THE CRITICAL EQUATION

~ Posted by Robert Butler, August 29th 2012

Anyone who works as a critic encounters a set of stock reactions: "What right do you have to say what's good and what's bad?" or "Do you do any writing of your own?" When people want to be a little more crushing, they sometimes say: "You know, no-one ever built a statue to a critic." (That's not strictly true: a mile from this office there is a statue to a great literary critic, Samuel Johnson.) Another putdown goes: "No-one ever grew up thinking they wanted to be a critic."

This also turns out to be untrue. Yesterday the classical scholar and critic Daniel Mendelsohn posted "A Critic's Manifesto" on the New Yorker's website. It opens: 

In the nineteen-seventies, when I was a teenager and had fantasies of growing up to be a writer, I didn’t dream of being a novelist or a poet. I wanted to be a critic. I thought criticism was exciting, and I found critics admirable.

To highlight the best critics writing today, we ran a series "Reviewers Revered" in which 24 writers and editors chose the critics they thought were most worth reading. There were 32 critics chosen and one of my two choices was Mendelsohn himself ("combines exact descriptions of the surface vivacity of a production...with driving analytical argument"). In his 4,000-word manifesto he captures, precisely, the best way in which a reader can learn from a critic. 

I thought of these writers above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example that they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments.

Mendelsohn goes on to propose a short definition.

For all criticism is based on that equation: KNOWLEDGE + TASTE = MEANINGFUL JUDGMENT.

That's neat, but it leaves out one of the most important qualities in a critic: their voice. The impact that Kenneth Tynan or Pauline Kael or Clive James made with their criticism is inseparable from the force and personality of their voices. I would refine Mendelsohn’s equation one stage further: 

KNOWLEDGE + TASTE + VOICE = PERSUASIVE MEANINGFUL JUDGMENT.

Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life. He was theatre critic of the Independent on Sunday (1995-2000)