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The Duty of Harsh Criticism

“[O]ur first duty is to establish a new and abusive school of criticism,” Rebecca West wrote in the New Republic in 1914. “There is now no criticism in England. There is merely a chorus of weak cheers, a piping note of appreciation that is not stilled unless a book is suppressed by the police, a mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger.” (h/t: Real Clear Books).

Change “England” to America and “the police” to parents (when the “piping note of appreciation” changes to indignant bullying), and you’ve got an excellent summary of the current state of criticism in this country.

What is the source of this flinching amiability? In West’s day it sprang from a “faintness of the spirit, from a convention of pleasantness, which, when attacked for the monstrous things it permits to enter the mind of the world, excuses itself by protesting that it is a pity to waste fierceness on things that do not matter.”

These days it comes from a lukewarm suspicion of the intellect, a pseudo-democratic feeling that no one is really any more qualified than anyone else to pronounce verdicts on literature, and a heartfelt relativism which believes, to the tips of its fingers, that every judgment is a personal preference anyway. In an age when reading is (supposedly) in decline, it is widely held to be wrong to discourage anyone from sitting down with a book. The important thing is to read. What is read matters less.

Except that it does matter. A lot. The circulation of ideas begins with books, and bad books circulate bad ideas. (That’s primarily why they are bad.) Take the execution of Troy Davis, for example. The conventional wisdom on the left is that Davis was “murdered” by the state (see here and here and here). The idea can be traced back to Truman Capote’s famous In Cold Blood, which if not inventing it gave it a wide distribution.

After the prosecution’s summation to the jury, two reporters exchange words. An unnamed “young reporter from Oklahoma” (Capote himself, in all likelihood) criticizes the prosecutor for his brutality. Richard Parr of the Kansas City Star scoffs:

     “He was just telling the truth. . . . The truth can be brutal. To coin a phrase.”
     “But he didn’t have to hit that hard. It’s unfair.”
     “What’s unfair?”
     “The whole trial. These guys don’t stand a chance.”
     “Fat chance they gave [16-year-old] Nancy Clutter.”
     “Perry Smith. My God. He’s had such a rotten life—”
     Parr said, “Many a man can match sob stories with that little bastard. Me included. Maybe I drink too much, but I sure as hell never killed four people in cold blood.”
     “Yeah, and how about hanging the bastard? That’s pretty goddam cold-blooded too.”

Thus the real meaning of Capote’s title, which refers not to the murder of the Clutter family but instead to the execution of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith five-and-a-half years later. Those who seek justice, Capote says, are no less willing to kill in cold blood.

The idea that Troy Davis was “murdered” by the state is difficult to refute because of the popularity, nearly the canonical status, of Capote’s book. If more critics had abused the book upon its original publication in 1966, if more of them had followed the lead of William Phillips, who argued in COMMENTARY that the book was a failure because Capote had failed to show how Hickock and Smith were acting out the “moral logic” of the ideas that had invaded their lives, then perhaps the central theme of In Cold Blood might not have become established like a first principle in much of American culture.

Most critics were less afraid of shirking their duty than of earning a reputation for harshness. Little has changed. A book like Amy Waldman’s 9/11 novel The Submission is praised as “nervy and absorbing” — Amazon recommends it as a Best Book of the Month, calling it “airtight, multi-viewed, highly readable” — but its message that the bitter American struggle over symbols masks a deep national dysfunction is either ignored or reduced to platitude (“public memorials [are] an adjunct to the real and personal suffering that lingers, invisibly and unconsoled, in individual lives,” or in other words, the true meaning of human experience lies in suffering).

When critics fail to bulldoze such nonsense under, it spreads like knotweed, choking American thought. Not that their dereliction of duty will win them any friends. People are even more uncomfortable around critics than they are around undertakers. They might as well be harsh.

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