EARLIER this year Creative Scotland published a report on the state of literature in Scotland. Titled Literature and Publishing Sector Review, it included a raft of recommendations. Of particular interest to the Scottish Review of Books was the section dealing with reviewing and criticism where it was asserted ‘critical review remains fundamentally important’. That being the case, it was recommended ‘that more literary reviews and criticism should be supported…and that the literature community should more emphatically deliver that message to traditional print media’.
It is painfully apparent that ‘traditional’ sources of reviewing – newspapers, journals and, to no less a degree, radio and television – have contracted in recent years. It would appear that they have been usurped to a certain extent by what is described in the CS document as ‘the on-going proliferation of citizen journalism and digital recommendation sites’. To bemoan this is to assume the guise of the Luddite. The internet has brought many benefits but it has also ushered in an ethos that has changed the critical climate, a feature of which is that anyone who feels inclined to comment can do so and acquire an audience of fawning ‘followers’. That is all very well and good but it is increasingly difficult to separate considered, intelligent, informed criticism from the cheerleading of a crowd of enthusiastic amateurs.
We must leave it to future scholars to assess the impact this may have on wider society. To be a critic now, however, is not a profession many people seem eager to embrace. Nor is criticism seen as legitimate or healthy or even useful. Children, for example, are brought up to believe that failure is an alien, undesirable concept. Recently, Gordon Strachan, the Scotland football coach, remarked with understandable astonishment that when children are on the losing side of a game they are often not told the score lest it upset them. Much the same, it seems, pertains in literature, where it has never been easier to have your back slapped and your banalities hymned. Meanwhile prizes proliferate irrespective of the fact that their recipients are undeserving for, as it says in the Literature and Publishing Sector Review, these are ‘considered an effective mechanism to connect writers, publications, retailers, press and media with the public’.
Some blame for this situation must lie with the education system and in particular those universities which pride themselves on teaching literature and creative writing.
We have long been sceptical of the benefits of the latter and have advocated that the money students spend on them would be better invested in buying books and the time it takes to read them. They might even consider reading books of criticism which is an art many talented writers have facetiously derided while practising it themselves.
Great critics are like great poets and great novelists; they help us see things differently and more clearly. Considering VS Pritchett – who reads him nowadays, who knows of him? – Gore Vidal, another great critic, wrote: ‘At work on a text, Pritchett is rather like one of those amorphic sea-creatures who float from bright complicated shell to shell. Once at home within the shell, he is able to describe for us in precise detail the secret of the shell’s interior; and he is able to show us, from the maker’s own angle, the world the maker saw.’ As an articulation of what the best criticism can achieve this could hardly be bettered. It involves imagination, attention to detail, deep knowledge, wide reading, insatiable curiosity and an ability to discern why one piece of writing is of higher standing than another. Then there is the not insignificant matter of laying out one’s argument in prose that is lucid, insightful, stylish and captivating. It is not enough simply to say what is good or bad about a book, it must be argued convincingly. In that respect criticism is at the heart of virtually all human activity.
Our book shelves are testimony to this unfêted activity. Here, sitting side by side, are the likes of Harold Bloom and John Dover Wilson, Virginia Woolf, F.R. Leavis, Frank Kermode, Henry James and countless others. Not so long ago we found mouldering in a second-hand bookshop a collection of literary essays by the Edinburgh scholar David Daiches. In it, there is not to be found any notion of what are today routinely labelled ‘issues’, without which contemporary readers have difficulty in talking about books. In common with other critics of his era – the latter half of the twentieth century – Daiches was primarily concerned with meaning. He was keen, too, to draw a distinction between scholarship, which contextualizes work, and criticism, which assesses its worth. Those of us who believe that literature is fundamental to our existence must be interested in both. Above all, though, we would like to think that the better the critics we are the better readers we are likely to be.