The Critic as Friend.

Merve Emre has a Yale Review essay (from the Summer 2024 criticism issue) that discusses the history of criticism and its various forms in lively fashion (“This vision of the critic as a pig, an uncouth, if mildly intel­ligent, animal rolling in his own sweet filth, has resonated with writers across the centuries”); I’ll excerpt the part that explains the title, an image of the critic that is appealing to me:

But inherent in the image of the critic as judge were the unsa­vory ideas that the critic was superior to the text and that criticism was a matter of crime and punishment. As Northrop Frye put it in the 1980s, trying to play the role of judge was a “preposterous ego trip for the critic to attempt.” It turned the critic into an “intel­lectual thug” who uttered only “clap-trap”: “I approve of this,” or “I am disappointed by that.” What was needed instead, Frye argued, was a different figure, an image of “understanding” and “deep con­cern for literature” that captured “the subjection of the critic to the uniqueness of the work being criticized.”

This figure who meets Frye’s criteria of concern and subjection is the critic as a friend to the text. To appreciate her, we must pull on a parallel thread in the history of criticism, different than the one that leads to the judge’s chambers. This thread runs through essays in which the writer interrupts his lengthy rebuke of the state of criticism by invoking the friend as “the real helper of the artist, a torch bearing outrider, the interpreter, the brother,” as Henry James writes—a friend whose presence, like the sun breaking through the clouds, can make a gray and inhospitable world suddenly seem expansive and warm. William Hazlitt’s “On Criticism” (1812), James’s “Criticism” (1899), and Marcel Proust’s “John Ruskin” (1906) represent the high points of this tradition, although its ori­gin is surely Alexander Pope’s 1711 “An Essay on Criticism,” which hails the critic as “the Muse’s judge and friend.”

[…] One should not expect mutuality from a text. It would be absurd for its themes or its style to accommodate who the critic is or what she desires, morally, politically, or emotionally. The text is what it is. It cannot be otherwise. It owes us nothing. We can demand nothing in particular of it. It is easy to lash out in the face of such vast indifference, to surface a disappointment so intense, a desire for gratification so bottomless, that it eclipses everything other than the drama of its own emergence. The challenge, as Pope elaborated it, is to meet the text with generosity—with a readiness to give more of one’s gifts than is necessary or expected. “Just as propriety finds figu­rative expression in the image of the judge,” Harold Bloom wrote, “generosity for Pope also calls forth its representative figure: the critic as friend.”

After a discussion of Pope’s Essay on Criticism, she continues:

Running underneath Pope’s account of the commensurability between the generous critic and the text was a wonderfully com­plex and democratic theory of pleasure. Pleasure, for Pope, arose neither from the critic’s purely subjective reaction nor from the poem’s objective perfection. It derived from the mingling of admi­ration and reason—“a happiness as well as care.” Reason reconciled wholes and parts, intentions and expectations, to show “the joint force and full result of all.” It distinguished a principle from a mere notion, saving a critic from sacrificing a work to his own folly and his impossible fantasies of perfection: “Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see, / Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be.” It taught the critic to be staunchly catholic in his pursuit of pleasure, not to limit it based on notions of what count as simple or diffi­cult, popular or niche. Reason was as spirited as it was judicious, as open as it was exacting.


Generosity, commensurability, conversation—how calm, how dispassionate these words can seem. They do not, however, mean that the critic must be uncritical or mild-mannered. Far from it. It would be wrong to confuse generosity with approval, or commen­surability with inattention. Being generous does not mean ignoring a friend’s lapses. Nor does it mean maintaining a perfect equanim­ity, a composure so thoroughgoing that it shades into neutrality or indifference or, worse, into a laissez-faire injunction to simply let people enjoy things.

In a 2015 essay that argues for criticism as a supremely personal experience, Frances Ferguson articulates a startling, unsentimen­tal vision of the critic as friend that makes room for all kinds of judgments. “The friend doesn’t merely recognize a friend at his or her most characteristic,” Ferguson writes. The friend recognizes the writer at his absolute worst as well as his absolute best. […]

Ferguson is primarily interested in the identity of the writer over time, but her argument shows us how the critic as friend can broker a new relationship between Time and Criticism. With one eye fixed on the present and the other on the future, the critic pre­serves the author’s identity not by uncritically celebrating or canon­izing his books but by transmitting the generosity—the generous pleasure, generous manners, and generous converse—by which others can learn to read these books as the singular works that they are. The critic models the practice of inquiry and the manner of feeling by which you, the reader, can also become a friend to the text. Of course, just because I am someone’s friend does not mean that you can be persuaded to be his friend too. But our friendships do not resist all attempts at articulation. I can suggest that you may come to feel as I feel about a person, a book, that you may want to know it as intimately as I do. I can help it pass gracefully from my hand to another’s, from the present into the future.

That’s the role I try to play when I discuss literature; I am severe when I find fault, but in general I am looking for good things to share and treat authors as people trying to provide such things. (Via MetaFilter; I note that it was posted by chavenet, whose consistently excellent contributions are one reason I keep going back to that troubled site.)


  1. Emre covered some of this same historical metacriticism ground in The New Yorker, “Has Academia Ruined Literary Criticism?” Cast, as one does, as a review of someone’s book.

    I gather the recent work there is somewhat a conscious effort to write about authors she likes, like Joyce and Woolf. After gaining notice outside academia for some more negative reviews, which apparently provoked the bizarre incident described here. And which were, I fear, welcomed by misogynist jerks, “see! see! feminist catfight, patriarchy is safe.”

  2. jack morava says

    This brings to mind George Steiner, quoted in AL Becker, Beyond Translation, U of Michigan Press (1998) (writing about Burmese) :

    “We venture a leap: we grant {\it ab initio} that there is ‘something there’ to be translated . . . ” (p 19)

    [As I understand it, one of the great critical traditions in mathematics is its continuing seminars – Bourbaki, Cartan,… in France, Arnol’d, Ge”fand,… in the CCCP, Kan, Mahowaldm Browder,,, in US topology – which systematically elucidated, clarified and evaluated work in rapidly developing fields. As far as I can tell, in such technical fields the distinction between criticism and translation is moot; the density of the material makes everything into some kind of hermeneutics.

    I bring this up because such institutions require long-term stability to function, and are under stress. Workers in the field are aware of the appallingly bad accounts of things like string theory or cosmology in even the best nontechnical press, with hype and contention for grants strangling the fields like kudzu

    A recent telling example is the use of sympathetic magic (writing an incantation modelling a not-even-4-dimensional black hole on an (emulated for G–d’s sake) quantum computer) to claim to have created a quantum black hole in the lab with a laptop, kids don’t try this at home. An exciting break-through quickly popularized by the IAS.


  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Wright’s Grammar of the Arabic Language, which can probably still claim to the the most comprehensive grammar of Classical Arabic in a European language, began life as a translation, I believe. There’s been a lot of that kind of translation-cum-expansion-and-improvement sort of thing in linguistics over the years.

    [Simon Evans’ nice Grammar of Middle Welsh specifically says that it is “not a translation” of his earlier Gramadeg Cymraeg Canol, but in fact most passages correspond pretty exactly: it’s basically a Second Edition, Expanded and Improved, that just happens to be in a different language altogether from the First Edition.]

  4. “Has Academia Ruined Literary Criticism?”

    “Are Titles Phrased As Open Questions Ever Not Rhetorical Ones?”

  5. David Eddyshaw says
  6. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t know if Betteridge offers the right default rule here, because there are rhetorical questions where the obvious intended answer is “yes” just as there are ones where the obvious intended answer is “no,” and only headlines for certain types of stories in certain sorts of publications are highly likely to draw from the latter set rather than the former set.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    there are rhetorical questions where the obvious intended answer is “yes”

    “Is the Pope a Catholic?” is one such question. Another is “Does a bear shit in the woods?”

    There are plenty of old-timey rhetorical questions such as “Does this sentence refer to itself?” and “Can an ought be derived from an is?”, which are obviously intended to remain unanswered. That is, I do not intend to essay answers to such weird, AI-like questions.

    Out of an abundance of caution, I do not care to engage in speculation even as to whether the cat is on the mat.

  8. “Does the Bear Shit in the Woods? Take this easy, 5 minute quiz!”

  9. “Where the top 12 animals shit. Number 2 is a stinker!”

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