One of the things I like to do is to read criticism by people whose own writing I admire; say, for example, Philip Larkin’s essays in Required Writing or Clive James’s essays in The Pillars of Hercules. For me they provide a bit of guidance without, I hope, too much affecting my own opinions on the works or the authors they discuss. In some cases, they introduce me to an author I might never otherwise have considered reading.
Take for example Clive James’s essay on Raymond Chandler, entitled, “The Country Behind the Hill”–this title referencing a remark of Chandler’s: “He used to say that he wanted to give a feeling of the country behind the hill.” I was of the opinion (out of ignorance, it must be said) that Raymond Chandler was a writer in the pulp fiction genre whose works were firmly and permanently lodged in the 1940’s. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I thought that all I needed to know about Chandler could be accessed through a Bogart movie. I never thought of reading him. Clive James tells me that Auden wanted Chandler to be regarded as an artist. That endorsement certainly raises Chandler’s status in my mind, and piques my interest.
I once sent a note to Maria Popova (of the ‘Brainpickings’ site, which I enjoy enormously), thanking her for her critiques of nonfiction literature, and telling her how much I admire her writing. She wrote back, thanking me, but saying that she doesn’t write criticism, only recommendations. In other words, she will only review or discuss works that she personally likes and can recommend to others.
I like it that Maria gleans the wheat and discards the chaff, and I will continue to read her recommendations with great pleasure. But I also like it that Clive James will give an opinion on something he doesn’t like, by an author who does not ‘hit the mark’ in his view.
In his essay on Lillian Hellman, entitled, “It is of a Windiness,” James says, “We are asked to believe that her own feelings about the McCarthy period were welling up to block her speech, just as the Russian friend’s experience of the recent past had blocked hers. The two communed in silence. That this equation was presented as a profundity seemed to me at the time to prove that Lillian Hellman, whatever her stature in the theatre, possessed, as an essayist, an attitudinizing mind of which her mannered prose was the logically consequent expression.”
James’s negative opinion about Hellman does not deter me from exploring her work, however, and I believe I can do so without his comments colouring my own thoughts. It adds another dimension to my reading, in fact, that I can take another person’s thoughts along with me as I read, and consider whether or not I agree with him/her as I go.
And I suppose that I also do this when I read Maria’s recommendations and then follow-up by reading the original text discussed in her articles. I’ve found that most of the time, I am able to agree with her, but there has been at least one author on whose work our opinions differ.
I suppose that reading another person’s praise or criticism is a bit like participating in a book club, which is something I have never done. I have abstained out of fear that the quality of my fellow clubmembers’ minds might disappoint. Perhaps that’s egotistical, but I think that if I’m engaging in an activity intended to improve my own mind, I must interact with people who can contribute something to that endeavour. In choosing to read critiques or recommendations, I can select essays by people whose own writing and opinions I admire.
I look at this as a way of guiding my reading towards authors that justify the expenditure of my time–a way of navigating through the world of literature, with my chosen ‘book club members’ in print. The advantages are manifold: my book club is well attended, no one is ever absent for illness, conflict of schedule, or even death (in the case of Philip Larkin), and I choose my own time for ‘hearing them’ discuss their reading. And usually, if these intelligent writers have given their own time to a discussion of a particular book, my time will be equally well spent reading both their opinions, and the work itself.