I’d like to name the three book reviewers I have enjoyed the most, and read most thoroughly. The only problem is, two of my favorite literary critics are dead, and one of them is, well, he’s not exactly young or hip. The living critic on my list is John Updike, whose three first volumes of collected essays Assorted Prose, Picked-Up Pieces and Hugging the Shore I used to read over and over, the same way I used to read Mad magazine books over and over when I was a kid. As with the Mad magazine books, I kept finding new stuff every time.
Updike writes elegantly and with a subtle wit. As an essayist — though not as a novelist — he is highly consistent, and his recent reviews in the New Yorker remain always a musical pleasure to read. He’s also aggressively international (some of the recent writers he has helped to introduce to American readers include Orhan Pamuk of Turkey, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o of Kenya and Michel Houellebecq of France).
John Updike’s approach to literature is notoriously genial and open-minded, but the same could not be said of the second critic, and the first dead critic, on my list: Thomas Stearns Eliot of St. Louis, Missouri. The Sacred Wood is a good introduction to the critical method of this severe thinker. T. S. Eliot was not only severe but also unimpeachably mystical; in this sense, his mission as a poet and his mission as a critic were unified.
Dante was T. S. Eliot’s ideal writer, because Dante (like Eliot) believed devoutly in the Christian notion of a heaven on earth. Spiritual seriousness in debased modern times is the theme of Eliot’s The Waste Land, and spiritual seriousness is also the measure by which T. S. Eliot judged the writers of his age. In this light, he was known to especially dislike Algernon Swinburne. Here’s an example of Eliot’s battling technique:
“A student of Swinburne will want to read one of the Stuart plays and dip into Tristram of Lyonesse. But almost no one, to-day, will wish to read the whole of Swinburne. It is not because Swinburne is voluminous; certain poets, equally voluminous, must be read entire. The necessity and the difficulty of a selection are due to the peculiar nature of Swinburne’s contribution, which, it is hardly too much to say, is of a very different kind from that of any other poet of equal reputation.”
The passage of time has proven Eliot correct on Swinburne, though Eliot’s also certainly been wrong on a few other subjects (such as, say, the nature of Europe’s fascist movements). But his critical voice is a marvel to behold, and I simply enjoy reading his stuff.
F. R. Leavis wrote a book called The Great Tradition which embraced and analyzed the concept of the English novel from numerous angles and reached the conclusion that there were exactly four great writers in this lineage: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. The book is sharp and unpretentious, and barely seems dated sixty years after its publication. As for Leavis’s final four? The pantheon constantly shifts, but I remember The Great Tradition as a guiding light, as well as a strong example of a consistent and thorough critical method that I could learn from.
Others I’ve enjoyed range from Cynthia Ozick to James Wood to Dale Peck. In terms of current newspaper and magazine critics, I don’t think much of either Janet Maslin or Michiko Kakutani from the New York Times, and I think I’ve written plenty enough elsewhere about the Book Review. Unfortunately, the Times is the only newspaper I read regularly, and I’m sorry to say I don’t read many magazines, though I try (and usually fail) to keep up with the New Yorker and the Village Voice. I read at least fifty literary bloggers, and in terms of serious critical chops I say the leader of the pack remains Ms. Maud Newton, though there are so many other talented bloggers I could not even begin to name them.
If there’s one word that describes what the critics I read most have in common, that word is “artistry”. These critics understand that literary criticism is creative writing. A work of good criticism is no less a piece of literature than the work that is the subject of the criticism. I think all the writers above stand as proof.