist, not as we con­ceive of them. By the book’s end, all of th­ese things have changed, per­haps with the ex­cep­tion of news­pa­pers’ rapid de­cline. Thread­ing a line through all th­ese rup­tures re­quires a nim­ble­ness and au­thor­ity that Ley wields with rapier con­fi­dence.

He is clearly fonder of some fig­ures than oth­ers. Each chap­ter reads like a non­fic­tion novella, dur­ing which one watches the critic at hand de­velop and de­fend their cen­tral con­cerns. After Ley’s sec­tion on John­son, one wants to read about him, rather than his work; whereas I defy some­one to read his chap­ter on Ha­zlitt with­out rush­ing out to buy a copy of The Spirit of the Age.

Ley’s es­say on Wood has sim­i­lar ef­fect. Mean­while, he loathes Eliot, whom he damns with quo­ta­tion. The finer writ­ers fare bet­ter here, which is fit­ting ef­fect for a book about the gap be­tween the idea of crit­i­cism and its prac­tice. Across the 300 years Ley cov­ers, crit­i­cism be­came pub­licly con­sumed, it be­came a per­for­mance — es­pe­cially with Ha­zlitt — of character, and the writ­ers who have the en­ergy and skill to drama­tise this strug­gle have stood the test of time.

On oc­ca­sion, Ley’s writ­ing suf­fers in com­par­i­son to that of his sub­jects. Nav­i­gat­ing the dens­est thick­ets of ideas and cul­tural change, he has a habit of us­ing pas­sive sen­tence con­struc­tions, like a man try­ing to back through a nest of bushes and not ex­pose him­self to thorns. In one para­graph on Trilling, the word “is” ap­pears 10

HE TRACKS THE ARC OF CRIT­I­CISM ACROSS A SHIFT­ING FIELD

times, forc­ing the reader to truf­fle hunt his sen­tences for the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the sub­ject and the verb — the source of force and ac­tion. Like aca­demic the­o­reti­cians, this crutch be­comes a way to sim­ply de­clare things as such — “our cul­ture is di­vided against it­self” — with­out ex­plor­ing the more com­pli­cated rea­sons they were or are so, which of course would lay such par­en­thet­i­cals open to de­bate.

The strong­est chap­ter in the book cov­ers Eliot, on whom Ley per­forms a dev­as­tat­ing close read­ing. Hap­pily, his lan­guage here moves with taut fury. He does not fuss about, nor does he be­labour, the poet’s anti-Semitism, which is well-doc­u­mented. In­stead, Ley fo­cuses on the critic’s pa­tri­cian tone, his ma­nip­u­la­tion of irony and the way he used both to “grant him the free­dom to be sin­cere”. His “ba­sic crit­i­cal method”, Ley ar­gues, was to “as­sert the pri­or­ity of his val­ues”. This was ac­com­plished through “a dis­play of crit­i­cal plumage”, a tone of com­pre­hen­sive­ness and slight de­ri­sion. Yet Ley shows how Eliot was in fact any­thing but com­pre­hen­sive. He was Arnold in dis­guise, thrust­ing his ideas about cul­ture to the fore, even if they would have very much dis­agreed.

One of the great­est plea­sures of The Critic in the Mod­ern World emerges half­way through the book. The instincts and ar­gu­ments of th­ese six crit­ics, through virtue of Ley’s in­tense de­scrip­tion, de­velop an almost plan­e­tary or­bit. The pre­rog­a­tives of early crit­ics, from cor­rect­ness and spir­i­tual up­lift (John­son) to a fo­cus on ef­fects (Ha­zlitt), re­turn and in other fig­ures (Arnold and Wood) sail by at new an­gles. Arnold back­tracked to­wards up­lift to democra­tise the no­tion of cul­ture. This was, after all, the first Ox­ford don to lec­ture in English, rather than Latin. He needed to ap­proach cul­ture with a re­li­gious sense of or­der so as to ex­pand it. Arnold “as­sumes it is sim­ply not pos­si­ble to be com­pla­cent about cul­tural is­sues, to re­gard so­cial or­der and the man­i­fes­ta­tions of cul­ture as nat­u­ral or time­less”.

This is a rad­i­cal idea, but it would have been far more in­ter­est­ing to con­nect this to the rise of iden­tity-based pol­i­tics in the 1950s through Bald­win, than to Trilling, in whose work ones sees a hark­ing back to John­so­nian val­ues of bal­ance and or­der and mod­er­a­tion. And how in­ter­est­ing would it have been to com­pare a rad­i­cal, gay ex-preacher such as Bald­win with a writer such as Wood, who is an athe­ist, but hardly rad­i­cal?

Aside from missed op­por­tu­ni­ties such as this, Ley has done some­thing re­mark­able with this lit­tle book. With­out over-re­ly­ing on the bi­o­graph­i­cal, he shows how much is at stake in the pos­ture of critic. He has taken six well-known fig­ures and re­vealed how, in their own way, pa­tri­cian, slovenly, re­served or pug­na­cious, they cre­ated the plat­form that is so broad and free now, we can almost take it for granted.

From left, Wil­liam Ha­zlitt, Sa­muel John­son, Matthew Arnold, Lionel Trilling, James Wood and TS Eliot, be­low

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