The Critic in Novels: Cultured or Caustic?

Critics have a bad rap.  We picture them as cruel little men (somehow not women) who savage the books and movies we love.  “I never agree with the critics,” my mother used to say.  I seldom do myself, but I read reviews and discover good books by reading between the lines.  Personally, I have never known a critic.  I have known book reviewers, who are a milder bunch. But suddenly, last month, critics kept cropping up as minor characters in the twentieth-century novels I was reading.

In general, they were an unpleasant bunch.  I chortled over a scene in Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence, set at a literary society meeting.   Jane, a middle-aged minister’s wife and writer of a collection of essays, attends the meeting to “absent herself from parish duties.”  Her old college friend, Barbara Bird, a novelist, chats about the good reviews of her latest novel.  She is pleased by the turn-out for the meeting.

“Better gathering than usual,” said Miss Bird; “quite a few critics.”

“Such mild-looking men,” said Jane, seeing one of them taking his seat near the front.  “Perhaps they compensate themselves for their gentle appearance by dipping their pens in vitriol.”

Later, Jane has an accidental encounter with a critic while conversing with Miss Bird.   “Oh, yes,’ agreed Jane enthusiastically, stepping backwards into a critic and causing him to upset his coffee over himself.”

Pym getting back at the critics?  But did Pym ever receive a bad reviews?

 

Critics are useful to writers, as we see in Some Do Not…, the first volume in Ford Madox Ford’s stunning tetralogy, Parade’s End.  Mrs. Wannop, a brilliant novelist and freelance writer, arrives unannounced at a brunch and immediately corners a critic.    “…Mrs. Wannop was a woman of business. If she heard of a reviewer within driving distance she called on him with eggs as a present.”  Ford is very comical about her, but, believe me, she needs the press, because she and her suffragette daughter are almost starving.

I am a great fan of Pamela Hansford Johnson, and recently reread the second in her Dorothy Merlin trilogy,  Night and Silence, Who Is Here?  Dorothy’s friend Matthew, an aristocratic playboy, is lionized by an American college after Dorothy bullies him into writing articles about her. “Since he mildly liked her work, he saw no reason why not to; and as her total oeuvre consisted of twenty shortish poems and four slim verse-dramas, the labor was not demanding. He had all the luck of those who find themselves, by accident, first in the field. He was immediately accepted as the world authority on Dorothy Merlin, because he was literally the only one.”

In A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell’s 12-novel masterpiece, the critics are difficult people, sometimes not quite of the writer/narrator Nick’s class.  He went to Oxford with Mark Members, a savvy social-climbing poet and critic.  In the fifth novel in the series, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, we meet Maclintick, a bad-tempered music critic. He is not entirely unsympathetic, but comes to a bad end.  Nick describes him as follows:

…Maclintick belonged to the solidly built musical type, a physical heaviness already threatening obesity in early middle age.  Broad-shouldered, yet somehow narrowing toward his lower extremities, his frontal elevation gave the impression of a large rectangular kite about to float away into the sky on the fumes of Irish whiskey, which, even above the endemic odors of the Mortimer and the superimposed insistence of Mr. Deacon’s eucalyptus, freely emanated from the quarter where he sat.  Maclintick’s calculatedly humdrum appearance seemed aimed at concealing bohemian affiliations.  The minute circular lenses of his gold-rimmed spectacles, set across the nose of a pug dog, made one think of caricatures of Thackeray or President Thiers, imposing on him the air of a bad-tempered doctor.

What is the source of these satiric portrayals of critics?  Why do we recognize them?  Perhaps I first read about a critic  in one of the novels of Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point, or a satire by Evelyn Waugh?

I do remember a critic in Sebastian Faulk’s relatively recent novel, A Week In December, published in  2009.  I loved the large ensemble cast, and wrote in my book journal:

My favorite character is the terrible but funny Tranter, a book reviewer who lives to eviscerate novelists. He seems to be right out of the pages of Anthony Powell….   He lives off a number of freelance review assignments, combined with gigs running an upscale women’s book group and editing teachers’ comments on reports at a fancy private (or public, as they say in England) school.  Reading the newspaper, he focuses on the book review pages.

So do you know of any critics in novels? Who are your favorites? And why do they have such a bad reputation?

11 thoughts on “The Critic in Novels: Cultured or Caustic?

  1. There’s a funny scene in Dick Francis’s Longshot in which the hero, who is an aspiring thriller writer, saves the life of the nephew of a woman who turns out to be an acclaimed writer of literary fiction and infamous producer of hatchet jobs on other authors’ works. Out of gratitude she promises to go easy on his book when it comes out.

