by S. B. Kelly

Stinkpots of Literature

October 28, 2009 | by S. B. Kelly

AS A RULE, book reviewers and critics do not tend to attract the most flattering epithets: mangy curs, streams of urine, harem eunuchs and species of maggots have all been used as comparisons. We are hacks, Grub Street parasites and pernicious scribblers. In the words of Percy Shelley, reviewers are “a most malignant and stupid race”. It would seem apposite, in the Scottish Review of Books, to take a closer look at the presuppositions and prejudices about reviewing and reviewers.

To begin with, what does the litany of animus reveal, over and above the dislike many authors have for critics? It was Brendan Behan who compared reviewers to eunuchs: the whole quote justifies the simile by adding “they know how it’s done, they see it done every day, and they can’t do it themselves”. It’s an old and odd insinuation. Critics are presumed to be individuals that cannot write a book themselves and are therefore disqualified from judging those that can. By such a logic, only joiners can truly appreciate chairs, only chefs can pass comment on meals and only tailors can tell that a suit is ill-fitting. Behan’s remark enshrines the old Romantic myth that there is an ineffable something about being an author, a magical quality about the act of writing hidden from the mere mortals who can read.

There are many instances in which it would be appropriate for an expert to give their testimony on a work: professional historians review other historians, a musicologist may give a more nuanced interpretation of a book on Beethoven than an amateur. But in the case of literature, this seems more problematic. The credentials of a physicist examining a new work on physics are those of a peer: the imaginary individual in question has no doubt also published their own studies and papers. In the case of literature, it might appear that Behan’s point is justified, and that only a ‘creative’ writer can appreciate a ‘creative’ work. But there persists a confusion of roles. The author’s work is to write, with, one hopes, integrity, imagination and energy. The critic’s role is to read, and the ideal critic is as much an expert reader as the author would like to be an expert writer.

That said, a great many authors do review books; and a great number of them complain that it is a necessary financial supplement to the ungenerous advances of their publishers (which, coincidentally, seems perilously close to the ‘hack’ image often thrown at reviewers). But is it wholly appropriate? At best, an author reviewing one of their contemporaries can observe those things to which they mutually aspire, and might even concede that a rival has wholeheartedly succeeded. At worst, writers might trumpet a mediocre book, safe in the knowledge that their own work-in-progress is superior, and deserves even more trumpeting. This is not mere speculation: one fairly recent Scottish novel received less than lukewarm reviews from all but one of the Scottish broadsheets (myself included), yet was wholeheartedly acclaimed by those Scottish authors who reviewed it for the English papers. There is a suspicion that keeping the bar low is in the reviewing author’s best interests.

The animals to which reviewers are compared are frequently parasitic: blood-sucking insects, scavenging dogs, lazy swine – even the image of urine (from John Osborne: Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs) is an image of detritus, devoid of any use or benefit. These aspersions depict reviewers as somehow unnecessary to the economy of literature: yet the converse is the case. Jacques Derrida memorably described writing as “nothing other than giving to read”, and, in a sense, the reviewer as a public reader completes the contract of “giving to read”. Zen-like, we can wonder if an unread book is a book at all. More practically, we can see that any review – even if it is unappreciative – is a necessary complement, if not a compliment, to the published form. The vitriol again conceals another Romantic myth; namely, that the act of creation is sufficient unto itself, and requires neither elucidation nor critique. The book – rewriting, editing, and proofing aside – springs perfect from the author, and the reader is only an empty vessel into which it can be poured.

In the attacks on reviewers we can discern, obliquely, a buried ideology of reading. The Greek critic Zoilus was famously thrown off a cliff by irate Athenians after he criticised the poems of Homer: the immortal author is counterpoised to the fallible, ephemeral reader. The composer Jean Sibelius said “Pay no attention to what critics say: no statue has ever been put up to a critic” – a typically pompous sentiment, made more so by the fact that it is untrue. In Edinburgh alone, there are statues to Thomas Carlyle, John Wilson and Francis Jeffrey, three of the men who made the Edinburgh of the early decades of the nineteenth century a World City of Criticism.

