In The Daily Telegraph of 9 October, there was an article in which Sir Peter Stothard argues that discerning readers should pay attention to established critics rather than comments posted on the internet by amateurs. He went on to say, “There is a general trend – and it’s certainly very prevalent online – for replacing argued literary criticism that allows you to compare books, to put them in context, to analyse how they work. That kind of traditional criticism is very easily replaced by unargued opinion. Storytelling is fine but it doesn’t require Man Booker judges to decide what people are going to enjoy taking on holiday and reading on the beach. What the Man Booker judges can do is apply traditional literary criticism and try to identify what people will still want to read in 20 years’ time. That was the aim of the prize and it’s important to hold on to it.”
Sir Peter is the editor of The Times Literary Supplement and chairman of this years’ Man Booker Prize judges.
While I would certainly agree that one should respect the opinions of recognised literary critics, Sir Peter’s argument strikes me as somewhat self-serving. Is he saying that “we recognised literary critics are members of an elite guild, and you readers should pay no attention to anyone who is not a member of the guild”? I hope not.
Sir Peter told Radio Times that the Man Booker Prize judges were increasingly required to identify books that were mot immediately easy to read because they were the ones that would eventually reward readers most. Why the correlation between being difficult to read and being ‘eventually most rewarding’? I think that most of us who have read Ulysses would agree that it is difficult to read, but is it more rewarding for being difficult? I think not. It is a landmark piece of literature, and for that reason it is interesting, but in what sense is it rewarding?
It seems to me that the guild of recognised literary critics is encouraging the creation of obscure, difficult literature. But why does a novel have to be obscure and difficult to be valuable? I would argue that the hallmarks of a really good novel are that it captures both the emotions and the intellect of the reader in a unique and memorable way.
What about ‘argued criticism’ vs. ‘unargued opinion’? Taking the adjectives first, ‘argue’ – according to my dictionary – means ‘to discuss with reason’. The implication seems to be that the recognised literary critic gives reasons for his/her views while the internet blogger simply expresses an opinion without reasons. This is clearly not universally true. Turning to the nouns, criticism is defined as ‘the art of judging, especially literature and the arts’. But since criticism is an ‘art’ not a science, in what sense is it different than expressing an opinion?
My question, therefore, is what does it take to become a member of the guild? Does one have to have the title of ‘Editor’? What if one had the title of ‘Author’? “No! No!” I can hear the members to the guild protesting, “an Author is biased toward his/her style of writing and cannot be an independent judge.” But if s/he, the Author, is well educated and has read widely, might not s/he be able to appreciate the styles of others? Besides, the Author, particularly if s/he has enjoyed some success in writing, knows something about the craft of writing, and may be a better judge in some respects than the unpublished, appointed Editor.
The day after Sir Peter’s views were published, The Daily Telegraph ran a column by Jon Stock entitled “How I survived an online literary mauling” and “Far from throttling serious criticism, internet reviews can be helpful to authors”. Mr. Stock has written a series of spy thrillers, and one review of his work began, “Stock: misogynist and serial killer”. He went on to say that he tracked down the reviewer and found that she is a professor of English at the State University of New York. The professors’ principal objection was to the deaths of three women in four of his novels. He agreed that perhaps this was a bit lopsided and she mentioned much else that she liked in his writing.
In his conclusion, Mr. Stock says, “For me, the whole exercise was an example of the internet working as it should, a place where people with wildly differing opinions, in this case about books, can engage in constructive dialogue. The literary critic, as championed by Sir Peter Stothard, has its place, but so do online reviewers, even the hostile ones.” I agree.