The Perils of Pauline

When the Lights Go Down

by Pauline Kael
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 592 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Pauline Kael
Pauline Kael; drawing by David Levine

The job of the regular daily, weekly, or even monthly critic resembles the work of the serious intermittent critic, who writes only when he is asked to or genuinely moved to, in limited ways and for only a limited period of time. Occasionally, a particularly rich period in one of the arts coincides with a prolific time in the life of a major critic; or a major critic—Edmund Wilson, Harold Rosenberg—takes over a weekly column and uses it as the occasion for an essay. After a time, however, even Edmund Wilson no longer wrote frequently and regularly about books. He also wrote, all his life, on other subjects. Harold Rosenberg wrote continuously on subjects other than painting. Normally, no art can support for long the play of a major intelligence, working flat out, on a quotidian basis. No serious critic can devote himself, frequently, exclusively, and indefinitely, to reviewing works most of which inevitably cannot bear, would even be misrepresented by, review in depth.

At most publications, staff critics are cast up from elsewhere in the journalistic ranks—the copy desk, for instance, or regular reporting. What they provide is a necessary consumer service, which consists essentially of three parts: a notice that the work exists, and where it can be bought, found, or attended; a set of adjectives appearing to set forth an opinion of some sort, but amounting really to a yes vote or a no vote; and a somewhat nonjudgmental, factual description or account, which is usually inferior by any journalistic standard to reporting in all other sections of the paper. On the basis of these columns, the reader gets his information and, if he is an art consumer, forms his own judgment and makes his choice.

Serious publications, however, tend from time to time to hire talented people, educated, usually young, devoted to the craft of criticism, at least as it entails fidelity to an art and to a text under review. What usually happens is that such a critic writes for some time at his, highest level: reporting and characterizing accurately; incorporating in whatever is judgmental evidence for what he’s saying (a sign of integrity in a critic, as opposed to an opinion monger, is that he tries for evidence; in reviewing prose forms, for example, he will quote); and producing insights, and allusions, which, if they are not downright brilliant, are apposite. What happens after a longer time is that he settles down.

The consumer service remains the professional basis for the staff reviewer’s job; fidelity, evidence, and so forth are still the measures of his value, but the high critical edge becomes misplaced, disproportionate when applied to most ordinary work. The staff critic is nonetheless obliged, and paid, to do more than simply mark time between rich periods and occasional masterpieces. The simple truth—this is okay, this is not okay, this is vile, this resembles…

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