IT began on October 10th, 1802, when a blue and yellow covered book, published by Archibald Constable, appeared. It was 252 pages long and contained 29 articles on such topics as Robert Southey’s latest poem Thalaba the Destroyer, Professor Playfair’s illustrations of Hutton’s geological theories, Paper Credit, the Crisis in the Sugar Colonies, Mourier’s dissertation on the French Revolution and Mackenzie’s travels in North America. All the articles were anonymous. It was called the Edinburgh Review, but “Edinburgh” denoted its origin, not its scope. The cabal behind it comprised Francis Jeffrey (later Lord Advocate for Scotland), the Rev. Sydney Smith (later a canon of St Paul’s), Henry Brougham (later the Lord Chancellor) and Francis Horner (later MP for St Ives and a member of the Board of Commissioners for the East India Company). At the time, however, all were disaffected young Whigs, chafing at the Tory dominance of both politics and press. Later contributors included Thomas Carlyle, Lord Macaulay and William Hazlitt.

Writing fifty years later, Lord Cockburn reminisced about the launch of the Edinburgh Review: “The effect was electrical. And instead of expiring, as many wished, in their first effort, the force of the shock was increased on each subsequent discharge”. It was an entire and instant change of every thing that the public had been accustomed to in that sort of composition. “The learning of the new Journal, its talent, its spirit, its writing, its independence, were all new; and the surprise was increased by a work so full of public life springing up, suddenly, in a remote part of the kingdom.” Sir Walter Scott, no friend of the Whigs in his personal politics, nonetheless wrote to George Ellis, saying “No genteel family can pretend to be without the Edinburgh Review; because, independent of its politics, it gives the only valuable literary criticisms that can be met with.” Even more enthusiastic, and as a testament to its universal appeal, Mme de Staël was reported to say that “If some being from another world were to come to this and desire to know in what work the highest pitch of human excellence were to be found he ought to be shown the Edinburgh Review.” These commendations were backed up with the hard facts of circulation: 4,000 for the first issues, rising to 10,000 within ten years, and peaking at 14,000 in 1818.

Its success acted as no prophylactic to criticism; and the clearest target was the magazine’s editor, Jeffrey. He was “the Stinkpot of Literature” according to the now-forgotten John Ring; Byron called him “the Archfiend”, Wordsworth referred to him as a “depraved coxcomb” and Thomas Moore attempted to shoot him. Jeffrey’s subsequent reputation has itself faded, and his work is now mentioned in a piecemeal fashion that reflects another paradox of the critic. When Jeffrey praises Crabbe, Leslie Stephen says he was “shrewd”. When he damned Wordsworth, Stephen claims he displayed “gross incompetence”. The same critic can be lauded as a paragon of acumen and vilified as an obstreperous imbecile, depending on the author’s own predilections. We are fools if we carp and sages if we fawn.

Jeffrey’s most notorious comments come from reviews of Wordsworth. The opening line of his review of The Excursion is “This will never do”. The White Doe of Rylstone was even more explicit: “This, we think, has the merit of being the very worst poem we ever saw imprinted in a quarto volume.” It is slightly specious to defend Jeffrey by pointing out that neither The Excursion nor The White Doe of Rylstone is regularly read by anyone other than undergraduates and academics today. Looking, however, at the whole review, and not just its headline grabbing opening, it is a balanced, if unfavourable, piece: Jeffrey is at pains to point out the good parts while uncompromising on what he sees as Wordsworth’s weaknesses. Moreover, his criticisms are based on the idea that Wordsworth does have talent, even genius. The review attacks Wordsworth because he could be a great writer, not because he could never be: it denounces the misapplication, not the absence, of ability. As if to contradict the quote from Robert Hughes, which opens this essay, it is curious to note that one passage from The Excursion, singled out for Jeffrey’s withering irony, reads “List! – I heard / From yon huge breast of rock a solemn bleat!” in the original, and became a solemn voice in the 1845 edition.

The Edinburgh Review, and Jeffrey in particular, was frequently accused of ‘slashing’ authors. Byron, infuriated by a review of his juvenilia, Hours of Idleness, retorted with English Bards and Scotch Reviewers; where he imagined Jeffrey to be the reincarnation of Judge Jeffries, the so-called “Hanging Judge”. Referring to the open sewers of 19th century Edinburgh, and the nightly ritual of emptying chamber-pots, Byron continued “For thee Edina culls her evening sweets, / And showers their odours on thy candid sheets”. The piece was actually written by Brougham, and Byron, like Moore, later became an admirer of Jeffrey. The poem was afterwards published with a retraction.

Any attempt to understand why the Edinburgh Review was such a success, and why it attracted so many temper-tantrums from authors, requires us to remember that the Review was only ever partially literary. Its avocations of abolitionism, Catholic emancipation, reform of elections and resistance to dictatorship (whether from Napoleon or Wellington) brought in a particular constituency. Its up to the minute scientific reports made it a precursor to New Scientist (and, if you doubt Jeffrey’s wonderfully reasonable intolerance, I recommend his debunking of phrenology). But part of its appeal was the slashing. With the Edinburgh Review under Jeffrey, the reader knew where the critic stood. There had been nothing like its confidence or debunking bravado in the history of periodical journalism.

