16 MAY 1987, Page 28


Why are our critics so bad?

Colin Welch

NO, NOT BLOOMSBURY by Malcolm Bradbury Deutsch, £17.95 In Professor Bradbury's critical essays you'll find yourself at times in very boring and depressing company. Not his own, I hasten to make clear: commonsense, perception, humour and a capacity for enjoyment preserve him from disprop- ortionate gloom and pedantry. He adores Evelyn Waugh, too, a sure sign of critical grace. For there are no wrong pseudo- critical reasons for liking Waugh. He is crystal clear, directly and irresistibly funny. No writer could stand in less need of the tedious 'interpretation' which endears so many obscure experimental writers to ex- emplars in dim universities of the Eng Lit critical salariat, funded, tenured and pro- fessionalised. These exemplars are anxious to show how clever they are by striving to render the incomprehensible comprehensi- ble, and often achieve only a critique as incomprehensible as its subject. If in no- thing else, Waugh resembles Priestley in that 'his books do not offer a great deal to modern critical practice' — Professor Bradbury's words. Do I detect in them a tinge of disappointment about something for which Priestley actually deserves cre- dit?

Professor Bradbury's bores are mostly the sort of grey unmemorable experts he meets at Eng Lit or Am Lit or World Lit seminars and feels, for modesty's or safe- ty's sake, compelled to quote. On pages 52 and 53 we meet Linda Hutcheon, Eric Berne, Wayne Dyer, Donald Barthelme, Harold Bloom, Boris Eichenbaum and Pierre Macherey. Who they? I haven't a clue, though I've heard of Christopher Lasch, and once even met Dwight Macdo- nald on a grisly occasion when, in a room full of Jews, one lady with the infamous Gestapo tattoo on her wrist, he repeatedly and loudly laughed off Auschwitz. Perhaps crass reactions of this kind were in the mind of Kurt Vonnegut when he declared that 'there is nothing to say after a mas- sacre'. 'No poetry after Auschwitz', pon- tificated Adorno, one of Professor Brad- bury's prize bores, in a similarly negative vein.

No maniac guffaws, I would agree; nothing to say which is hasty, silly or unfeeling; no irresponsible poetry, no poet- ry which is oblivious, as so much poetry has been since the Romantics, of the dire fact that words have a meaning and can have consequences; no more Auden cant about necessary killings or Blok cant about Christ's role in the Bolshevik Revolution. But, nothing wise to say? No poetry at all, not even uplifting or consolatory or pro- foundly revelatory poetry? Were ever pro- hibitions or self-denials more sterile and demeaning, more insulting to the word? After massacres does not Shakespeare nearly always have something memorable to say? Professor Wilson Knight discerned a special importance in the last scene of most of Shakespeare's tragedies, so often ignored or, by foreign translators, adaptors and librettists, missed out (as in Gounod's glorious Romeo and Juliet). In these be- neficent afterwords perspective and the natural order are restored. Life goes on; history resumes its course; and Shakespeare thought it worthwhile to emphasise that they do. That is perhaps what makes him in a deep sense a classical dramatist, far more deserving the title than those who, within the unities, deal only with isolated crises.

A few pages later Professor Bradbury introduces us to Robert Alter, Christopher Butler, Clive Hart, Jacob Korg, Margaret Rose (not, I take it, the flighty princess) and Robert Scholes. Do these analysts throw fresh light on Joyce, Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, Burroughs and Italo Calvi- no? Not that I can see: rather additional shafts of darkness.

Many of Professor Bradbury's bores are French, though with a strong German flavour. They are often existentialists or deconstructionists, structuralists or other 'ists. Their nature and purpose have never revealed themselves to me, despite direct questioning and poring over philosophical and literary reference books. The definitions of the 'isms are, alas, normally couched in the same impenetrable jargon as the 'isms themselves. We are thus launched by them into infinite regressions. The 'ists' gloom and despair are impenetrable and all- pervasive, like a thick fog at Old Trafford.

`I began writing fiction,' declares an American 'novelist', 'on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme'. Deport these enemies, and what is left? Apparent- ly, 'totality of vision or structure'. A bleak and unnutritious totality, perhaps, de- prived of the means through which it is accustomed to express itself. Is not the truest enemy of the novel he who throws out not only baby and bath water but the bath itself to boot?

The gloom continues. Robbe-Grillet protests that the nouveau roman confuses only those who seek in it for what has `disappeared from every living novel' or at least become debilitated: 'characters, chro- nology, sociological studies'. 'The novel of character,' he says, 'belongs entirely in the past,' along with the vanished 'apogee of the individual'. Identities thus collapse; not only the character fades, but author and reader, too. In future fiction, it seems, all distinctions will be abolished between real and imaginary, conscious and unconscious, past and present, truth and untruth. The Death of the Author, the Death of the Subject and the Death of the Novel are ceaselessly theoretically pursued by the 'ists. Roland Barthes tells us that 'what can no longer be written is the Proper Name'. Well . . .

