On Not Being Good Enough: Writings of a Working Critic
Celebrations and Attacks: Thirty Years of Literary and Cultural Commentary
The Good Word and Other Words
“How, i’ the name of thrift, Does he rake this together?”
—Henry VIII, III, ii
“Criticism,” Wilfrid Sheed said recently, “is what every reviewer would like to write if he had the time.” One might add that reviews are what critics often write while they’re trying to get up the nerve to commit a bit of criticism. But these are complementary thoughts, acknowledgments of a distinction which is frequently fudged. Many reviews behave as if they were criticism already, eager eyes cocked at a future collection. Others wish to be seen as magically transposed because they have been kept in a drawer and handed over to a publisher in a bundle. Still others do their daily or weekly stuff with such strangled solemnity that they are plainly making a bid for instant promotion to the other category.
Certainly we shouldn’t make a fetish of the distinction. Reviews may be criticism: Eliot turned a handful of his natty impersonations of the English man of letters into The Sacred Wood. More rarely, criticism may do a useful job of reviewing: Axel’s Castle is the obvious, attractive instance. Even so, a working distinction is not to be sniffed at as long as it works. Reviewing should be response, let’s say, and criticism consideration. We have nothing to gain from pretending we can’t see the difference.
Roger Sale writes at times as if he thinks reviewing is simply what critics do when they are properly employed, not lounging about the lower slopes of Parnassus, and his own performance in this regard is persuasive. But he also separates reviews from essays, and intimates that while Marvin Mudrick, say, is not in Eliot’s class as a critic, Eliot himself “was not as good a reviewer as Marvin Mudrick is.” Discussing Mudrick, Sale offers a stern and helpful picture of what a reviewer is supposed to do:
A reviewer needs, most of all, good taste and the ability to say a lot in very few words. He does not need, and indeed is probably better off doing without, the capacity to construct an independent argument…. The work under consideration must be judged, but it also must be allowed to exist independently of the reviewer’s judgment.
This means, as Sale says more than once in his book, that a reviewer must quote all the time and quote well, because then “one is forced to try to make one’s prose responsive to the words of another.” I would say further, having learned through bitter experience and shrewd and amiable editorial nagging, that a reviewer must also, somehow, convey a sense of what it is actually like to read the book being reviewed. Quotation is essential for this, but it is rarely enough. In fact, quotation can be a nightmare, because even the simplest and most lucid of authors have a way of saying more than you want them to say at any given moment. A triumph for literature over lumpish reduction …