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Question More Ordinary people put too much faith in the judgment of experts, which is bad for us and bad for the experts.

In two parts

King George VI 1936-1952
Music: Malcolm Arnold

By Georgios Jakobides (1853-1932), via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. Source

A girl reading a newspaper, by Georgios Jakobides.

About this picture …

‘Girl reading’ by Georgios Jakobides (1853-1932), a Greek artist who in 1925 was appointed Director of the Athens School of Fine Arts after spending seventeen years in Munich, Germany. Authors, like artists, have a complex relationship with critics, but W. Somerset Maugham felt that in general, English authors dealt with it more calmly than authors on the Continent. “I think English authors are self-centred” he wrote. “They are, perhaps, as vain as any others, but their vanity is satisfied by the appreciation of a private circle. They are not inordinately affected by adverse criticism, and with one or two exceptions do not go out of their way to ingratiate themselves with the reviewers. They live and let live.”

Question More

Part 1 of 2

In The English Critic (1939), NL Clay urged his readers not to let themselves be daunted by expert authority, slick advertising or mesmerising jargon. Every opinion deserves to be weighed and tested; and failing to subject the opinion of experts and professionals to scrutiny not only leaves the ordinary man a slave to fads and fashions, it coarsens the experts and professionals too.

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.

Jump to Part 2


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)

Part Two

By Anders Zorn (1860-1920), via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. Source

Emma Zorn, the artist’s wife, reading a newspaper.

About this picture …

Emma Zorn, the artist’s wife, reading’, by Anders Zorn (1860-1920). In the accompanying passage, NL Clay urges readers not to let the authoritative tone of newspaper critics daunt them into accepting them as infallible judges of good taste in literature. Doing so not only harms the ordinary man by making him doubt his own judgment, it harms journalists by making them despise those who follow after them in so sheeplike a manner. It is a perilous course to pursue: see Losing Steam, in which JS Mill argued that discouraging public debate ultimately undermines the economy.

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.”*

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* 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)


From The English Critic: from Chaucer to Auden (1939) by N. L. Clay (1905-1991).

Suggested Music

English Dances Set 2

No. 1: Allegro non troppo

Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006)

Performed by the Queensland Philharmonic with Andrew Penny.

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How To Use This Passage

You can use this passage to help improve your command of English.

IRead it aloud, twice or more. IISummarise it in one sentence of up to 30 words. IIISummarise it in one paragraph of 40-80 words. IVMake notes on the passage, and reconstruct the original from them later on. VJot down any unfamiliar words, and make your own sentences with them later. VIMake a note of any words that surprise or impress you, and ask yourself what meaning they add to the words you would have expected to see. VIITurn any old-fashioned English into modern English. VIIITurn prose into verse, and verse into prose. IXAsk yourself what the author is trying to get you to feel or think. XHow would an artist or a photographer capture the scene? XIHow would a movie director shoot it, or a composer write incidental music for it?

For these and more ideas, see How to Use The Copy Book.

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