Does Professor Bradbury swallow all this nonsense? Not on your life. He is as aware as the rest of us that you had only, say, to steal Barthes's watch or wallet for him at once to recall his proper name and hurry to give it indignantly to the police. His own proper name appeared on his own books, and was presumably protected by copyright. When he was killed by a taxi outside Mitterrand's Paris house, none of his disciples wondered whether it was someone else, or no one at all.

At times Professor Bradbury becomes quite irreverent, almost perky or skittish. He defiantly cries, or rather slyly hints, that 'we might even say that we are freer than we think, more entitled to call ourselves persons than we like to claim'. To the 'ists this must seem near blasphemy.

And, of course, Professor Bradbury has shamelessly written novels himself, con- taining plots, characters, settings and themes just as if the 'ists had never pronounced against them. One of these, The History Man, I read with great plea- sure, though without any conviction that the author was sufficiently detached from his academic snake-pit successfully to poke fun at its scaly denizens.

Can the fact that the author was a distinguished literary critic have helped either? Professor Bradbury passionately believes that 'there is good literature only where there is a serious critical debate alive, surrounding and stimulating artistic activity and judgment'.

So long as the critical debate does still go on, and so long as people like Professor Bradbury are around to inject some sense into it, so long will universal darkness be kept at bay. If the debate ended in victory for the 'ists, how could literature survive at all? For a creative writer to have people like Barthes in his head as he writes must be about as helpful as having an intermin- able lachrymose funeral unfolding itself in his study or a ghetto-blaster thundering just outside.

Many of the vices and enormities of academic criticisms are perfectly apparent to the Professor. Some he must deplore. Others he tolerates or is an accomplice in, one justified sinner among many. He chides us British for having always thought of our writers just as the US cavalry thought about Indians: 'the only good one is a dead one'. Touché, to be sure. But isn't it natural, if cash and leisure are limited, to read what time has found excellent, to buy tickets for Shakespeare rather than for the latest seedy Brechtoid agitator who shamelessly purveys in the theatre stale notions which would be laughed out of court in a pub? And is it not also natural, if sad, that the authors we love most are those we read when young and impression- able and who, if not dead then, are mostly dead now, alas?

Also, we have lost confidence in the critics who should guide our steps through the contemporary maze. Blind ourselves, can they see better?

There is first the matter of hype. Mark Amory in the Times cited Gore Vidal talking sense for once: 'That all American writers are over-rated — the competent seen as masters, the masters as geniuses - because of the aggrandising effect of the theses and studies which are showered on them like confetti'. Fear also engenders hype. Many critics are, like Professor Bradbury, writers themselves. Rash to point out the clay feet of the venomous X's latest novel when he may review your next!

And of course there is, as I have said, the deformation professionelle of academic cri- tics to over-value complexity and opacity.

Clear writing annoys them, cheats them. It shoots their fox. It leaves them with nothing to do. Why write a thesis on Neville Shute? On second thoughts, why not? His edifying view of life may be at least as interesting and valuable as that of, say, Salman Rushdie — or Joe Orton.

To separate themselves further from the masses, have not academic critics, talking to each other, writing for each other, developed a language of their own? Not only do they, like Marxists, use words unfamiliar to us. They also use familiar words in strange ways which may mislead. When Marxists, for instance, talk about alienation they do not normally mean by it what we mean. In the same way, academic critics, following Leavis, do not appear to mean by words like 'morality', 'puritan- ism', 'non-conformism' or 'responsibility' anything that ordinary educated people mean by them. To apply them all, directly or by implication, as Leavis and Bradbury often do, seems to us as incongruous as to clap a top hat on to a savage. Leavis sneers at Lord David Cecil for distancing himself from George Eliot's puritan standards of right and wrong, from her admiration for chastity and self-restraint, from her dis- approval of loose living, deceit and self- indulgence. Professor Bradbury quotes with approval Leavis's claim to share (his italics) those standards and beliefs, which seem to him (Leavis) productive of serious literature. Indeed they are; but to suggest in any way that they were productive of, say, Lady Chatterley's Lover surely comes close to, well, deceit. Can we trust such criticism, with its weird standards and morality?

Incensed by some of the company Pro- fessor Bradbury keeps, I have failed to point out what good company he hi,mself is, how thoughtful, fair-minded and penet- rating. He quotes Goya for instance: 'The sleep of reason begets monsters'. This strikes him as an 'ambiguous motto'. I had not so thought it before. It is not the only fresh perception I owe to him.