novelty, once more

There have been some interesting reflections recently on the advantages and disadvantages of the blog as a medium for literary criticism and reflection: see here, here, and here.

I have mixed feelings on these points. On the one hand, since blogs tend to be personal, non-professional, and unpaid, they ought to be ideal venues for people to reflect on whatever they happen to be reading, whether it’s brand-new or only new to them — or not even new to them: over at there is a long-running blog series on re-reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which I think I have mentioned before in these pages. I’m pretty sure I’ve also mentioned group reading/blogging projects like Crooked Timber’s Miéville Seminar and the Valve’s Book Events, like the one on Theory’s Empire.
But there is not nearly enough of this kind of thing online, and I blame, as I have so often blamed in the past, blog architecture itself, with its relentless emphasis on novelty and (relative) brevity. We need to fight against this — I need to fight against it. Why shouldn’t I spend a month blogging my way through a big old book? Maybe someday I will. . . .

personal liking

The critical judgment “This book is good or bad” implies good or bad at all times, but in relation to the readers future a book is good now if its future effect is good, and, since the future is unknown, no judgment can be made. The safest guide therefore is the naive uncritical principle of personal liking. A person at least knows one thing about his future, that however different it may be from his present, it will be his. However he may have changed he will still be himself, not somebody else. What he likes now, therefore, whether an impersonal judgment approve or disapprove, has the best chance of becoming useful to him later.

— W. H. Auden, from “Making, Knowing, and Judging”

how I discovered criticism

I’ve written elsewhere about my discovery of irony, but today I wish to remember my discovery of criticism.

Unfortunately, this requires me to disclose that one of the first LPs I bought was by Grand Funk Railroad — their first “greatest hits” recording, appearing when they had been around for about three years. I had actually never heard anything by Grand Funk — I just liked what I thought was a tastefully minimalist cover design. (I was not then troubled by the absence of the serial comma.) (Hey, I was thirteen.)
When I took the record home and got it open, I discovered something odd: the inner sleeves, which for all the other records I owned were made of plain white paper, were covered by photos of clippings from newspaper and magazine articles about the band. Some of these were in a genre familiar to me: denunciations of rock-and-roll music as an instrument of the devil or an enemy of traditional morals. But others were puzzling: one person commented on Mark Farner’s off-key singing — a comment amply justified by the recorded evidence, as I was soon to learn — and another said that Don Brewer’s drumming sounded like “someone fluffing pillows.”
I recall such phrases all these years later because they struck me at the time as being so strange. I knew that there were people who might criticize a drummer for being too loud, but I had no idea that there were people who would lament — in print! in a professional publication! — that one was too soft. I kept looking at the phrase, trying to see if I could assign another meaning to it that phrase, but in the end I had to accept that here was a writer, a real writer apparently, complaining that a rock-and-roll drummer was playing like a sissy and needed to give those skins some serious thumping if he was going to earn the writer’s respect.
This was how I discovered criticism. It wasn’t criticism of books, or classical music, or art, but of really, really crappy rock-and-roll music. Only at that moment did I come to understand that there are people paid to offer evaluations of other people’s cultural or artistic productions. But little did I know that one day people would pay me for that kind of work. I don’t believe the idea crossed my mind at the time.
And once I figured out what was going on there, I figured out something else: that, bad as Grand Funk was as a band, they had someone pretty sharp putting together those record sleeves. Because the clear implication was that people who said that the members of the band couldn’t sing or play were absolutely equivalent to those who denounced rock music as the devil’s playground. Nice one, Mark, Don and Mel!

a word to the wise

Joseph Addison, from the Tatler, on “the Critic” (1710):

This, in the common Acceptation of the Word, is one that, without entering into the Sense and Soul of an Author, has a few general rules, which, like mechanical Instruments, he applies to the Works of Every Writer, and as they quadrate with them, pronounces the author perfect or defective. . . . The Marks you may know him by are, an elevated Eye, and dogmatical Brow, a positive Voice, and a Contempt for everything that comes out, whether he has read it or not.

Jonathan Swift, from The Battle of the Books (1704):

Mean while, Momus fearing the worst, and calling to mind an Antient Prophecy, which bore no very good Face to his Children the Moderns; bent his Flight to the Region of a malignant Deity, call’d Criticism. She dwelt on the Top of a snowy Mountain in Nova Zembla; there Momus found her extended in her Den, upon the Spoils of numberless Volumes half devoured. At her right Hand sat Ignorance, her Father and Husband, blind with Age; at her left, Pride her Mother, dressing her up in the Scraps of Paper herself had torn. There, was Opinion her Sister, light of Foot, hoodwinkt, and headstrong, yet giddy and perpetually turning. About her play’d her Children, Noise and Impudence, Dulness and Vanity, Positiveness, Pedantry, and Ill-Manners. The Goddess herself had Claws like a Cat: Her Head, and Ears, and Voice resembled those of an Ass; Her Teeth fallen out before; Her Eyes turned inward, as if she lookt only upon herself: Her Diet was the overflowing of her own Gall: Her Spleen was so large, as to stand prominent like a Dug of the first Rate, nor wanted Excrescencies in form of Teats, at which a Crew of ugly Monsters were greedily sucking; and, what is wonderful to conceive, the bulk of Spleen encreased faster than the Sucking could diminish it.