Notebook November 2018
Critics & criticism
A legendary critic looks back on his career.
“Are critics necessary?” a good many people ask, not a few of them the butts of some kind of criticism. Certainly if dray horses, victims of the whip, could speak, the answer would be No. Even someone who surely knows better, Samuel Beckett, arrogates to himself the fun of making the supreme insult meted out between his contentious tramps be “Crritic,” with a double R, to make it more explosive. But playwrights, directors, and actors of stature would surely answer Yes.
I am inclined to aver that every activity needs its critics, from narcissists bloviating in Washington to exhibitors of knee holes in their blue jeans by way of following a fad. So, too, tennis players and others wearing their caps backward. There is, to be sure, only fairly innocuous folly in puncturing pants or reversing caps, but for political or artistic or religious twisting of thought or harboring holes in the head there is rather less excuse.
I have always inveighed against the bleary journalism practiced by newspaper reviewers, as opposed to the real criticism performed by, well, critics. The former are barely more often right than stopped watches managing it twice a day, or like that bore trying to justify himself to the great and witty French actor Lucien Guitry by saying “I simply talk the way I think.” “Yes,” agreed Lucien, “but more often.”
One might also designate differences as a matter of taste. Actually, the better reviewers can write fluent paragraphs and titillating sentences, but where exactly lies their taste? Most likely in the pages of Marvel Comics, the source of so much of our stage and screen fare.
Take our current musical theater, two of whose biggest hits are Come from Away and Dear Evan Hansen, one cheesier than the other. If newspaper criticism were not almost as lamentable as public taste, more people might read it or even believe it. In any case, theater criticism has seen its purveyors decimated, as more and more publications have dumped it, largely replaced by the internet. On the other hand, in our time of few good shows and no more cheap seats, it is unlikely that theater could survive if it depended on artistic and journalistic quality.
Already some years ago, when The New York Times was desperately seeking a new drama critic, the most serious candidate they interviewed was Robert Brustein, who declared he would take the job if he could dismiss typical trash with just a few sentences, whereupon he was no longer considered by the Times. The one minority most neglected and most underpaid in America is the intellectual one. “Elitist,” which rightfully should be a term of praise, is derogatory in the quasi-democratic United States of America.
It was claimed by some that I modeled myself on my friend Dwight Macdonald, which I didn’t; we merely happened to agree on many things. Certainly on his self-defense when accused of excessive negative criticism: “I’ve always specialized in negative criticism—literary, political, cinematic, cultural—because I’ve found so few contemporary products about which I could be ‘constructive’ without hating myself in the morning.” The only point with which I could not concur is the political, because it lies outside my scope. But there was never any question of mentorship or modeling between us. I can recall only one major disagreement: about Fellini’s 8 ½, which Dwight exulted in and I did not. In retrospect, he may have been right.
It was likewise claimed by some that I was the critic on whom my friend Wilfrid Sheed modeled the protagonist of his novel Max Jamison. But, as he told me, if Max was modeled on anyone, it was on himself. Two incidents only might be based on me. One was when, upon my suggestion that Clive Barnes and Brendan Gill should not come to meetings drunk, Gill was barely restrained from fisticuffs with me. The other was when Manny Farber, a member of the National Critics Circle, stood up trembling with rage to deliver a lengthy and barely comprehensible philippic against the rest of us for not including film writers from obscure, hardly known publications. I suggested the desirability for election to our group of a sanity test. Whereupon Manny stormed out and never showed up again.
Let me adduce an incident from the Tehran Film Festival in the time of the Shah. At a long table sat a number of attractive debutantes intended for whatever assistance a jury member might need. One of the young ladies asked me what I did for a living. I said I was a film critic. Said she: “And for that you get paid?” Absurd as the question was, it elicited my response: “Not a whole lot.” And so it is at the more intellectual weeklies and monthlies, to say nothing of the quarterlies.
But to advert to drama criticism, which, aside from some book reviews, is the only kind I still practice, let us start with some typical misunderstandings. In the context of movies, but applicable also to theater, John W. English writes in his book Criticizing the Critics: “High-brow [sic] critics such as John Simon are often intrigued by witticisms, puns and cleverly reworked phrases, a form of intellectual gamesmanship. Simon, for example, has flippantly called 2001: A Space Odyssey a ‘Shaggy God Story.’ It’s a sign he’s not as serious as he might be.” In other words, wit does not belong in criticism, a notion funny enough in its own right. Long-faced prose seems solely admissible.
