An Autobiography, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XIV

On Criticism

Literary criticism in the present day has become a profession — but it has ceased to be an art. Its object is no longer that of proving that certain literary work is good and other literary work is bad, in accordance with rules which the critic is able to define. English criticism at present rarely even pretends to go so far as this. It attempts, in the first place, to tell the public whether a book be or be not worth public attention; and, in the second place, so to describe the purport of the work as to enable those who have not time or inclination for reading it to feel that by a short cut they can become acquainted with its contents. Both these objects, if fairly well carried out, are salutary. Though the critic may not be a profound judge himself; though not unfrequently he be a young man making his first literary attempts, with tastes and judgment still unfixed, yet he probably has a conscience in the matter, and would not have been selected for that work had he not shown some aptitude for it. Though he may be not the best possible guide to the undiscerning, he will be better than no guide at all. Real substantial criticism must, from its nature, be costly, and that which the public wants should at any rate be cheap. Advice is given to many thousands, which, though it may not be the best advice possible, is better than no advice at all. Then that description of the work criticised, that compressing of the much into very little — which is the work of many modern critics or reviewers — does enable many to know something of what is being said, who without it would know nothing.

I do not think it is incumbent on me at present to name periodicals in which this work is well done, and to make complaints of others by which it is scamped. I should give offence, and might probably be unjust. But I think I may certainly say that as some of these periodicals are certainly entitled to great praise for the manner in which the work is done generally, so are others open to very severe censure — and that the praise and that the censure are chiefly due on behalf of one virtue and its opposite vice. It is not critical ability that we have a right to demand, or its absence that we are bound to deplore. Critical ability for the price we pay is not attainable. It is a faculty not peculiar to Englishmen, and when displayed is very frequently not appreciated. But that critics should be honest we have a right to demand, and critical dishonesty we are bound to expose. If the writer will tell us what he thinks, though his thoughts be absolutely vague and useless, we can forgive him; but when he tells us what he does not think, actuated either by friendship or by animosity, then there should be no pardon for him. This is the sin in modern English criticism of which there is most reason to complain.

It is a lamentable fact that men and women lend themselves to this practice who are neither vindictive nor ordinarily dishonest. It has become “the custom of the trade,” under the veil of which excuse so many tradesmen justify their malpractices! When a struggling author learns that so much has been done for A by the Barsetshire Gazette, so much for B by the Dillsborough Herald, and, again, so much for C by that powerful metropolitan organ the Evening Pulpit, and is told also that A and B and C have been favoured through personal interest, he also goes to work among the editors, or the editors’ wives — or perhaps, if he cannot reach their wives, with their wives’ first or second cousins. When once the feeling has come upon an editor or a critic that he may allow himself to be influenced by other considerations than the duty h owes to the public, all sense of critical or of editorial honesty falls from him at once. Facilis descensus Averni. In a very short time that editorial honesty becomes ridiculous to himself. It is for other purpose that he wields the power; and when he is told what is his duty, and what should be his conduct, the preacher of such doctrine seems to him to be quixotic. “Where have you lived, my friend, for the last twenty years,” he says in spirit, if not in word, “that you come out now with such stuff as old-fashioned as this?” And thus dishonesty begets dishonesty, till dishonesty seems to be beautiful. How nice to be good-natured! How glorious to assist struggling young authors, especially if the young author be also a pretty woman! How gracious to oblige a friend! Then the motive, though still pleasing, departs further from the border of what is good. In what way can the critic better repay the hospitality of his wealthy literary friend than by good-natured criticism — or more certainly ensure for himself a continuation of hospitable favours?

Some years since a critic of the day, a gentleman well known then in literary circles, showed me the manuscript of a book recently published — the work of a popular author. It was handsomely bound, and was a valuable and desirable possession. It had just been given to him by the author as an acknowledgment for a laudatory review in one of the leading journals of the day. As I was expressly asked whether I did not regard such a token as a sign of grace both in the giver and in the receiver, I said that I thought it should neither have been given nor have been taken. My theory was repudiated with scorn, and I was told that I was strait-laced, visionary, and impracticable! In all that the damage did not lie in the fact of that one present, but in the feeling on the part of the critic that his office was not debased by the acceptance of presents from those whom he criticised. This man was a professional critic, bound by his contract with certain employers to review such books as were sent to him. How could he, when he had received a valuable present for praising one book, censure another by the same author?

While I write this I well know that what I say, if it be ever noticed at all, will be taken as a straining at gnats, as a pretence of honesty, or at any rate as an exaggeration of scruples. I have said the same thing before, and have been ridiculed for saying it. But none the less am I sure that English literature generally is suffering much under this evil. All those who are struggling for success have forced upon them the idea that their strongest efforts should be made in touting for praise. Those who are not familiar with the lives of authors will hardly believe how low will be the forms which their struggles will take:— how little presents will be sent to men who write little articles; how much flattery may be expended even on the keeper of a circulating library; with what profuse and distant genuflexions approaches are made to the outside railing of the temple which contains within it the great thunderer of some metropolitan periodical publication! The evil here is not only that done to the public when interested counsel is given to them, but extends to the debasement of those who have at any rate considered themselves fit to provide literature for the public.

