Sunday, December 20, 2015

`A Critic Has No Business Being Nice'

As it happens, Eric Ormsby and W.H. Auden are contiguous shelfmates in my library, and there is some logic to their neighborliness. Both crossed the Atlantic for extended stays. Both write verse that delights multiple senses. And both poets produce first-class prose, turning what might have remained journeyman journalism into sparkling, thoughtful essays and reviews that can be read long after their putative subjects are forgotten. Neither, bless ’em, is theory-minded or academic. 

In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Ormsby earns almost a full page for his review of the concluding volumes, the fifth and sixth, of Auden’s collected prose. The review is wittily headlined “The Autobiography of W.H. Auden.” Ormsby praises the poet’s “. . . rigorous aspect as a critic, frequently on display here alongside his unfailing affability. Fun was important to Auden; even in his serious essays it is never far beneath the surface.” Precisely the same words apply to Ormsby, who is unfailingly affable without sacrificing critical acumen. In the title essay of Fine Incisions: Essays in Poetry and Place (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2011), devoted to “reflections on reviewing,” Ormsby writes: 

“But a critic has no business being nice. A critic should be just, just to his or her own convictions and to the book under review. This isn’t the same as being `impartial’, a specious ideal: The best critics, the critics we tend to trust, are at once principled and opinionated.” 

When reading Auden’s prose, Ormsby says, “we get the sense—rare enough in literary discourse—that we are listening to a thoroughly honest voice.” I hadn’t thought of that before. Auden shares this quality with another writer of his generation, George Orwell.  So much criticism and reviewing is little more than posturing, kissing one writer’s ass or spanking another’s. It’s a sort of code: I like this guy, so I’m one of the enlightened, and so you should like me. Or: This guy is terrible, and recognizing his terribleness places us among the elite. Auden and Ormsby take books and language, though not themselves, seriously, which frees them up to enjoy the task at hand and share their pleasure with readers. By nature, both are celebrators, not castigators. Neither is on a crusade and neither is a closet sadist or bully. Ormsby notes “the genial tone of [Auden’s] prose,” and, after quoting a rare negative review adds that “geniality keeps breaking in.” Being genial is not the same as being “nice.” 

In “Reading,” one-half of the prologue to The Dyer’s Hand (Random House, 1962), Auden distills what might stand as his critical credo and Ormsby’s: “Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible.” And in “Fine Incisions,” Ormsby distills his credo and Auden’s: “But a reviewer who holds another’s book in his hands, a book which may have cost the writer considerable care and toil, has a duty to make a case for or against that book in a way which has some hope of wider validity. Personal opinion is no substitute for persuasion.”

1 comment:

Cal Gough said...

Ah, your gratifying mention of THE DYER'S HAND. One of those books read while young, then misplaced, then assiduously looked for, re-purchased, and now sitting next to my computer because it (along with a few other books) simply must be read for a third time and gleaned for my burgeoning "Commonplace Book." And I'm glad to learn from your blogpost that there's a collection of all of Auden's prose, which (with a few exceptions) I greatly prefer to his poetry. At any rate, it's nice to know that others are aware of my beloved DYER'S HAND.