In Defence of Critics – the Writer’s Favourite Punching Bag

While the relationship between the author and the critic has usually been one of hostility, they’re both essential parts of the same ecosystem.

Critics have persistently suffered the ire of artists. Representational image. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Critics have persistently suffered the ire of artists. Representational image. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Suketu Mehta, the bestselling author of Maximum City and, more recently, What is Remembered participated in a Twitter chat with publishing house Juggernaut where he had this to say about critics:

“A critic is a eunuch in a harem: he observes, he comments, he judges, but he does not practice.”

For now, let’s ignore the tedious phallocentrism of the words, the easy patriarchal assumptions that make connecting power, production, penis and the pen possible. Today, we have other fish to fry; namely, the curious case of the critic as a punching bag for artists worldwide. It’s a hatred so intense, a contempt so scathing that it cuts across time, nationality and, perhaps most impressively, art form.

Mehta’s words, in this instance, are borrowed from Irish poet Brendan Behan (1923-64), though the sentiment can be traced back to English poet S. T. Coleridge who was cited in 1856 as saying, “Critics are the eunuchs who guard the harem of knowledge.” Since then, the analogy has been reverentially parroted by American writer Ernest Hemingway, Russian pianist Vladmir de Pachmann, English actor Anthony Newley, American director Eilia Kazan etc.

The brickbats do not always come in this specific avatar. English playwright John Osborne compared critics to dogs peeing on lampposts. Writer P.G. Wodehouse believed them to be no-good creatures who flourished in the dark. Mark Twain thought their trade the most degraded in the world and composer Leonard Bernstein landed a true burn by proclaiming to have never seen a statue of a critic in all his world travels. Actor Ava Gardner conceded that they might say good things but only if one stuck around long enough, while writer Anne Rice called them dime-a-dozen, actor Eli Wallach compared them to hangmen while poet Robert Burns saw in them “cut-throat bandits in the path of fame”.

Assuming that not all artists have had beloved family dogs run over by a critic, what can possibly account for this sort of vitriol? Let us consider the case of writers and poets at present. The general thread that seems to run through these dismissals and name-calling is the belief that the critic is some sort of a parasite – a leech that lies lazy and useless all year round, springing to life only to gorge on and eviscerate the writer’s labour of love, blood, sweat and tears. The grievance seems to spring from a feeling that the critic labours not, produces nothing, risks nothing and grows fat by sitting in judgment of the work of people who are inherently superior by virtue of their having birthed something.

Let us counter this assertion by remembering that, historically, a lot of critics have also been artists in their own right. The converse also holds true – a lot of insightful criticism has been the work of practising artists. Writers and poets from Dante, Horace, Boccaccio, Valmiki to Pope, Sidney, Dryden, Blake, Johnson to Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot to, more recently, Zadie Smith, Susan Sontag, Lionel Trilling, James Wood, Amitava Ghosh, Chinua Achebe have all produced works of fiction as well as criticism.

But even speaking of those who make a living primarily by critiquing the works of novelists, poets and playwrights – do they merit the kind of hostility they face from their subjects? I would argue that this hostility is more revealing of the writers’ fears. A reaction to feeling uncomfortable with – and perhaps threatened by – scrutiny.

Pre-criticism, the artist can claim divine inspiration and hold his work sacrosanct and above mortal inquiry. Systematic criticism shakes the very foundation of this setup. By lifting the veil and peering behind, it uncovers the constructed-ness of these works. It attacks prejudice and bias, shakes assumption and exposes the all too human blind spots of the creator. Borrowing from other discourses, it lays bare the structures of class, gender, race and caste – questioning hierarchies, questioning mores, questioning trajectories.

Once these works are open to free flowing inquiry, the power structures they replicated, espoused and enforced could be questioned. This gave rise to hitherto silenced, marginalised voices. In the process, we gained brilliant rewritings, exhilarating revisions. Entirely new disciplines were born, with their promise of unchartered territories and endless potential. Jean Rhys could challenge the ‘natural’ centrality of a white woman’s story in Jane Eyre in her Wide Sargasso Sea; Chinua Achebe could use a phrase from an Irishman’s poem predicting a Christian apocalypse to tell the story of a Nigerian village threatened by colonisers in Things Fall Apart; Jane Smiley could interrogate the simplistic binaries of good daughter/bad daughter in King Lear to come up with A Thousand Acres, visibilising the structures that sustain gender oppression. These works would not have been possible without scholars and critics who took on revered canonical literature.

Perhaps the hostility between writers and critics is a good thing after all. One cannot ask uncomfortable questions while in bed together.

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