Before the Edinburgh Review, most publications that discussed new titles in literature (or, in any branch of writing) were not politically, but commercially motivated. Publishers or booksellers owned them. Sydney Smith wrote, apropos of the venture, “It is fair enough that a bookseller should guide the public to his own shop. And fair enough that a critic should tell the public they are going astray.” For the most part, the integrity of previous critical journals had been compromised by offering aspiring writers a pittance in order to ‘puff’ the publisher’s own titles. The Edinburgh Review’s independence should not, however, be confused with some notion of impartiality. It was free to say whatsoever it liked; and to promote its own political, aesthetic, economic, scientific and literary prejudices. At times, Jeffrey’s commitment to liberal causes reads with astonishing modernity. The most significant complaint he levelled at Southey’s poem Roderick, Last of the Goths (which he claimed was “the best” and the most powerful of all Mr Southey’s poems” despite its “air of falsetto”) was “the excessive horror and abuse with which the Mahometans are uniformly spoken of on account of their religion alone”. Politics and poetics were inexorably intertwined.

IMITATION IS supposedly the sincerest form of flattery, and it was not long before Tory authors were plotting a rival publication. Sir Walter Scott, exasperated by the “rascally” politics of Jeffrey, approached the Scottish born but London based publisher John Murray, to found a magazine that would check the Edinburgh Review. It was to be called the Quarterly, ostensibly to make it appear less partisan. He recruited Moore, Southey and “others whose reputations Jeffrey had murdered, and who are rising to cry woe upon him, like the ghosts in King Richard”. Scott declined the editorship, and recommended William Gifford, the author of such satires as The Baviad and The Maeviad. Gifford, in turn, through his association with the short-lived satirical journal The Anti-Jacobin (1797-8) brought on board a number of Tory writers, such as George Canning, John Hookham Frere and John Wilson Croker (who coined the word – Conservative – and whom Macaulay hated “more than cold boiled veal”.) Despite having more English contributors, it was modelled on its Scottish rival, conceived of and printed by Scots, and had, as its second editor, John Gibson Lockhart, Scott’s son-in-law.

Scott originally intended a less combative and aggressive journal that would stick to its principles without demolishing its enemies. He therefore made a serious misjudgement in putting forward Gifford, whose caustic intemperance was even more pronounced than Jeffrey’s cool irony. Hazlitt denounced him as “the Government Critic, a character nicely differing from that of a government spy – the invisible link, that connects literature with the police”. Scott had cautioned a more charitable attitude towards Wordsworth: Gifford rewrote Lamb’s favourable review of The Excursion to make it into a pillorying. Nonetheless, the Quarterly thrived. By 1818 it was selling the same number of copies as the Edinburgh Review. It is worth considering this parity of circulation.

The market was able to accommodate both journals: neither drained the readership from the other. It was dialectic in physical form; two clearly opposed political positions providing their slant on the same affairs and publications of the day.

Before turning to Edinburgh’s own Tory counterproposal to the Edinburgh Review, one particular article deserves mention. In January 1817, an anonymous review appeared of a new anonymous publication, Tales of My Landlord, widely rumoured to be “by the Author of Waverley”. The reviewer criticised the blandness of Scott’s heroes, writing “A leading fault in these novels is the total want of interest felt by the reader in the character of the hero. Waverley, Bertram, etc., are all brethren of a family – very amiable and very insipid sort of young men.” It is a complaint with which many other readers of Scott might sympathise. Its curiosity is that Scott himself wrote it. The Quarterly had, since its inception, utilised writers with a satirical bent, and it worth remembering that Scott himself was more ironic, sly and – postmodern – than the shortbread tin caricatures perpetrated to this day by such works as Carl MacDougall’s Writing Scotland. Fun, rather than sardonic disdain, was never high on the agenda of the Edinburgh Review. It was, however, the cornerstone of its other rival, Blackwood’s Magazine.

To while away a wet afternoon in Haworth the Bronté sisters imagined owning their own islands. Emily chose, as her “chief men”, Sir Walter Scott and Lockhart (then principally a contributor to Blackwood’s); Charlotte chose the Duke of Wellington and Christopher North – the pseudonym of John Wilson, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University and editor of Blackwood’s. The publisher William Blackwood had been impressed by the profits that Murray and Constable were reaping from the Quarterly and the Edinburgh, and decided to launch a journal of his own. But in order to break the “two party” system, his was to be “more nimble, more frequent, more familiar”. It could not take on the Edinburgh in terms of gravitas, but it could strike a blow for the Tories through wit instead.

