In the late 1700s, Hugh Blair said that the basis of criticism is precisely the practice of carefully observing the sources of aesthetic pleasure and deriving rules of judgment from the best performances. For the first time in our studies this semester, we see a scholar advancing rhetoric not for the purpose of implementation first, but rather with the idea that it can be used to evaluate the quality of another person’s work.
A career as a professional critic has always had a certain appeal to me, and I have tried several times to practice the art of the book review. My guide for these attempts has always been John Updike, who among a lot of other things he has written, has produced four books of literary criticism and contributes regularly to The New Yorker. In his foreword to one of these collections, Picked-Up Pieces, he details of two of his personal rules for good critical opinion, and I was surprised when reading Blair at how well their two philosophies overlapped with each other.
Updike’s first rule: ‘Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.’ Blair has much the same opinion when he speaks about the different degrees of eloquence (971). According to him, the lowest form of eloquence is that which aims only at pleasing the hearers, and that this mere ornamentational design is not to be rejected for it may innocently and amusingly entertain the mind. Blair wouldn’t want us to criticize a speaker for failing to persuade his audience if that wasn’t his intention.
Updike also says that ‘if a book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere.’ Essentially, Updike is saying that not only does an example (or likely many) of effective style exist but can be called upon to justify why a certain work fails to achieve effective status. As Blair says in his lecture on the subject, Taste ‘is a faculty common in some degree to all men’ (955). Though he is quick to explain that taste differs between men based on environment and practice in the ability to discern good taste, he still suggests that there is a bar of taste that must be reached or exceeded to be conferred with the appellation of ‘good,’ and that for the most part, people agree on what this bar is. This is the idea of a ‘standard,’ what Blair defines as properly signifying ‘that which is of such undoubted authority as to be the test of other things of the same kind’ (959).
While the rest of Updike’s rules deal too specifically with the art of the book review to be easily reconciled with the scholarship of Blair, I think that where the men differ in their opinions on criticism, they only do in an insubstantial way. I suppose this is to be expected since Updike went to prep schools that were likely based on the pedagogy of Blair.
I think it would be interesting to look at how the more general art of literary criticism uses rhetoric in two opposite, but complementary, effects. Learning the art of rhetoric is a valuable way to assess the level of success others have at achieving it, but one must further apply that knowledge in a different way when writing their evaluations for the consumption of others.
The idea of critical ethics also arises when the supposed standard of good taste is shifted for reasons that are beyond the bounds of criticism. For example, one might review a romance novel positively because they employ Updike’s first rule: for what it attempts, it is successful. But were the book not considered in good taste but reviewed that way to gain favor, or for financial considerations, we would consider this an ethical lapse. The undoubted authority of works that bear the standard can shift as times and societies change, of course, but shifting in this instance is either disingenuous or fraudulent. I would be interested to see at what point in history such ideas are addressed, and by who.