The Author as Critic


UNDER cover of the blessed anonymity of the Contributor’s Club, I hope to have space to say something which touches me nearly. I have that to say which cannot be signed. Yet I distinctly want to say it.

I spent certain years of my youth in an academic post where it was not only my privilege, but my duty, to sit in the seat of the scornful. It was my business, that is, to recommend to the young of my own sex such authors and works as seemed, to my slightly greater experience of literature, worth while. I was paid a living wage for being a highbrow. And I was a highbrow: so completely one that I could with impunity confess to the most frivolous undergraduate my keen delight in a good detective story. It was perfectly well known that I took an equally keen delight in seventeenth-century prose.

Now the miles are many between me and Arcadia. I no longer occupy that academic post. I am no longer paid for being a highbrow. It is not of the slightest official importance what I think, either of Hooker or of Maurice Leblanc. Of course, I did not know, when I was there, that it was Arcadia. Arcadia is always a place that you have left. Let me explain why I now know that, in truth, it was.

While I was being a critic at so many hours a day, I could say what I thought. In fact, the more literature one scorned, the better highbrow one was. Oh, Academe is Arcadia! I was free to admit that I did not consider Thomas Hardy absolutely first-rate, because we all knew what ‘first-rate’ meant. It meant first-rate, from the point of view, as nearly as we could get it, of Time itself. I might point out to a class the value of De Quincey’s prose, and at the same time condemn some of his more obvious artificialities. I could say that Thackeray was a snob

— and prove it. I could give it as my opinion that Mr. Chesterton was usually very clever, sometimes very silly, often very illogical. I was at perfect liberty to denounce the literary product of the day — for a highbrow is not supposed to be very enthusiastic about his contemporaries. And certainly no one expected me to like the things in the magazines. Yes, it was Arcadia.

Now I had naïvely supposed that, imperfect though one’s own perceptions and judgments may be, one’s right to standards as rigid as one can make them was unassailable. Such is not, I find, the case.

A few years ago, I began to ‘write’ — worse, to publish. I have, since I began, published quite a bit of stuff of my own. It did not occur to me, when I blithely began, that, because my own work was being printed, I must straightway give up the privilege of saying what I honestly felt about other people’s work. Why, because I write plays myself, — I do not write plays,

— should it be forbidden me to say that I do not personally enjoy seeing the plays of Mr. Bernard Shaw? Why, because I write verse myself, — I do not write verse, — is it unpardonable of me to say that I do not care for the irregular margins of Miss Amy Lowell? Yet so it is. The moment one ‘writes’ one’s self, one must not presume to criticize any one else who writes. Not so much, either, because of manners, as because an author is not supposed to utter a word about any work of art save one that he can obviously better himself. That is: unless my own novels are as good as Paul Bourget’s, I may not say that Paul Bourget is second-rate — even though, in the same breath, I make myself clear by saying that Balzac is first-rate. It may never have occurred to me that my own novels were anything like so good as Paul Bourget’s; but every one will say that I think they are better. Every one will at once leap to compare my work with his, to the great detriment of mine. In other words, you must give up your standards, if you are going to write anything yourself — or else keep the silence of the grave about them.

I have had bitter experience. I know whereof I speak. Because I once — in answer to earnest solicitation — ventured to express my opinion about a certain author (my opinion appeared in print) I was deluged with attack. Editorials, letters to the newspapers, anonymous letters addressed to me personally. The burden of them all was: did I think that my insignificant product could be matched with the work of that great man? My own insignificant product had never occurred to me in that connection. I judged him, as I supposed any enlightened person did, from what I knew about the achievements of the great masters in his genre. In a class-room, it would have been a simple duty to attack him, if discussion of him had come up. But because I ‘write,’ I have lost all claim to my fastidiousness.

Yet we all listen to critics, and some of us take some of them seriously. And very few of our most famous critics do creative work of their own. There is no reason to suppose that, if they took to novelor verseor play-writing, they would be any better at it than SainteBeuve, let us say, or Jules Lemaître, at their ‘creative’ work. Matthew Arnold wrote good poetry; but he did not write so good poetry as Shelley or Byron or Wordsworth, all of whom he freely criticized. Ought he and these other gentlemen to have held their critical tongues forever because they wrote, themselves, second-rate fiction and poetry and plays? No sane person really thinks so; for any sane person knows that the greatest critical acuteness does not necessarily involve the least creative ability — that the two things are quite separate. We cannot silence all our critics because we suspect that they could not write as good novels, say, as the novelists they criticize.

Now, it is very easy to say that each had better stick to his own métier — let the critic criticize and the author write. As a rule, that would not be such a bad thing—though we should lose if we applied it, retrospectively, to Dante, for example, or Ben Jonson. But in just one way the rule would be certain to work perniciously. For whether or not the possession of a rigid literary standard tremendously improves the creative work of an author, it is certain that the lack of literary standards is, in the end, bad for our authors. The public seems to take it as an assertion of arrogance that a poet or a novelist should have a poor opinion of the product of any other poet or novelist. In fact, if X says of Y that he is not so great as Shakespeare, people leap to the conclusion that X considers himself as great as Shakespeare, and proceed to sit on him. And unless X is Mr. Bernard Shaw, they are probably mistaken in their conclusion.

Nothing makes more for humility than to keep the great works constantly in one’s mind; just as nothing makes more for conscientious work on one s own part. That fact is assumed in Arcadia-Academe; that is why ArcadiaAcademe is such bad preparation for the market-place. In Arcadia we assumed —over-optimistically, no doubt — that all writing folk were doing their best — perfectly conscious, meanwhile, that there were infinite grades of goodness in their heterogeneous achievement. And certainly it never occurred to any of us that it could ever conceivably be our duty, if we ourselves came to ‘write,’ to criticize our fellow toilers any less rigidly than we did ourselves. It would not, perhaps, be the best manners for a novelist to spend all his leisure time in pouring insults on the heads of other novelists, even on the assumption that he deserved his own insults equally with them. But the present public attitude amounts to muzzling.

Surely it is not right that a man who is working hard at writing should be expected to abandon forever ail his critical sense about writing in general. For it is not merely uttering the criticism that people object to: they object to its being mentally made. And I feel sure that it would be better for us all if we had things out, on the basis of common intellectual standards, in the Arcadian — the academic — spirit. It is inconceivable to me that, if any one wrote an essay on my work (I certainly do not expect that any one ever will), he should be rigid with me only in case he had never himself written my kind of thing, but should lay himself out in meaningless and dishonest flattery, if he had happened to print a few pages, himself, in the genre that I affect.

It is strange that an editor ever asks an author to write him a literary essay. But it is one of the seven wonders of the world that an author ever does it.