In Matt Windman’s book of interviews with theater reviewers, The Critics Say . . . , we read this from John Lahr: “Anyone who talks about standards is a fool. There is no agreed-upon standard. A standard is an aesthetic or a taste that has evolved over time. That is all it is.” Agreed, and that is all that is needed. Lahr continues, “John Simon is always going on about his standards. But if you look at the standards he liked and those he didn’t like, you’ll find that his standards tend to overlook major work and praise a lot of terrible shows.”
Now, standards are what you derive from the criticism of major critics from Aristotle on, advocated and agreed upon. To be sure, it depends on whom you consider major, but certainly among those on my list, and surprisingly among some others too, you find a goodly measure of concord. And from that you get the notion of a standard. And if Lahr argues that there are wrong standards (mine), there must also be right ones (his). Which means that standards exist even for him, only they have to be his.
Furthermore, Lahr is wrong about my always going on about standards. I hardly ever mention them, as they are not there to be pontificated about, but to be displayed and reaffirmed in one’s writing. Moreover, Lahr’s “always” implies that he has read me extensively, which I am inclined to doubt. If he had, he might have learned something from me, as I have from him.
In that same book edited by Windman, Elisabeth Vincentelli opines:
I’m ambivalent about John Simon. He’s such a great stylist and writer, but his meanness is just too much. It was delicious to read, but sometimes it got in the way of his critical acumen, and that kind of spoiled the pleasure of reading him. I didn’t feel like there was any generosity behind it. He often wrote about very real issues that nobody else would touch—the stuff that’s very tricky to deal with—but he wrote about it with such a lack of empathy.
This raises several questions, some of which my quote from Dwight Macdonald answered. Really, though, if something is bad, why empathize? You don’t root for it. You try to uproot it. If, however, it is good, your positive review is all the empathy that is called for. Writing about lack of food in some countries, and lack of freedom in others, that is where empathy is appropriate.
The good critic notes details that might escape a lay viewer, in addition to pinpointing implications and providing explications for what is not immediately apparent. He or she shows how a work fits into the history of its art form, and how it reflects and comments on its social context. If it is of performing art, he or she evaluates writers, directors, and actors. In theater, there is also set, costume, and lighting design; in musicals, choreography, singing, and dancing, both as concept and execution for the critic to address.
But there is something else, too, and it is supreme. We also read a critic for the writing, as we read for their writing practitioners of other art forms: fiction, poetry, essay, drama. This is scarcely less important than the critic’s yea or nay: Kenneth Tynan, with his wit and elegance, his way with words and paragraphs, is vastly preferable to most of his more plodding colleagues, however dedicated—and, if you will, empathetic—they may be. “The critic is a man who knows the way, but cannot drive the car,” Tynan has said. As oversimplifications go, not a bad epigram. Among the many writings about criticism, let me direct you to one essay: Oscar Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist,” exaggerated but witty and brilliant.
If the critic goes beyond information and adjudication, if he or she can add wit to the review or critique, the resultant effect is at least doubled. Even intelligent digression can prove indirectly pertinent. The focus might well be narrow, but the relevance and resonance should be extensive. You might do worse than study The Great Critics: An Anthology of Literary Criticism, compiled and edited by James Harry Smith and Edd Winfield Parks. Criticism should also be comprehensible, which is to say not written by Frenchmen with esoteric theories and befuddling jargon. And it should not present itself as written on Mosaic tablets by the likes of Harold Bloom. Above all, it should not be the voice of a publisher or editor or anybody else, but independently the critic’s own.
Consider this essay a sample of my extended criticism. Herewith some samples of my epigrammatic criticism:
Robert Creeley’s poems have two main characteristics: (1) they are short; (2) they are not short enough.
There is a simple law governing the dramatization of novels: if it is worth doing, it can’t be done; if it can be done, it wasn’t worth it.
What do you get by crossbreeding a structuralist and a mafioso? An offer you cannot understand.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 3, on page 75
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