I value critics, but some take the job—and themselves—so seriously they go beyond illuminating their subject. Instead, they hint at their superior understanding. They assume awareness greater than those they criticize. They sound smug or condescending or dismissive and thus elicit criticism themselves.
In these publicity-hungry, hot-headed times, we’re accustomed to vehement critics. How valuable can a half-hearted viewpoint be, after all? Yet egotism often poisons criticism. Confidence helps, but self-assurance without self-awareness reveals ignorance akin to the cluelessness it denounces. Instead of discernment, the critic’s motives come first. Yet fighting over rectitude rarely convinces anyone. It rarely exposes something hidden and important. I wish all our social critics were a little less vociferous, but I prefer Jon Stewart’s dissections to Sean Hannity, Bill Mahr and Bill O’Reilly’s rants.
Printers’ Row, the book supplement associated with The Chicago Tribune, recently started a new feature called “Time Machine” offering old Tribune reviews of famous books. The first entry was H. L. Mencken’s response to The Great Gatsby, which I encountered with some skepticism. I mostly admire Fitzgerald and the novel, and the little I’ve read from and about Mencken fills me with ambivalence. Sometimes he’s witty, incisive, and unstinting. Sometimes he’s sarcastic, biting, and petty. And this review evoked both reactions—demonstrating, for me, when criticism does and doesn’t work.
In this case, I should say, “Doesn’t and does,” for Mencken swings his sword wildly in his opening before calming down to say something valuable. He calls the novel “No more than a glorified anecdote,” and writes off Gatsby as “a clown” and the other characters as “marionettes—often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.” In the end, he says, “The immense house of the Great Gatsby stands idle, its bedrooms given over to the bat and the owl, its cocktail shakers dry. The curtain lurches down.”
Maybe Mencken wanted to launch with a blast of his characteristic vitriol, but he seems so self-satisfied. As muscular as Mencken’s prose is and as much as I get his perspective, he speaks to those who enjoy (as Warren Buffet put it), “Interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”
Granted, that’s most humans, but you either revel in his savagery or put the review aside immediately. If you’ve read the novel and agree, fine. If you haven’t, the critic’s snark is all you get. Illustrating broad proclamations is tricky, nigh impossible. Yet, if proof is impractical and explanation superfluous, only empty assertions remain.
Many of our pundits, politicians, and television personalities operate similarly. No longer inhabiting a three or four network world, we all have our shows. Whether to the left or right side of blue or red, you need never challenge prior conclusions. You can luxuriate in the affirmation of your disgust. Meanwhile, thought and self- examination suffer. Mencken described the U.S. as a “boobocracy,” ruled by the uninformed. We’re no longer quite that (because it’s hard to be uninformed in a nation saturated with media), but we can bask in the sneering certainty of the critics we accept, which may be worse.
Mencken’s appraisal of Fitzgerald improves after his initial salvo, not because he begins to give the book some credit—Mencken continues to assert rather than demonstrate or prove—but because he uses the book to address the practice of writing, a subject bigger than the author, the novel, and the critic.
At first, Fitzgerald chiefly receives faint praise for improvement. According to Mencken, Fitzgerald’s earlier writing was “Slipshod—at times almost illiterate” and “devoid of any feeling for the color and savor of words.” Then, however, Mencken stops punching Fitzgerald, whose progress is, to Mencken, “Of an order not witnessed in American writers; and seldom, indeed, in those who start out with popular success.” Mencken’s point also stops being personal. It tackles artistry and success, how the latter blunts the ambition of the former. The popular author who has “Struck the bull’s-eye once” may stop learning new techniques, Mencken says, and undergo, “a gradual degeneration of whatever talent he had at the beginning. He begins to imitate himself. He peters out.”
Which seems, to me, wise and well-put. Mencken is no longer talking about Fitzgerald at all, but about the temptations and pitfalls of popular fiction. Fitzgerald is the opposite of Mencken’s scenario, a talentless author who achieves success and then labors to improve. He is the exception to a rule. Having dropped insults, Mencken also abandons dismissing The Great Gatsby and turns to what’s in it. He notes Fitzgerald’s interest in the elite’s “Idiotic pursuit of sensation, their almost incredible stupidity and triviality.” Mencken’s statement that “These are the things that go into his [Fitzgerald’s] notebook,” marks a shift toward description and criticism’s real power, its capacity for careful observation and valuable distinctions.
I wish all criticism were so thoughtful as those last few paragraphs and that all critics might leave off hollering to speak in more audible tones. I know that’s less entertaining, and maybe it’s our nature to slip into ad hominem. Yet, to me, criticism seems most effective when it’s respectful. Critics don’t have to love everything—that’d be a different evil—but it’d be nice if they made their work about their subject and not about self-righteousness.