    More seriously, in The Master and Margarita, the critic Latunsky writes a negative review of the Master’s book, which causes him to burn the manuscript and end up in a psychiatric ward. When she makes her deal with Satan and becomes a witch, the first thing Margarita does is trash Latunsky’s apartment.

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    • I love Dick Francis and may well have read this one. I should have a Francis revival. Oh, I had forgotten The Master and Margarita. That”s the best suggestion.

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  2. Have you read ‘The Master and Margarita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov? Bulgakov was savaged by the Soviet critics (because his work was so very un-Soviet), so he had a little bit of… fun with the critics in his aforementioned magnum opus. 😉

    P.S. I can’t remember if you speak Russian or not, but if you don’t, the Burgin and O’Connor translation is the best and most reliable English version out there, in my opinion.

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    • The Master and Margarita is fascinating, and I must have been too distracted by the cat to remember the critics. No Russian, and God only knows what translation I read, but it did the job.

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      • I’m so glad you read it! So many Westerners haven’t even heard of it.

        Anyway, getting back to critics, I don’t know if you remember Margarita’s maid Natasha. Natasha flies around on another character, who is turned into a pig, and she stops to wreak havoc in the apartments of some literary critics (who are based on real people Bulgakov disliked). And I’m laughing so hard right now because this paragraph is probably one of the weirdest comments I’ve ever typed!

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  3. I remember Maclintick. This is another interesting blog which looks at some novels from a particular and unusual angle. I can’t remember critics from novels, but I do remember them from poems. Clive James has some seething acid satires on critics and writers at the BBC and other elite British circles. When you’ve worked so hard on your book and the critic “misses the point entirely” or has no heart and picks on some small thing after all you did that was good, the critic seems positively malicious. And then you fear the next review you’ll read.

    George Eliot and Maria Edgeworth are two writers who’d flee the country after a book came out. G.H. Lewes kept the newspaper from Eliot. Some writers have nervous breakdowns after publishing a book — regularly.

    OTOH, as a person who writes reviews, from my point of view it seems a thankless sometimes, damned if you do really read and evaluate, laughed at even if you made a great effort to read and examine and try to convey the quality of the book. I much prefer books I like to review than those I don’t. In fact for my blogs I tend to stay with what I like. Sometimes I find myself given an assignment of a book I don’t like or about a subject whom I don’t like or the writer is someone important in his or her small world, and it becomes tough to write.

    I’ve found so called big or famous people have gotten indignant at me on the grounds I’m only or was only an adjunct lecturer. Who do you think you are pronouncing on me. Also suddenly poison-pen or accusatory letters asking me why I always pick on the person, why I write bad reviews of her book, when once or twice I’ve mentioned a book by her I thought had faults (and named them) but also praised her books. Why did she do that? in order to stop me, to intimidate me from writing again. That happened recently once again. It’s happened to me three times now.

    So, few people feel for the critics, says she 🙂 It’s underpaid, doesn’t count for tenure. But is is fun to review books. You dialogue with them. But much more fun when it’s a good book and you can honestly praise strongly.

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    • Yeah, ellenandjim,it’s so true! As an author who also blogs and reviews, I really feel for both sides of the issue. I get really pissed off, it’s true, when people write critical reviews of my books, especially when they obviously didn’t “get it” and wrote what I considered to be a thoughtless review. The torture is magnified by the fact that I teach language and literature and it really annoys me to read what I consider to be stupid or poorly written reviews in general! These days I try not to read reviews of my own books unless they’re 5 stars, and even then I only skim them. Some people would say that’s a cop-out but I believe you have to do whatever works for you.

      On the other hand, as a book reviewer myself I’ve also had to deal with attacks and outrage from authors and been in various weird situations on that side of the fence too. I currently restrict myself to only reviewing books I like or at least can say positive things about, if for example it’s a genre I don’t normally read but I believe it’s been well done in this particular book. I realize that’s kind of a disservice in that it can be helpful to readers to hear that a book is NOT good, but as an author I certainly don’t want to get caught in some kind of a flame war, or to fall into the temptation of becoming a purveyor of snark and bad karma. It’s so easy to criticize other people’s work and so hard to make your own better!

      I tried to get my reviewing activities “count” as part of my official academic work, something that caused meltdowns, palpitations, accusations of malingering and frivolity, etc. etc. My argument that I was engaging in public academic discourse and writing something that the general public actually read only made things worse. HOWEVER, many institutions are slowly, grudgingly, and suspiciously starting to see the value of blogging, reviewing, and similar sorts of activities, so I think we academics should continue to engage in them and at some point our efforts will be properly valued!

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