I am gravely sceptical about the touted significance of the role of a critic in literature or the arts. However I wouldn’t dare to completely tag the outsourced inference or even the paid-for favour of a critic as entirely obsolete since I do believe that a qualified feedback could fuel meaningful literature, protect unique writing styles and storylines from commercial slaughterhouses, and also engage minds in a meaningful comparison between the varying styles and formats. While one should remain open to criticism, unwarranted vociferous opinions and disapproval of so-called flaws and faults are distasteful and downright offensive. Is this policing necessary? Well that’s a completely different point altogether. My contention here rests on the unsettling premise that the role of a critic will not be reaching its extinction anytime soon.
These days everybody seems to have donned the expert’s hat and it is the rising score of self-invited advice and opinions that are frivolously thrown at the writer, with complete disregard for the latter’s craft, which has led to the steady decline of my regard for this venerated role. Perhaps it is the dearth of deserving critics that makes the presence of these unqualified opinion-dumpers increasingly unacceptable to writers and other professionals. In fact, I suspect it is the overuse or even abuse of this role and the very nomenclature ‘critic’ that has prompted me to believe that there exists a perpetual negative connotation to the word which was rightfully introduced to accomplish a more productive role however arguably redundant most of it still remains most of the times.
It is interesting how certain words, originally intended to mean something entirely different, begin to represent a separate meaning depending on the examples its users, or in this case its abusers, have set. For instance, criticism or the role of a critic was initially designed as an act of evaluating and studying the merits and drawbacks in an articulate manner which on an ordinary day would seem far more scrupulous had it not turned into a severe judgement or even an unqualified advice from a complete stranger, like it is the case now. The last one, of course, would barely qualify as ‘criticism’ in the proper sense. It is like the word ‘romantic’ that most invariably reminds us of a fizzy-eyed dreamer when the word also represents one of the most glorious eras of the literary landscape, with far broader connotations than the conventional definitions of the word. Another word that has come to be closely associated with the negative is ‘politics’ when primarily it implies the art or science of governance.
Besides the spilling out of the intended definitions and scope of the ‘critic’, it is also the overwhelming reach that another’s opinion bears on one’s work that concerns me. I have noticed, both as a reader and a writer, the sudden progression in the number of critics aka advisers as also in the amount of lethal power they possess over a piece of literature that a writer may have taken years to compile. The literary wheel seems to be spinning more often around the critic’s verdict that then somehow dictates the details and choices for a writer and a reader. We seem to be in a shadow-worshipping world where the actual work is liberally despised or judged.
I have come across a fair number of television and print ‘journalists’ (another word very loosely used these days), who drool over their own fanciful and snippy argots as they go about on their verbal rampage that is more entertaining than intelligent or insightful. They assume the right to denigrate a writer and, sadly, that sells more. I wish we knew that among the few things besides Rome that could not be built in a day it would be a manuscript and most definitely a published book! I wish we knew of the long hours of disciplined writing, the rigorous and brain-numbing rounds of editing and proof reading, and the frustrating wait for the cosmic forces to return the favour before we dismantled all the blocks of a lifelong dream with a single judgment. For me, a writer must always be respected for his attempt. Surely, a person who makes herself or himself that vulnerable deserves to be regarded in a more reputable light.
A few weeks ago, I happened to share one of my poems ‘Poetry vs. Cigarettes’ on a social forum for poetry readers, which turned out to be one of my greatest misjudgments. I was appalled at the level of highhandedness people assumed. One ridiculously concerned and presumptuous gentleman pounded me with his disgust for cigarettes and me, since he had managed to somehow perceive my poetry very literally and derive the most unimaginative implication from it, overlooking the entire metaphor that I thought I had so intelligently crafted. Wonder what would happen if I posted Mark Twain’s Art of Masturbation without the acclaimed author’s byline!
Among the violations that the struggling writer in me has suffered, the most entertaining one was a feedback I received from a blank-faced e-stranger who conveniently rewrote my entire poem for me, robbing it of its rhythm (not rhyme). He retained only the title as a kind gesture so I would understand how I had to do justice to the title. In the end, he messaged: ‘Remember, it is Poetry vs. Cigarettes’ not ‘Cigarettes vs. Poetry’. I am still to figure out the depth of that sentence. Their confidence baffles me even as I battle to survive their unfinished sentences and obstreperous conduct. Though to tell you the truth I’d be far more worried or even devastated had he left a poem that seemed better fit than my own work. It was a scary stunt to have pulled over a writer, and surely a foolish one too, in this case. As the diva Madonna puts it (for Lady Gaga) under a similar circumstance, ‘It seemed reductive’. Touché to that!
As most of my literary wonderments invariably trail back to Virginia Woolf, in this case too she has, for me, remained the best example of a truly qualified critic. Firstly, her own views as a writer have been discussed, criticized or even left unnoticed just like the highly complex and bold painting patterns of the great Vincent Van Gogh, which were much ahead of his times, had been dealt with. This meant that she had faced the vices of criticism herself. Secondly, no criticism seemed to have dissuaded her from expressing herself (once again, like Van Gogh), which meant she knew the difference between a good critique and a bad one. Her ideas and writing style, even today, stand firmly as a hallmark of excellence in literature surpassing the lifespan of several critics and their opinions.
Virginia Woolf took the opinions of only a few writer friends like Eliot and chose to overlook the views of journalists, critics and fans too, since she feared that too much flattery, just like too many critiques, would influence her intent as a writer. She clearly did understand the roles of a critic and a critique. In her diary (Diary of a Writer) Virginia Woolf has neatly defaced many big names in the world of poetry and professionals whose works have overlooked the nuances of human emotions while they have solely glorified physical strength and valour as attributes of human strength; elements like emotional complexities and relationship subtleties have largely been ignored. For her, those intricacies of the human mind are in fact the true protagonists. She has discussed the writing styles of her contemporaries even as she has candidly dissected her own moods and works effortlessly. She has, in several cases, reassessed her own work and expressed her excitement or disappointment over it. To me that is a ‘qualified’ critic.
It is solely for the likes of Virginia Woolf that I remain hopeful of this probably-redundant-yet-not-completely-pointless effort and so I voluntarily continue to prevent myself from fully despising this role as an entirely wasteful occupation. After all, for the writer in me, none is more dangerous than the critic that quietly watches me from within even as I continue to write.
© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013