Monday, January 9, 2017

The two sides of criticism

Whenever any one is called upon to criticise any of the subjects which belong to the province of journalism, he may approach it from one of two sides. He may either look to its faults or to its merits. Theoretically, the able critic does both, and dispenses praise and blame with an even hand. But practically this is not so; and until it is understood why it is not so, journalism can never be rightly appreciated. The critic either approaches his subject moved to sympathy with it, or disposed to attack it; and the exigencies of his calling preclude his perfect impartiality. The limited space at his disposal forces him to work out one prominent point, and the only choice he has is what that point shall go. He has to as himself what is the predominating impression which he wishes to produce. He may think a book absurd, but yet clever and original. Is he to produce the impression that the book is absurd, or that it is original? He must make up his mind that he may give the one or the other as the main impression, but not both. One will be the qualification—the other will be the substance. He is sure to do some sort of wrong, for his criticism, like revenge, is but a “wild justice," and must in some degree injure either the author or the public. It must either blame too much or praise too much, and the critic settles on which side the injustice shall be.

Newspaper criticism would be much better appreciated if it were clearly understood that this imperfection is inherent in it, and also that the critic is not solely guided in his choice of the bias he will give his article by the merits or demerits of the book or other subject of criticism. There is first of all, as a source of disturbing action, the general habit of the critic's mind. Most minds that have the critical faculty at all strongly, are either so constituted that they feel keenly touched, irritated and aggrieved by mistakes, errors, and paradoxes; or they are predisposed to enjoy, to enter into, and to sympathize with the substance of what they find good, and to cast the errors into the background. Both these habits of mind are valuable and necessary, and each is the complement to the other. The criticism resulting from each is true, though it is one-sided; and as the organs of criticism are many and independent, the different sides of truth are, on the whole, fairly represented. Recent literature has supplied us with two remarkable instances in the criticisms passed on the works of Mr. Froude and Mr. Buckle. Some critics were startled at Mr. Froude's versions of historical fact, and disagreed with his canons of historical inquiry; but their main feeling in reading his volumes was that they were reading the thoughts of a man gifted with an original mind, with poetry of feeling and language, with a spirit generous, large, and tolerant. Other critics were revolted and scandalized by what they thought Mr. Froude’s mistakes, inaccuracies, assumptions, and perversions. Which set of critics was right? Would not an impartial public say, “Neither, and both"? Would it not own that on the one hand it was well that originality and poetry should awaken sympathy, and on the other, that historical accuracy should be most rigidly insisted on? So, too, with Mr. Buckle. Some critics were impressed with the feeling that hero was a man who had thought for himself, who had accumulated a wonderful mass of knowledge, who conveyed the notion of the scientific aspect of things, just as a great classic conveys the notion of the scholarly aspect of things, and who even in his mistakes and paradoxes was eminently suggestive. Others took, quite naturally, the other side. Mr. Buckle was wrong in his facts, ostentatious in his display of knowledge, illogical in his reasoning, random, purposeless, and vague in the application of what he thought science to what he thought history. The one set of critics did not convince the other. They mostly allowed that up to a certain point the others were right; only they each thought that their own opinion was the one principally worth establishing.

Critics are also often guided in their choice between the two sides of criticism by their views of public utility. They think that a book belongs to a class which wants writing up or writing down. Let us, for instance, suppose that a book of travels comes before a critic who thinks that the spirit of adventure deserves every encouragement, and that the capacity to bear long-continued physical exertion is one of the finest traits of moral character. He sees everything the traveller did en beau. He pats him on the back for going over this pass, for swimming over that river, for hanging on to blocks of ice, and for shooting thousands of animals, wild and tame. If the traveller is stupid, no one wants cleverness in the deserts of Africa or the jungles of Asia. If he threw himself and his companions into endless unnecessary danger, it showed a brave heart and excellent muscles. Or again, the critic may wish to attack the class to which the book belongs. A religious novel, perhaps, offends him—not because it is more irreverent, bitter, or maudlin than its rivals, but because it is a religious novel. He dislikes the whole theory of religious fiction. The particular tale is sure to afford him plenty of materials to gratify his wish of saying something severe. A rubrical heroine, or a text-quoting hero, falls an easy victim to a slashing pen. The novel is shown up; its foolish little plot is careful analysed, and its nice little characters are elaborately damned. Probably it in some way deserves its fate; and yet, as probably, its authoress is a good, refined, tender-hearted woman, and has succeeded better than many who venture into the same walk of literature.

Then, again, the journal itself in which the criticism appears has often its own especial character. The traditions of its past history, concord in the dispositions of the contributors, or the circumstances under which it arose, may make it inclined as a whole to attack or to sympathize. As there are men in whom a disposition to the one rather than to the other side of criticism makes itself immediately manifest, so there are publications which prefer to be aggressive, and others which prefer to be goodnatured.  We can easily fancy a journal existing which shall devote itself to picking holes, to showing up delinquencies, to laughing men out of the political or the social arena. We can fancy another which shall see what people mean to say, not how they say it—which shall wink at follies, and put a clean front on goodness in difficulties and rags. Each of these journals would fill a useful place. The first would have a tendency to become cynical and petulant—the second would incline to be namby-pamb and dull; but each would correct and balance the other. An although the existence of any journals with so marked a character may be fictitious, yet there are approximations to such extremes of difference in the literary world, and the ultimate result of criticism on all sides is generally truer, fuller, and fairer than any one piece of criticism. This restoration of the balance by the concurrence of contrary and divergent opinions is a great justification and solace to the individual critic. He may often feel twinges of conscience when he has pronounced a judgment which he knows to be harsh, and if he is possessed of real firmness and width of view, he will feel equally uneasy if he has been too laudatory. But he may comfort himself with the thought that his opinion will not stand alone, and that if he throws too much oil into the salad, there is sure to be some one else who will throw too much vinegar.

Lastly, critics are moved to criticise books harshly or favuorably by feelings of personal enmity or friendship towards the author. In the lower levels of criticism, both these feelings operate powerfully, but in the higher levels enmity seldom tempts a critic to do more than see in their blackest colours mistakes which he honestly detects. Friendship, however, is a cause of disturbance in the critical judgment of which it is impossible to get rid. An honest man will not, indeed, praise where there is nothing favourable to be said, but he will exalt, magnify, and give prominence to all that is excellent. The critical friend sees in the book so much more than the outside public can see. He is haunted by a voice that he loves, and impressed with thoughts that are familiar. The humour seems to him so doubly humorous when he thinks of the sly fun that has so often made him laugh. The style is so fresh when he remembers the cheery talk to which he has so often listened. The tone is so manly when it is illustrated by the character of one whom he knows to be good and generous. This must be so. Critics are but men, and friendship is human; and all that we can reasonably demand is that the critic shall not write about the book with a warmth and extravagance which he would know to be absurd if he were speaking of it. Friendship is perhaps the most commendable of the causes that bias critical judgment. The list of these causes might easily be extended, but those we have mentioned are, we believe, the chief ones. The great thing is, that the criticised and the public generally should understand that, on the one hand, journalistic criticism rarely deals perfect justice; and that on the other, one-sided criticism may be equally justifiable, and equally suggestive of a true conclusion, whether it is condemnatory or sympathetic.

Saturday Review, December 18, 1858.

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