On the significance and relevance of the modern literary critic
By Madhurima Duttagupta
I am gravely skeptical about the touted significance of the role of a critic in literature or the arts. However, I wouldn’t dare to completely tag the outsourced inference or even the paid-for favour of a critic as entirely obsolete, since I do believe that qualified feedback could fuel meaningful literature, protect unique writing styles and storylines from commercial slaughterhouses, and also engage minds in a meaningful comparison between the varying styles and formats. While one should remain open to criticism, unwarranted vociferous opinions and disapproval of so-called flaws and faults are distasteful and downright offensive. Is this policing necessary? Must we always compare? Well that’s a completely different point altogether. My contention here rests on the unsettling premise that the role of a critic will not be reaching its extinction anytime soon.
These days everybody seems to have donned the expert’s hat and in doing so have exponentialised the rising score of self-invited advice and opinions that are frivolously thrown at the writer. Generally, this is done with complete disregard for the latter’s craft, which has led to the steady decline of my regard for this venerated role. Perhaps it is the dearth of deserving critics that makes the presence of these unqualified opinion-dumpers increasingly unacceptable to writers and other professionals. In fact, I suspect it is the overuse or even abuse of this role and the very nomenclature ‘critic’ that has lent a perpetual negative connotation to the word, rightfully introduced to accomplish a more productive role however arguably redundant most of it still remains most of the times.
It is the overwhelming reach that another’s opinion bears on one’s work that concerns me. I have noticed, both as a reader and a writer, the sudden progression in the number of critics A.K.A. ‘advisers’or reviewers as also in the amount of lethal power they possess over a piece of literature that a writer may have taken years to complete. The literary wheel seems to be spinning more often around the critic’s verdict that then somehow dictates the details and choices for a writer and a reader. We seem to be in a shadow-worshiping world where the actual work is liberally despised or judged.
Among the violations that the writer in me has suffered, the most entertaining one was a feedback I received a few months ago on one of my poems ‘Poetry vs. Cigarettes’ that I happened to share on a known social forum for poetry readers, which turned out to be my greatest misjudgment. I was appalled at the level of highhandedness people can assume. One ridiculously concerned and presumptuous gentleman pounded me with his disgust for cigarettes, since he had managed to somehow perceive my poetry very literally and derive the most unimaginative implication from it, overlooking the entire metaphor that I thought I had so intelligently crafted. Wonder what would happen if I posted Mark Twain’s ‘On Masturbation’ without the acclaimed author’s byline!
The same gentleman then rewrote my entire poem for me, robbing it of its rhythm, and retained only the title as a kind gesture so I would understand how I had to do justice to the title. In the end, he messaged: ‘Remember, it is Poetry vs. Cigarettes not Cigarettes vs. Poetry’. I am still to figure out the depth of that sentence. Their confidence baffles me even as I battle to survive their unfinished sentences and obstreperous conduct. Though to tell you the truth I’d be far more worried or even devastated had he left a poem that seemed to be of a higher quality than my own work. It was a scary stunt to have pulled on a writer, and surely a foolish one too, in this case. As the original diva Madonna phrased it for Lady Gaga: ‘It seemed reductive.’ Touché, Madonna! I suppose this goes for all those who assume the liberty and qualification to reconstruct another’s work or writing as a self-attested critic.
As much of my literary wonder invariably trails back to Virginia Woolf, in this case too she has, for me, remained the best example of a truly qualified critic. Firstly, her own views as a writer have been discussed, criticised or even left unnoticed just like the highly complex and bold painting patterns of the great Vincent Van Gogh. This meant that she had faced the vices of criticism herself. Secondly, no criticism seemed to have dissuaded her from expressing herself (once again, like Van Gogh), which meant she knew the difference between a good critique and a bad one. Her ideas and writing style, even today, stand firmly as a hallmark of excellence in literature surpassing the lifespan of several critics and their opinions.
Virginia Woolf took the opinions of only a few writer-friends like Eliot and chose to overlook the views of journalists, critics and fans too, since she feared that too much flattery, just like too many critiques, would influence her intent as a writer. She clearly understood the roles of a critic and a critique. In her personal reflections, Diary of a Writer, Virginia Woolf neatly defaced many big names in the world of poetry and professionals whose works have overlooked the nuances of human emotions, while they have solely glorified physical strength and valour as attributes of human strength; elements like emotional complexities and subtleties in relationships have largely been ignored. For her, those intricacies, obscurities and uneasiness of the human mind are like the central characters that lend an element of reality to an otherwise utopian and transparent plot. She discussed the writing styles of her contemporaries even as she candidly dissected her own moods and works effortlessly. She has, in several cases, reassessed her own work and expressed her excitement or disappointment over it. To me that is a ‘qualified’ critic.
It is solely for the likes of Virginia Woolf that I remain hopeful of this probably-redundant-yet-not-completely-pointless effort and so I voluntarily continue to prevent myself from fully despising this role as an entirely wasteful occupation. After all, for the writer in me, no one is more dangerous than the critic that resides within me and quietly watches me, from time to time, even as I continue to write.
Madhurima Duttagupta started her career as a journalist with The Times of India. She has, to her credit, over a hundred published works across several reputed national dailies like The Hindu, Deccan Herald and The Times of India. Since moving to Singapore in 2007, she has held senior editorial positions for leading lifestyle magazines. Madhurima, who is also an active blogger (http://madhurimaduttagupta.wordpress.com), has recently authored a book titled ‘Goddess & Whore’.