January 16th, 2008


The literary critics

I am to be a published author, that much is now certain, for contracts and advances have been exchanged. Upon receipt of my work of literary fiction at their offices in Paris -- and after the collaborative travail of expansion, contraction, correction, extraction -- my publishers will send the redacted manuscript to the printing press in time for its announced appearance on the bookseller's heaving table in the season of autumnal leaves. But there is another set of gentlemen interposed between pen and public, and it is of these that I wish to treat today. They are, of course, those great public intellectuals of our time: the literary critics.

They are already awaiting my work with pleasure, these gentlemen, and not a little severity. For it shall fall to each of them in turn to subject my book to the closest possible scrutiny, to weigh its skill, meaning and import, and to inform their readers -- and mine! -- whether my work shall bestride Parnassus, taking its place amongst the greatest that has been thought, felt, and said throughout the centuries, or whether, instead, its destiny lies under Charon's shovel, in a pit of sulphur.

Now, you will tell me that the age of critical titans is long gone; that we are no more troubled by an Arnold, a Richards, a Leavis, a Morley, or a Lawson, now, than by Tartars or tigers. Nay, even less than tigers, you will add, for it was not critics who mauled the San Franciscan unfortunates in their bestiary! You will point out to me -- in a fine proleptical figure! -- that critical magazine (and enclave!) Stylus ceased upon the midnight hour of 2007, or that Woebot, woe-struck, has pledged to dissent no more. I will answer that scrutiny endures secure while Jarvis Cocker sits before the microphone at Broadcasting House tracing the history of the fanzine, that vibrant literary form!

Like Virgil himself they still walk before us through the spirall'd rings of labyrinthine invention, the critics, the public intellectuals of our time, their lamps raised high. Through reviews and injunctions they teach us to distinguish the failed metaphor from the successful one, the difference between metonymy and synecdoche, the tight lilt of the well-tilted phrase. Probably they smoke a pipe, wear sensible brogues and a tweed suit, and show a pattern of absent-minded stains down the front of their sweaters. They have long limbs, high cheekbones, and the genteel air of natural authority.

Although the author's intention does not always concern them -- that is the Intentional Fallacy! -- they are not above a brief detour into biography, especially if their subject is deceased and cannot contradict. Here, for instance, is St John Limbo, recounting the complex garlanding of life and lyricism in the work of the poet Ewan MacTeagel:

Although I know they may well find my "Book of Jokes" despicable, incestuous, craven, hobbled, failed, stubborn, foreign, depraved, sophomoric, precocious, negro, sublunary or simply sub-standard, I am glad that such men still exist; men dedicated to the life of the mind and the vigour of the page. For, without them, without their scrutiny, their high standards, their determination to police the canon with the skills of Sherlock Holmeses rather than Lestrades, our national literary culture would surely crumble to Pantheon dust, or Parthenon sand.

Which of us does not write, secretly, with these gentlemen in mind? Let us lift a full and fluted pipe of best Navy shag to them, the public intellectuals, the literary critics of our time!