The Evil Effect of Over-Praise
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB.
AT the beginning of his career an author — especially if he be a poet, and chances to possess a particularly sensitive set of nerves — is almost certain to exaggerate the importance and influence of adverse criticism. Later on he will probably discover that there are worse things than “ slashing notices,” — namely, “ slashing ” praises. By the exercise of a little observation he will see that the latter can make even a man of merit ridiculous, and that the former, if unjust, can make nobody ridiculous save the reviewer himself. Malignant criticism has never yet succeeded in killing even the slightest piece of genuine creative work. How frequently it has killed the critic!
It has been said that no author — that is, no author of ability — can be written down except by himself. This is true with a qualification. He can be written down and out of sight, temporarily at least, if his enemies have the nerve and the diabolical adroitness outrageously to overpraise him. But this is an office of such subtile cruelty that no one but a friend ever thinks of undertaking it.
Ah, dear critic, if you wish to deliver a staggering blow to some young author who has offended you by what you suspect to be good literature, praise him extravagantly for the qualities which he does n’t possess. Pick out his faults and call them felicities. If he is a verse-maker, compare him with Tennyson and Browning, to the obvious disadvantage of those over-rated persons. If he is a novelist, let it broadly be intimated that beside him Scott and Thackeray and George Eliot were but innocent children in the art of fiction. This will bring down your man. Disparagement can’t do it.
Unmerited adulation has two baleful effects : one is to render the victim satisfied with himself, — and self-satisfaction is the death of talent and the paralysis of genius, — and the other is to draw down on him the indifference or the contempt of those very readers who were previously ready to accept his work at its honest value. Now, Brown has a neat touch in the lyrical way ; Jones has printed two or three pleasant prose sketches in the magazines ; Robinson may possibly write an interesting novel — if he lives long enough. You feel kindly towards these three young gentlemen ; their spurs are yet to be won, and, so far as you are concerned, you wish them success in the winning. But when you read in the columns of The Daily Discoverer that Milton might have been proud to write Brown’s last triolet (it was a charming little triolet; you could n’t have told it from one of Dobson’s), or that Hawthorne’s mantle has fallen upon the shoulders of Jones (without hurting him any), or that Robinson’s new novel is superior to Thackeray’s Henry Esmond, — when, I say, you light on these dazzling literary verdicts, you are apt, if you have a spark of kindliness left in you, to feel sorry for Brown, Jones, and Robinson. They have been put in an absurd attitude. If they are the modest, sensible fellows you suppose them to be, it will take them years to recover their self-respect. If they have complacently swallowed all this treacle, they are dead men. In any case, they have received such a set-back in general estimation as no amount of savage abuse could have procured for them. Savage abuse would have been forgotten in forty-eight hours ; but this dismal panegyric is a thing that has got to be lived down, —to be obliterated, if possible, by higher achievements than anybody has ever expected at the hands of these unfortunates. Henceforth they may well add to their regulation prayers : “ Save us from our friends, and from all undue praise, good Lord, deliver us! ”
From my point of view it was no kind thing Mr. Howells did awhile ago for Tolstoï. I wonder how many warm admirers of the eminent Russian turned cold on being informed that he is " incomparably the greatest writer of fiction who ever lived.” Incomparably ? — shade of misguided Shakespeare ! I venture to doubt if there are two English-speaking men on the earth’s surface who subscribe to that dictum. Tolstoï is a great writer, but he has yet to produce a work of such transcendent grandeur as to make it improper for the masterpieces of other languages to be compared with it. One has one’s own taste in these matters, and, though individual opinion is much like those advertised lost things which are described as “ of no value to anybody but the owner,” one prefers to hold on to it.
Personally, the apotheosis of Tolstoï will strike me as premature until he has given the world finer fiction than we find, for instance, in The Heart of Mid Lothian, or The Newcomes, or Adam Bede, or The Cloister and the Hearth. Yes, I admit it, dear Mr. Howells, I admit it unblushingly, I do believe in Puss-in-Boots and Jack the Giant-Killer.