I am satisfied that the remedy for this evil must lie in the conscience and deportment of authors themselves. If once the feeling could be produced that it is disgraceful for an author to ask for praise — and demands for praise are, I think, disgraceful in every walk of life — the practice would gradually fall into the hands only of the lowest, and that which is done only by the lowest soon becomes despicable even to them. The sin, when perpetuated with unflagging labour, brings with it at best very poor reward. That work of running after critics, editors, publishers, the keepers of circulating libraries, and their clerks, is very hard, and must be very disagreeable. He who does it must feel himself to be dishonoured — or she. It may perhaps help to sell an edition, but can never make an author successful.

I think it may be laid down as a golden rule in literature that there should be no intercourse at all between an author and his critic. The critic, as critic, should not know his author, nor the author, as author, his critic. As censure should beget no anger, so should praise beget no gratitude. The young author should feel that criticisms fall upon him as dew or hail from heaven — which, as coming from heaven, man accepts as fate. Praise let the author try to obtain by wholesome effort; censure let him avoid, if possible, by care and industry. But when they come, let him take them as coming from some source which he cannot influence, and with which be should not meddle.

I know no more disagreeable trouble into which an author may plunge himself than of a quarrel with his critics, or any more useless labour than that of answering them. It is wise to presume, at any rate, that the reviewer has simply done his duty, and has spoken of the book according to the dictates of his conscience. Nothing can be gained by combating the reviewer’s opinion. If the book which he has disparaged be good, his judgment will be condemned by the praise of others; if bad, his judgment will he confirmed by others. Or if, unfortunately, the criticism of the day be in so evil a condition generally that such ultimate truth cannot be expected, the author may be sure that his efforts made on behalf of his own book will not set matters right. If injustice be done him, let him bear it. To do so is consonant with the dignity of the position which he ought to assume. To shriek, and scream, and sputter, to threaten actions, and to swear about the town that he has been belied and defamed in that he has been accused of bad grammar or a false metaphor, of a dull chapter, or even of a borrowed heroine, will leave on the minds of the public nothing but a sense of irritated impotence.

If, indeed, there should spring from an author’s work any assertion by a critic injurious to the author’s honour, if the author be accused of falsehood or of personal motives which are discreditable to him, then, indeed, he may be bound to answer the charge. It is hoped, however, that he may be able to do so with clean hands, or he will so stir the mud in the pool as to come forth dirtier than he went into it.

I have lived much among men by whom the English criticism of the day has been vehemently abused. I have heard it said that to the public it is a false guide, and that to authors it is never a trustworthy Mentor. I do not concur in this wholesale censure. There is, of course, criticism and criticism. There are at this moment one or two periodicals to which both public and authors may safely look for guidance, though there are many others from which no spark of literary advantage may be obtained. But it is well that both public and authors should know what is the advantage which they have a right to expect. There have been critics — and there probably will be again, though the circumstances of English literature do not tend to produce them — with power sufficient to entitle them to speak with authority. These great men have declared, tanquam ex cathedra, that such a book has been so far good and so far bad, or that it has been altogether good or altogether bad — and the world has believed them. When making such assertions they have given their reasons, explained their causes, and have carried conviction. Very great reputations have been achieved by such critics, but not without infinite study and the labour of many years.

Such are not the critics of the day, of whom we are now speaking. In the literary world as it lives at present some writer is selected for the place of critic to a newspaper, generally some young writer, who for so many shillings a column shall review whatever book is sent to him and express an opinion — reading the book through for the purpose, if the amount of honorarium as measured with the amount of labour will enable him to do so. A labourer must measure his work by his pay or he cannot live. From criticism such as this must far the most part be, the general reader has no right to expect philosophical analysis, or literary judgment on which confidence may be placed. But he probably may believe that the books praised will be better than the books censured, and that those which are praised by periodicals which never censure are better worth his attention than those which are not noticed. And readers will also find that by devoting an hour or two on Saturday to the criticisms of the week, they will enable themselves to have an opinion about the books of the day. The knowledge so acquired will not be great, nor will that little be lasting; but it adds something to the pleasure of life to be able to talk on subjects of which others are speaking; and the man who has sedulously gone through the literary notices in the Spectator and the Saturday may perhaps be justified in thinking himself as well able to talk about the new book as his friend who has bought that new book on the tapis, and who, not improbably, obtained his information from the same source.

As an author, I have paid careful attention to the reviews which have been written on my own work; and I think that now I well know where I may look for a little instruction, where I may expect only greasy adulation, where I shall be cut up into mince-meat for the delight of those who love sharp invective, and where I shall find an equal mixture of praise and censure so adjusted, without much judgment, as to exhibit the impartiality of the newspaper and its staff. Among it all there is much chaff, which I have learned bow to throw to the winds, with equal disregard whether it praises or blames — but I have also found some corn, on which I have fed and nourished myself, and for which I have been thankful.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43