Of the forms literary criticism can take, the lowest asserts the critic’s taste in reading as a fact about a book; the middle attempts to draw general conclusions about literature itself, or about life or existence or whatever; the highest illuminates a writer for us.
Arbitrary hierarchy? Not necessarily, if you rank the kinds of criticism by which one retains its value over time. The negative reviewers (and the effusive article-length blurbers), no matter how brilliant their wit, don’t interest us ten years on, much less a hundred. Who reads Francis Jeffrey today, besides, fittingly enough, William Logan? (Jeffrey is the reviewer who savaged the young Keats and Wordsworth’s The Excursion.) Eliot’s attempts to lower the rank of this or that writer come off like exhibits in the musty museum of taste—but his larger ideas, say, the one about the “objective correlative,” can still tease us into thought. Of all Eliot’s critical endeavors, however, the most precious one, the biggest gift to the language, was John Donne. It is easy to forget how little this fascinatingly bifurcated genius was read, written of, or remembered by poets between his death and Eliot’s championing of him. Similarly, it is still worth returning to Samuel Johnson or Coleridge or Auden on Shakespeare, even though Johnson and Auden were by no means mindless bardolaters. Edmund Wilson in Axel’s Castle does not wax effusive; he introduces and illuminates the writers that would go on to define his age.
The important difference isn’t between “the positive review” and “the negative review”—but between the illuminating and the dull review. Dull reviews, as it has been said before, are always about the reviewer—his limitations as a reader, or conversely, how easily impressed he is, or, most commonly, how witty he is. I believe it’s the insight and the introduction to a writer, the instruction how to read and what to value in a writer, that distinguishes the most valuable critic.
I say that–but I don’t do it nearly enough, sticking to my own pet critical mode of big-idea armchair speculation about the Nature of Literature Itself (cf. plenty of prior blog posts…including this one). This big-idea literary criticism is, I recognize, a futile endeavor, though I do cherish it; for I know that every successful and lasting book is an exception, that is, the history of literature is a history of exceptions to the rule of mediocrity and ephemerality. To what end, then, this guessing at laws, definitions, trends, first principles, when the entire data set consists of hapax phenomena?
I will make an attempt to pursue the highest criticism, that is, to illuminate writers—appraisal without overpraise, analysis without snark. And I will start, very shortly, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.