The Checklist for Literary Critics (and for Anyone Who Reviews Books)

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David Foster Wallace says that a cliché might be “lame and unexciting on the surface,” but often, it actually “expresses a great and terrible truth.”

He offers up, by way of example, the cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” Where, after all, Wallace asks, do suicides by gun usually shoot themselves?

“The head. They shoot the terrible master.” A lame cliché that expresses a great and terrible truth, indeed.

Something similar is going on with this one: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I’m not sure that it is expressing something “great and terrible,” but the truth behind the cliché is certainly vexed and far more interesting than how lame it sounds.

First of all, what does the cliché not say? Or at least, how might we read this cliché wrongly? I stand firmly on the side of Coleridge when he judged two tourists standing before a waterfall: One called the waterfall “sublime”; the other called it merely “pretty.” The man who deemed the waterfall “sublime” Coleridge approved of, but he rejected the statement that it was “pretty.”

To put it simply, aesthetic judgments can be wrong (and hence, can be right, as well). They may not be verifiable with the scientific method — but many things which we take to be true or false stand outside the realm of empirical testing (True or false: It is wrong to beat a dog. Now prove it.). The difference between sublimity and prettiness might be hard for those of us many generations removed from the great Romantics, but surely we can agree, for example, that anyone who calls the Sierra Nevada mountains “shabby” has simply got the wrong idea.

Despite all this, it is impossible to separate your own personal preferences from your judgments (about beauty or about anything else, really), no matter how hard you might try. The great poet and critic W.H. Auden admits this in his book of criticism, The Dyer’s Hand:

Though the pleasure which works of art give us must not be confused with other pleasures that we enjoy, it is related to all of them simply by being our pleasure and not someone else’s. All the judgments, aesthetic or moral, that we pass, however objective we try to make them, are in part a rationalization and in part a corrective discipline of our subjective wishes.

Auden believes that an objective statement about something’s rightness or wrongness, or its beauty or its ugliness, is possible — but he knows it is not possible for a human. Our judgments cannot escape our personal vision for what paradise looks like. This is the profound truth behind the worn-out cliché that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

And this is where the checklist for critics and book reviewers comes in. First off, it’s more of a questionnaire than a checklist. Second, a confession. The idea is lifted straight out of Auden:

So long as a man writes poetry or fiction, his dream of Eden is his own business, but the moment he starts writing literary criticism, honesty demands that he describe it to his readers, so that they may be in a position to judge his judgments. Accordingly, I must now give my answers to a questionnaire I once made up which provides the kind of information I should like to have myself when reading other critics.

Since I, Bedivere, propose to carry on a bit of literary criticism for you as well, I suppose you ought to have my answers too. Below, I’ve pasted Auden’s questionnaire in its entirety, followed by a blank space (for your own answer, since if you’re a nerd like me you can print it out, write in your answers, and share it with your friends!), then Auden’s answer (since he made this whole exercise up, and not just his answers but even his questions are so idiosyncratic), and finally mine.

Feel free to denounce my pleasures and reply with your own. And then force all the critics you read to divulge their own private Edens, too. Enjoy:

You:___________________________________________________________

Auden: Limestone uplands like the Pennines plus a small region of igneous rocks with at least one extinct volcano. A precipitous and indented sea-coast.

Me: Rolling, golden foothills studded with oak trees, leading in one direction to snowy mountains and in the other to coastal plain.

You:___________________________________________________________

Auden: British.

Me: Hot dry summers with sudden thunderstorms, with wet, mild winters and snow at Christmas.

You:___________________________________________________________

Auden: Highly varied as in the United States, but with a slight nordic predominance.

Me: Mixed, with a special preponderance of South Americans, Poles, and West Africans.

You:___________________________________________________________

Auden: Of mixed origins like English, but highly inflected.

Me: Plummy English vernacular, with Latin for civic and ecclesiastical matters.

You:___________________________________________________________

Auden: Irregular and complicated. No decimal system.

Me: Irregular and complicated as well, but I’m keeping decimals. I want weight to be in stone, and currency in knut, sickle, and galleon.

You:___________________________________________________________

Auden: Roman Catholic in an easygoing Mediterranean sort of way. Lots of local saints.

Me: Biblically literate, highly aestheticized and anglicized Catholicism in which one occasionally, particularly if a member of the lower classes, speaks in tongues. Emphasis on guilt.

You:___________________________________________________________

Auden: Plato’s ideal figure, 5004, about right.

Me: What the hell is Auden talking about here?

You:___________________________________________________________

Auden: Absolute monarchy, elected for life by lot.

Me: Feudal, hereditary monarchy.

You:___________________________________________________________

Auden: Wind, water, peat, coal. No oil.

Me: Water mills in local rivers and occasional coal plants.

You:___________________________________________________________

Auden: Lead mining, coal mining, chemical factories, paper mills, sheep farming, truck farming, greenhouse horticulture.

Me: Vibrant fisheries, Mediterranean agriculture (wine, sheep, olives, etc.), iron smelting, textiles, bookbinding.

You:___________________________________________________________

Auden: Horses and horse-drawn vehicles, narrow-gauge railroads, canal barges, balloons. No automobiles or airplanes.

Me: Bicycles, streetcars, railroads, and riverboats.

You:___________________________________________________________

Auden: State: Baroque. Ecclesiastical: Romanesque or Byzantine. Domestic: Eighteenth century British or American Colonial.

Me: Neoclassical civic buildings, Neo-Gothic ecclesiastical buildings, and domestic buildings in the Tudor style.

You:___________________________________________________________

Auden: Victorian except for kitchens and bathrooms which are as full of modern gadgets as possible.

Me: A mix of the Tudor and Victorian; lots of wood-burning fireplaces, gas lamps, wood paneling, and dark leather.

You:___________________________________________________________

Auden: The fashions of Paris in the 1830’s and ‘40’s.

Me: French Baroque.

You:___________________________________________________________

Auden: Gossip. Technical and learned periodicals but no newspapers.

Me: Speeches after mass on Sundays, placards in local pubs, and word-of-mouth especially during dinner parties.

You:___________________________________________________________

Auden: Confined to famous defunct chefs.

Me: Saints, admirals, and murdered philosophers.

You:___________________________________________________________

Auden: Religious Processions, Brass Bands, Opera, Classical Ballet. No movies, radio or television.

Me: Royal, military, and religious processions; Elizabethan theater; poetic recitations by traveling bards; martial tournaments.

Sir Bedivere is a technology executive in the Western United States.

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