At first, he commissioned two minor writers, Pringle and Cleghorn, to run the magazine. It failed dismally, and by issue 6, the editors announced it would be the final instalment. Undeterred, Blackwood asked John Wilson, known already as a poet for The Isle of Palms and Lockhart to produce a new issue. They enlisted James Hogg, Thomas de Quincey and the Irish satirist William Maginn (whose novel, Whitehall, or a Tale of the Days of George IV should really be republished: it features Coleridge being shot through the head). Wilson was bullish, addressing the reader thus: “For a series of years the Whigs had all the jokes to themselves.” When Mr Francis Jeffrey “has given you his opinion of us, as he will do one of these days, we promise you one thing, in which you run no risk of disappointment – Our opinion of HIM”.

Issue 7 of Maga, as it came to be known, was especially controversial. Lockhart, Hogg and Wilson collaborated on a Biblical parody, which alluded to much literary gossip, called The Chaldee Manuscript. Reading it now, one can barely imagine the outrage it caused. An anonymous pamphlet retort conjured the scene of a family listening to it being read, where the daughter is “confused and perplexed by the perusal of atrocities, she, as yet, had no idea to imagine”. The Chaldee Manuscript was omitted from the reprinting of Issue 7, but it had done its trick: Edinburgh, and beyond, was alight at the new magazine.

Lockhart appeared in The Chaldee Manuscript as “the scorpion, which delighteth to sting the faces of men”, and his review style attests to the aptitude of the description. The poems of Keats, for example, were “drivelling idiocy”. While the Edinburgh Review chastised, Blackwood’s crushed; and, though we may squirm at the vehemence, we might also ponder whether a literary system where facetiousness, outspokenness and testiness were outlawed would be preferable. Lockhart also wrote a review of a non-existent book, a survey of the characters and salons of Edinburgh. So many people tried to purchase a copy, he was forced to write it. The result, Peter’s Letters to His Kinsfolk, is the greatest panorama of the period. In it, Lockhart pays tribute to Jeffrey’s “thorough scorn of mystification”, and the “play of wit, fancy, sarcasm, persiflage” that makes him “one of the most fascinating of all possible companions”. Jeffrey then challenges everyone to a leaping competition. Lockhart never could quite restrain himself from a little dig, and Lord Cockburn’s worthy, though dull, biography of Jeffrey has some choice things to say about that invention.

WHAT CAN we learn today from the glory days of the Edinburgh, the Quarterly and Blackwood’s? Walter Bagehot was surely correct when he said Jeffrey “invented the trade of editorship”. The haphazard miscellanies of the previous century were overtaken by journals of firm convictions, ready to deploy every register from sarcasm to panegyric on every topic from aesthetics to zoology. There was nothing mealy-mouthed, or prevaricating about the earliest reviewers in Edinburgh; nor, contrary to popular belief, were they merely a gang of hoodlums intent on rubbishing everything that came across their desks: Austen, Keats and Byron all received their first encouragements, if some detractions, in their pages. The best is always a rare commodity, and these critics realised that. Given the hyperbole of publishers’ press releases and the booksellers’ duplicitous “year’s best” tables (for which read best-selling), the necessity for a diverse group of independent, un-gullible and articulate book critics seems more relevant than ever.

Reading the various contributions, I am struck continually by the impassioned nature of the reviews. The idea that a critic should – or, for that matter, could – be dispassionate is merely a figment of the aggrieved. It is better to be open about the ideologies that inform one’s judgement, rather than retreating behind a flimsy veil of pretended objectivity. Did they, unlike Hughes’s brothel piano player, change the culture they lived in? Politically, the answer is unreservedly ‘yes’ in the case of the Edinburgh: the Reform Act of 1832 came after thirty years of lobbying in its pages, and Catholic emancipation and the abolitions of the slave trade had been similar ‘crusades’ for the Edinburgh Review. In terms of literature, they may not have succeeded in making Wordsworth write like Cowper, but they did a far greater service: they created a debate around the works of literature. Nowadays, publishers will frequently say that bad reviews do no damage at all to a work’s reputation, in contrast to the damage done by no reviews. Or, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, it is better to be mugged than starve. If we truly are a “City of Literature”, the proof will be in the level of debate rather than an increase in the sales of bookshelves. To achieve that will require a return to the spirit and the esprit, the vigour and the rigour, that the early nineteenth century so consummately possessed.

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