The following quotes were plucked from the prologue of The Dyer’s Hand by W. H. Auden:
"Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible.
A critic can do me one or more of the following services:
1) Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware
2) Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough
3) Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall
4) Give a "reading" of a work which increases my understanding of it
5) Throw light upon the process of artistic "Making."
6) Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.
A critic shows superior insight if the questions he raises are fresh and important, however much one may disagree with his answers to them.
The only sensible procedure for a critic is to keep silent about works which he believes to be bad, while at the same time vigorously campaigning for those which he believes to be good, especially if they are being neglected or underestimated by the public.
Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.
Some critics argue that it is their moral duty to expose the badness of an author because, unless this is done he may corrupt other writers.
Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off."
I might add that in providing these services, I think the critic must also entertain and interest me. Fine if I learn about a new book, or get a new take on something I’ve read, but it means squat if I’m distracted or asleep; if I’m bored, none of the points count. Points one to three cover off I think the need for close and extensive reading, four to six the importance of biography and environmental influences. Then there’s the question of authorial intent. I think a good critic must make convincing arguments about text and influences in ways that respect, as closely as possible, the author’s original intent.
Using our example from a few posts ago, the critic speculates that Keats intended to make a political statement with To Autumn. He marshals text and context, neither of them persuasively in my opinion, to arrive at this conclusion. His criticism is interesting, but unconvincing. I learned something about context, but this didn’t increase my understanding of the poem. Correction, because I disagreed with Paulin’s interpretation I was prompted to study the poem more closely to clarify and test my opposition. In this sense the review increased understanding and was therefore useful.
Compare Auden to John Updike:
1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.
4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords
reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the
blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)
5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?
To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author "in his place," making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end."
These are what you might call kind rules for reviewing. Updike veers close to boosterism when he talks of communion. Boosterism for reading. As if he doesn’t want to scare away readers. They might not come back. Emphasize the positive, just look on the bright side of life, as Brian said. I’m not sure this does a service to the reader.
Updike’s six is more pragmatic than Auden’s advice: simply avoid reviewing bad books. Often there’s no choice. But a bad book’s bluff must be called. Otherwise literature lounges, moulds. That’s why James Wood is so good for the American novel.
As for number one, while it’s unfair to criticize a writer for failing to achieve what he didn’t set out to achieve, I think it’s more than fair to criticize him for lack of ambition. Ian McEwan Amsterdam and Julian Barnes Flaubert’s Parrot can be pillored for this, I think.