9 Feb 2012
Once a month The Blue Bookcase poses a question to all lit book bloggers. I was excited when I saw this month’s question because it is so timely for me, tying into something I have been thinking about. I read Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray this week and in the preface Wilde made a statement about critics that knocked me out.
First though, The Blue Bookcase’s question:
In the epilogue for Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman writes:
It’s always been my theory that criticism is really just veiled autobiography; whenever someone writes about a piece of art, they’re really just writing about themselves.
My initial thought on Klosterman’s quote is that it is an intentional exaggeration meant to cause I knee jerk reaction. To say that each critic puts a bit of him or her self in their own writing would be a statement I think most would agree with but to use the word “autobiography” instead is insulting. I also feel the word “veiled” insinuates that a critic is trying to deceive, either themselves or the public.
I believe it is possible to critique a work based on its technical merits and to acknowledge the skill an author has, or has not, to cause an emotional reaction; while at the same time limiting one’s personal experiences and emotions from creeping into a review. I haven’t read Klosterman’s quote in context but standing alone, it comes across as a bit Writer Whine. As if no one else’s opinion on his work matters since they are only critiquing themselves and not Klosterman’s skill as an author.
Having said all that, I do think there is a fundamental truth hiding in Klosterman’s quote and now I have to, very unfairly, compare his quote to Oscar Wilde, who said it so much better.
The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.
I read that quote over again about a dozen times when I came across it in the preface to Dorian Gray. In it Wilde sums up everything I want this blog and my writing to be. It’s also slightly painful to read because I know I simply can’t live up to it every time I write.
Wilde’s quote hits on the same point the Klosterman does when he says “his impression”. Breaking it down into definitions, a critic is one who can render in another language an effect, feeling, or image retained as a consequence of experience.
The personal experience that Klosterman calls “autobiography” is certainly integral in a critic’s writing, as well as an author’s. I wonder if Klosterman would say that every author writes his own autobiography again and again? Couldn’t we take it even further and say that everything written- fiction, non-fiction, and criticism is autobiographical. And does that some how devalue the work?
The difference I see in Wilde’s point of view, is that in his quote the critic’s personality or experiences are used not to write about himself, as Klosterman said, but to write about beautiful things in a beautiful manner.
Note that when I say Beautiful I do not mean Pretty. Hemingway, for example, writes beautifully but not prettily. And to critique Hemingway with pretty prose might be jarring. The best writing about books or art, in my opinion, captures a bit of the original in its style. On the other hand, a critic can write beautifully about a book with many technical faults. It’s much harder though and I’m not sure if it is always worth the effort!
So to sum up, a critic can create his or her own art (not all do) and every creation includes the creator’s point of view. How much of one’s self a critic puts in their own work varies greatly and I do not believe opinion or impression equals autobiography.