The Ruricolist is now available in print.


There are only two possible foundations for a science of criticism: the criticism of perfection, and the criticism of excellence. The criticism of perfection judges a work by a system of rules, or by its resemblance to a postulated masterpiece. The criticism of excellence, being unsystematic, is harder to define; but to earn approval and applause this way, a work must surprise its critics.

I confine my examples to literary criticism as the paradigm, but I address all criticism.

Many systems for measuring perfection have been proposed; many schools of critics have tried to appoint themselves the lifetime judges of excellence. But to know that a work has been found perfect is not to know why it is perfect; and to know that a work has been found excellent is not to know why it is excellent. Each kind of criticism has its own failings, which appear whenever some standard or group wins out.

The failings of the criticism of perfection are familiar. This method is so far out of favor that it is harder to imagine how it could ever have worked, than what could have gone wrong. The few efforts which have been made in this direction have either fallen flat, or had to shelter downwind of science. This is, after all, the kind of criticism we are taught forms of in school. It takes things apart, it anatomizes to give names to each dead part: theme, plot, symbol, character. Mastery of this method allows the quick-witted to turn a story into an essay so fast and so thoroughly that one is only left to wonder why authors bother with the formality of fiction. It is so inefficient. Why don’t they just write the essays themselves? But this is fishmonger criticism: it fillets the story. The most generous interpretation of this approach is that it expects the hard, essayistic and the soft, aesthetic parts can later be reconciled; but that usually works out no better for the story than it does for the fish.

This method was not always decadent. In the French critics of the late Renaissance, for example, we find, not a vital impulse for drama constrained by revenant rules, but rediscovered laws calling dramatic art back into being. Before the professionalization of literature, the criticism of perfection was the only kind of criticism possible: the aspiring writer could present no credential of the mastery of the form, except the perfect fulfillment of the form.

Shakespeare, to make a joke like Pyramus and Thisbe, to hammer at the fourth wall with The Mousetrap, had to enclose them in larger plays; to play with nonsense and anacoluthon, had to put them in the mouths of fools and madmen. But were he alive today, he could do these things directly. It might be better for his career. Would a modern Shakespeare more easily stage The Tempest or Pearls That Were His Eyes? Titus Andronicus or A Dinner Fit for an Emperor? Macbeth, or The Porter Equivocates?

Despite its failings, of the two kinds of criticism, the criticism of perfection is the more open, the more honest, and the more consistent. It is the default form of criticism: it was the first; it is almost inextinguishable, absent only where literature is absent; and it is resistant to debunking. Where the tools can all be seen, it is hard to call their users impostors.

But what could be more perverse than to write to please those hostile to literature?

The failings of the criticism of excellence are unfamiliar. After all, it saves books. How many great books, not written for the public at large, would be lost had not the criticism of excellence assembled a voluntary public willing to meet them halfway? How many great books that came in the first instance before the wrong public, had only the criticism of excellence where to make their appeal?

The failing is simple: the criticism of excellence is based on a fallacy. By definition (assuming a normal distribution), the majority of anything cannot be excellent. Or put another way: all books cannot be above average. The criticism of excellence, by valuing only the excellent, destroys what it loves: like the gardener who, to make room for more flowers, plucks off all the leaves.

Worse, the criticism of excellence is necessarily cliquish. To be able to recognize excellence with certainty – to know a work for the best of its kind or the first of a new kind – you must know (or believe that you know) everything. The result is that a body of critics of excellence form a kind of priesthood or freemasonry; they speak shorthand, they write secret handshakes. This is doubly problematic. First, it makes literature inaccessible from the outside – it is not enough to read the words if you are not in on the joke; and second, it makes literature inaccessible from the inside. If you have not shared their formation, you can no more join a body of critics than you can join an organization of veterans of a war you did not fight in. It is not a question of adopting the mindset formed by certain experiences: instead the experiences constitute the mindset. Thus every few decades a new corps of critics comes up, and drives out the old ones. Unless you belong to the rising corps of critics – unless you belonged to it before its coup, which must be in large part a matter of geography and luck – you are out as long as they are in.

If neither approach to a science of criticism is viable, then there are only two conclusions. Either criticism does not exist; or criticism is not a science. And, in practice, many writers behave as if there were no such thing as criticism. Whom, after all, should they trust? An older writer who has outlived cycles of praise and abuse, ceases to care about their recurrence. And if a young writer needs to keep an ideal audience in mind – let it be anyone but a critic.

Yet criticism exists. Its more workmanlike forms are increasingly difficult to avoid; and if the workman exists, then so must the master. But if criticism is not a science, then what is it? How should it be done? If neither the criticism of perfection nor the criticism of excellence suffices, then is there some third, artistic way; is there some synthesis to achieve; is there some prior unity to return to?

The truth is that there is no criticism; there are only critics. Those who practice criticism according to some criticism of criticism can only be secondary critics. Criticism must end somewhere. Be you tireless as a dog, lithe as a cat, still you cannot catch your own tail.