[Despite appearances, this was not intended as an attempt to weigh in on the discussions of criticism ongoing at The Valve and Note Bene Books. They are discussing the possibility and value of what they find it necessary to distinguish as evaluative criticism; I am concerned with the methods of evaluation. (Actually, this essay was not intended at all; I set out write something completely different, and wrote this more or less by accident.)]
There are only two possible bases on which to build a science of criticism: a criticism of perfection or a criticism of excellence. The criticism of perfection judges a work by its fulfillment of a system of rules, or by its resemblance to some 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 paradigmatic kind, but I address all criticism.
Many systems for assaying perfection have been proposed; and many groups of critics have tried becomes the arbiters of excellence. The usefulness of this distinction is not positive. 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. Rather, each kind of criticism has its own vices, which appear whenever some standard or group wins out.
The vices 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. Why do they not simply save time, and write the essays themselves? But this is fishmonger criticism: it fillets the story. The expectation is that the hard, essayistic and the soft, esthetic parts can be later reconciled; but that 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 evident 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 nonsequiturs, 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 dangers, 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 absurd than to practice literature for the benefit of those hostile to literature?
The vices of the criticism of excellence are unfamiliar. After all, it saves books. How many great books, not written for the public at large, would have oblivion had not the criticism of excellence brought together 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 vice here, though unfamiliar, is really very simple: the criticism of excellence is based on an absurdity. By definition, 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 fit 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 experiences, you can no more join a body of critics than you can join an organization of war veterans if you are not one. It is not a question of adopting the mindset created originally by certain experiences: rather the mindset comprises the experiences; the experiences constitute the mindset. Thus every few decades a new body of critics comes up, and drives out the old ones. Unless you belong to the rising body of critics—unless you belonged to it before its coup, which must be in large part a matter of geography and luck—you have no chance for a voice.
If neither approach to criticism is workable, then there are only two possibilities. 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 need to keep an ideal audience in mind, let it be anything but a critic.
Yet criticism does exist. 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; or some synthesis to achieve; or some prior unity to return to? Rather, there is no criticism; there are only critics; for those who practice criticism according to some criticism of criticism are thus secondary critics; and even where shared ideals bring reader to critic, the reader gives not assent, but trust. Criticism must end somewhere. Be you tireless as a dog, lithe as a cat, still you cannot catch your own tail.