Criticism, Then and Now

Some thoughts on criticism of the arts—its value and its pitfalls—inspired by Dwight Garner’s piece in today’s New York Times Magazine

I’ve written criticism, I’ve written books that have been the subject of criticism—mostly positive, thank God, but some negative—and I’m currently working on a novel based on the life of a woman who set herself up as a critic of the fine arts in the early 19th century. So I’ve done some thinking about the subject.

Garner’s main point, as I take it, is that a society without criticism—even harsh criticism—would be “a zombie nation, where wit and disputation go to die.” He acknowledges that criticism can hurt, but basically he advises writers (and it’s specifically book criticism he’s discussing) to suck it up. In lawyers’ terms, writers assume the risk: you put your book out there for the public to react to in whatever way they will, so don’t complain if you get slammed.

He’s right, of course. But I also have some sympathy for the point of view expressed by the writer Dave Eggers in a quotation Garner cites and then disagrees with: basically, don’t criticize what you can’t understand (to borrow a line from Bob Dylan). Writing a book—or making a movie, or a work of visual art, etc.—is a tremendously difficult thing to do, so critics should approach it in a spirit of generosity.

Having been on both ends of criticism, I can attest to the pain that can be inflicted by a scathing review. Not long ago I read an essay by a writer who noted that negative reviews of your book always make more of an impression than positive ones, and I’ve found that to be all too true.

But I’ve also read and seen things that I thought deserved to be panned, and I wouldn’t want to muzzle critics who have sincere reservations about the quality of what they’re reviewing. Of course (and this is one thing Garner doesn’t mention explicitly), it’s actually easier to write a negative review than a positive one, and it usually provides more opportunities for humor. When I was writing reviews fairly regularly, way back in college, I would sometimes find that I thought I’d really enjoyed a book or a play—until I started writing. Then somehow my inner snark would take over. Or perhaps you could say I started exercising my critical faculties. It depends, perhaps, on whether you agree more with Eggers or with Garner.

Either way, it’s particularly risky for critics to let loose when they live in a relatively small community and are likely to come into contact with the objects of their criticism. When I was in college, I swore off reviewing student productions after seeing the actress I’d panned in that day’s paper walking towards me on campus. She didn’t recognize me, of course, but I recognized her. She was with a friend, holding a copy of the paper with my review, and weeping copiously.

The woman I’m currently writing about—Eliza Anderson, who edited the Observer, a magazine published in Baltimore in 1807—also lived in a fairly small community. Actually, Baltimore was the third largest city in the country at the time, but the elite were a pretty insular bunch. Anderson set out to raise the level of culture in Baltimore, which she believed to be sadly lacking, through criticism and satire. She discovered that the objects of her criticism sometimes struck back.

One of her targets was an artist named Francis Guy, whose work is now included in such collections as the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the new Crystal Bridges Art Museum in Arkansas. Guy, who seems to have been largely self-taught, had been a tailor and dyer and still produced, in addition to his landscape paintings, tavern signs and decorative embellishments for furniture. Anderson believed that artists should be viewed as a class distinct from “artisans and mechanics,” and she apparently saw the happily hybrid Francis Guy as a threat to that distinction (he also marketed what he claimed was a miraculous toothache cure). Reviewing an exhibition of his paintings, Anderson observed that Guy had some natural talent, but from want of encouragement reduced to the necessity of making coats and pantaloons, he has not had it in his power to cultivate his talent, nor has he made a single striking step in the art.”

Guy took offense at this and similar remarks by Anderson. Although Anderson protested that she was only trying to bring him the recognition and support he deserved, Guy was not convinced. He published a brief riposte in a local newspaper, which began “What do you think the Observer means, by playing shuttle-cock with my poor name at every full and change of the moon?” He was selling plenty of paintings, he protested, and indeed had to turn down some commissions. In fact, he opined, Anderson had only brought him more business through her “scurrilous and witless opposition.”

Anderson got an even harsher response from a singer and actor named W.H. Webster—but then, her criticism of his performances was pretty vicious. On one occasion, she complained about the “horrible grimaces” he made while singing, which she said produced the general effect “of a man laboring under the operation of a strong emetic.” On another, she remarked that he resembled “a creature in the agonies of convulsion” and treated the audience to “the wretched caricature of an ape.” It was impossible, she said, “to listen to him without disgust.”

Again, Anderson claimed she was only bothering to criticize him because he had talent—talent that was unfortunately undermined, in her view, by his physical contortions. But Webster heard only the criticism. And it’s hard to blame him. Like Guy, he took his revenge in a local paper, claiming that Anderson had sent him a letter offering to praise him in the Observer if he took out a five-dollar subscription—essentially, that is, if he bribed her.

Anderson protested vigorously that she’d sent no such letter, and Webster claimed to have lost it, so there’s no way of knowing the truth (although, as Anderson pointed out, given her previous harsh criticism of Webster, it seems unlikely she would have offered to champion him, even for five dollars).

I suppose the moral of Anderson’s story, if there is one, is that artists are capable of biting the hand that slaps them. Generally speaking, though, the critic has the upper hand, whether it slaps or nourishes: who’s going to believe a disgruntled artist or writer over an ostensibly objective critic?

But even if critics generally have little to fear from those they critique, they might want to consider the maxim that Garner says he was raised on but ultimately rejected: if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all. Especially with the shrinking number of book reviews out there—a phenomenon Garner bemoans—perhaps that valuable space is better spent praising good books than slicing bad ones to shreds. Silence is kinder, and often just as effective in preventing the reading public from committing the mistake of buying a bad book.

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