Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Heads I praise, Tails I laugh: Edward Thomas on reviewing as unskilled labor

THERE seem to be four principal kinds of reviews the interesting and good; the interesting, but bad; the uninteresting, but good; the uninteresting and bad. Most are of the last kind. They are reading matter, usually grammatical, which probably bears some relation to something passing in the writer's mind, but keeps it secret. Nothing is revealed by them about the book in hand, except the author's name and presumed sex, and whether it is in prose or verse; nothing about the reviewer's feeling, except that he likes or does not like, or is indifferent to the book which is not a matter of much importance unless the reviewer has somehow built up a system, or a past, to which his remarks instantly refer the reader. The bad, uninteresting review consists of second-hand words and paralysed, inelectric phrases; and the better these are strung together the worse it is, because it means that the wretched man, woman, or child, is deceiving himself, making a virtue of his necessity, his hurry, his obtuseness, his ignorance. Such work is terribly uninteresting to any- one without a superhuman interest in whatever is inhuman. Sometimes it may be read in a comatose condition by readers with a respect for all printed matter, and in a sort of enthusiasm by relatives of the reviewer. But the only thing to be said for it is that it produces money, which produces food and clothing for aged parents, fair wives, innocent children. Against it must be set the fact that it is waste of time and energy, like sending clean things to a laundry, that it is nothing, masquerading as something, that the longer it exists the more respectable it is thought by those who do not care, by the majority. Most reviews are of this kind. That is to say that people of all sorts write them. Therefore, probably, it is very easy to fall into the habit, and very hard to see that you have done so. You read a book once or twice, or half read it ; various thoughts are awakened as you proceed, about the author, his subjects, his vocabulary, the influences he has felt, and, in addition to these, at the end you have some sort of general impression. When you come to write, you do not inquire into the history of your thoughts, or try to relate them ; your object is to write without delay something continuous, and since some of the thoughts protrude too much for continuity you sacrifice them. The result is a piece of prose which only a man possessing a profound knowledge of you can accurately follow. What can anybody else do with your roundabout phrases, brought to birth by the union of unconsidered thoughts with memories of other reviews?

The more a man tries who was not born to write unless he has an aim clearly before him the worse he writes. Most reviewers have no aim clearly before them, except of covering space and putting the name of the book at the top. At best they want to get in a striking phrase, relevant or not. God help them. It is not a man's, certainly not a reviewer's, task, to better them, or persuade them that they could be bettered. Nor is it necessary here to attempt to throw light upon bad writing. I mention this class only because I believe that they hope to be interesting. They are distant, perhaps unconscious, disciples of Wilde's "Critic as Artist." They are expressing themselves apropos of the book sent them for review: if they succeed, it is in this world a thing to be thankful for. The so-called review relating to one detail in the book, and then branching off to something which the reviewer has at heart, is justified if well done. Good writing is always justified. But this bad, interesting review is not of importance here. Both kinds are bad, because they are not reviews.

What, then, is a review? A review gives an account of an unknown book its substance, aim and achievement; or it discusses a known book, or some point in it or connected with it, in a manner assuming some knowledge of it on the reader's part. To this second class belong most of the better reviews. Any good writer can write good reviews of this kind. But good reviews of the other kind are seen scarcely ever; for it by no means follows that if a good writer tries to produce them he will succeed. Few try, and perhaps the good writer tries least of all. He has established a scale of values, a system, a metaphysic, for which he is known among the scattered school of followers which at the same time he has created. For the most part he trusts to a few shorthand phrases, indicating to the intelligent that he likes a thing or not, and, to some extent, how and why. This, of course, is valuable in proportion to the merits of the critic. According as he has a wide or peculiar knowledge of men, and things, and words, and holds a vigorous and not stereotyped view which has survived or sprung out of this knowledge, so must he be valued. At present he is not likely to reach very far. He will be read chiefly by literary people. The rest of the world, learned and unlearned, will go on discovering what suits them, unconsciously applying standards based on experience.

... The worst of it is that the critic is usually looking out for what is good or bad, along certain lines; whereas it is rather his business to find, like a plain man, "something to read" as intense a pleasure as possible in reading, not something that would, he imagines, be perfect to a different imagined being, though unreadable to himself. No man is a final judge of what he cannot enjoy, whether eggs, caviare, or castor oil, however brilliant he may be at telling us that what he cannot enjoy is bad. But by taking pains he can give an account of it. ...Nearly all reviews of verse are either loosely complimentary or have a bantering tone as if the bards were tiny little odd unreal creatures who earn no wages and have no human feelings. When a new book by an accepted verse writer appears, the reviewer's task is to compass some variation of the ordinary compliments. As to the unaccepted, it is Heads I praise, Tails I laugh. More often it is Heads, because those are the publisher's orders. No matter: mere praise is better than mere laughter, and the letter of praise does not exclude the spirit of criticism.

The reviewer lacks not excuse. In most cases he has no idea whom he is addressing, if anyone. He is writing in an indifferent vacuum. He does not care; his editor does not care ; so far as he knows, nobody cares, provided he is not libellous, obscene, or very ungrammatical. Is he to address the author? Is he to address readers who know the book reviewed, or readers who do not ? Is he to hold forth simply to his equals who happen not to write for a living ? These questions will come up and ought to be answered. A careful answer might help to turn reviewing from unskilled into skilled labour. No one wants to interfere with good writers ; I am speaking of the average reviewer. His unsupported opinion is mostly worthless. I believe it would be a useful and pleasant change if he were to cease expressing opinions and take to giving as plain and full an account of the book in hand, as time, space, and his own ability permit. The skill required would be of an order which no man need be ashamed to display, and few could achieve without labour. Gradually, efficient chroniclers would be, not born, but made. They might become as efficient as the best ot the newspaper staff is held to be ; they might form a standard which plain, hurried men could reach by moderate efforts, and would not fall short of without disgrace. The pioneers would perhaps have a hard time in getting rid of all those degraded loose phrases caused by uncertainty, or ignorance, or imitation, all the words like the advertiser's 'unequalled' and 'absolutely pure.' Even the egoistic reviewer, even the egoistic reviewer with a following, might learn from this method. In any case he would not be superseded, while personality and a corresponding metaphysic and literary power are respected, and he would be served by a rank and file of decent workers, instead of being surrounded and confused by a rabble of ridiculous and unlovely muddlers.

-- from Edward Thomas, "Reviewing: An Unskilled Labour"

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