Auden on good readings

In its current issue, Narrative Magazine has reprinted W.H. Auden’s essay “Reading”—an incisive and often very funny take on how people read literature and offer criticism, and how he feels they ought to. Here Auden argues that writing and reading negative criticism is mostly a waste of time:

If, when a reviewer whose taste I trust condemns a book, I feel a certain relief, this is only because so many books are published that it is a relief to think—“Well, here, at least, is one I do not have to bother about.” But had he kept silent, the effect would have been the same.

Why waste your time on attacks of bad books, when you could be devoting yourself to good books instead? Further, Auden points out that most literary hatchet jobs are little more than ego trips, in any case:

If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off.

I think this applies only to the world of public reviews and criticism—there’s much to be said in favor of showing off your wit and malice in the company of friends. And I’ve also learned a lot by privately writing down my negative reactions to books and stories—to trying to articulate precisely what it is I don’t like about a work that I think is a failure. But what’s to be gained by making this kind of thing public? Chances are at least fair that the author of the failed work has fully put his or her heart into it—that he or she believes in it deeply, and has offered it up to the world in the hope that it might find an audience that understands its value. Why insult or humiliate someone for having this kind of hope, except out of jealousy or cynicism or schadenfreude?

Making art is an act of bravery, because the world’s reaction to it will almost always amount to either hostility or absolute indifference. People are suspicious of those of us who claim to be artists—who are you to think you’re so special, that you have anything to say, that you’re good enough, that I ought to pay any attention to you? And new or amateur artists are doubly suspect, as they’re making these claims without having any record of success to back them up. The general assumption is that art will fail—and people take pleasure in exposing its failure, in revealing the artist as some kind of self-indulgent egoist or fraudulent fake, as not so special after all.

But I think even failed art—art that no one but the artist could enjoys or appreciate or empathize with learn from—remains valuable at least in the act of its creation. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing art as therapy, as self-expression, as politics, or for any other reason that many people see as invalid. And there’s nothing wrong with trying and failing, at least so long as the effort was sincere and you’ve perhaps learned something along the way.

Anyway, it seems to me (much as it did to Auden) that it’s far better to publicly and enthusiastically praise the art that does succeed—the stuff that reaches you, moves you, excites you—than to denigrate the work that doesn’t. Why tell the world about a book you don’t think anyone should read, when instead you can tell them about one that they should?


0 Responses to “Auden on good readings”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

April 2008
    May »

%d bloggers like this: