A girl reading a newspaper, by Georgios Jakobides.
Part 1 of 2
To the ordinary man of to-day ‘Critic’ seems to mean one who delivers judgment in print.
It is not so much that the ordinary man does not rely on his own judgment as that he has excessive reverence for the printed verdict of the professional. He will argue fiercely with the man next to him in the football ground but will change his mind about the quality of a broadcast item after reading in his morning paper what the Radio Critic says. He takes the Dramatic Critic’s word when deciding what play to see and makes his book-lists from the selection of compliments bestowed by critics and artfully displayed by advertisers.
Many who take their reading seriously smile with superiority at this respect for printed opinion, but fail to see how little they themselves rely on their own opinions. Success in public examinations has often been the reward of those who have neither convictions nor courage but who can reproduce the judgments of others. Even when discussing books in friendly talk they frequently parrot the findings of critics. This weakness on the part of the reader tends to make the reviewers of our newspapers and journals proud of their following and influence, arrogant towards readers and condescending towards authors.
In The English Critic, schoolmaster Norman Clay argued that the ordinary person is too ready to doubt his own judgment when presented with expert opinion in literary reviews. This has had a very unwholesome effect on journalists, encouraging them to despise their readers and to believe that critics are more important than the authors whose works they are reviewing. (59 / 60 words)
Emma Zorn, the artist’s wife, reading a newspaper.
Many disreputable features of present-day reviewing would disappear if the common reader was more self-reliant. But he must be able to rely on something more solid than whim or fancy: he needs some knowledge of critical principles as a basis for judging and developing his own power of judgment. The more he is familiar with the great critics of the past, the less he will think of the little ones of to-day. Indeed, unless he has that familiarity, he cannot fully understand or benefit from the great critics of to-day. For when they discuss seemingly modern problems (which have in fact so often been topics for critics of previous centuries) they are building on the foundations made by their predecessors. Is verse the right medium for drama? When is a happy ending wrong? Why is ‘escape-literature’ popular? — Jonson, Dryden, Steele gave their opinions years ago: it is foolish to discard or ignore what they said, though we may flatter ourselves that we can bring it up to date. As Chesterton says, “Real development is not leaving things behind, as on a road, but drawing life from them, as from a root.”*
* From The Victorian Age in Literature by G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936). Chesterton goes on: “Even when we improve we never progress. For progress, the metaphor from the road, implies a man leaving his home behind him: but improvement means a man exalting the towers or extending the gardens of his home.”
The reading public can and should challenge the authority of the expert, said Clay, but must do so from a position of strength. Our best course is to revisit the great literary critics of the past, study their judgments and refine our taste. In this way, we will learn to weigh and even appreciate modern criticism all the better. (59 / 60 words)