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?