The Humility of the Critic

Question: Can critical judgment decide a work’s fate?

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Gary Giddins: Well, first of all, the work is never tied to the judgment. "Moby-Dick," widely criticized. If you go back and read the reviews that Melville got in the early 1850's, these are not stupid people for the most part. They are actually put off by what they consider to be this young man's pretentiousness and daring to write a Shakespearian novel. We don't have that same problem. But it did take, what? Seventy years for "Moby-Dick" to find, as a professor from Columbia named Raymond Weaver, who started writing about it in the early '20s, right around the time they discovered the manuscript at ****. It's only since then that "Moby-Dick" has become this mammoth work in our literature.

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And everybody knows that Vincent Van Gogh couldn't sell a painting and that Thelonious Monk for many years was considered a charlatan, and Cecil Taylor was considered a charlatan and all that kind of nonsense.

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Question: Can criticism be as enduring as art?

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Gary Giddins: Very little criticism has proven to be enduring. So, it really has to be essential. I mean, Aristotle, yes. Some of his criticism is enduring. Johnson is read by English majors like me. I mean try to find an inexpensive copy of “Lives of the Poets.” It's not easy. It's not—for a long time, you couldn’t find a decent edition of Boswell's “Life of Johnson.“ 

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Matthew Arnold's criticism isn't read anymore, Eliot's is not widely read anymore. There are very few—Wilson, I think because so many of us grew up with him and find him to be an extremely important American writer, but look how many years it took for the Library of America to put out two volumes of Edmund Wilson, who founded the Library of America. It was his idea. And this was a great source of embarrassment to the editors of the Library of America, but criticism didn't sell. They put out two volumes of Henry James' criticism. Brilliant stuff. They put out Edgar Allen Poe's criticisms. Criticism is a hard sale. Most people aren't interested in reading it. 

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So, I think it's mostly critics that read classic criticism. But to my sorrow, and I've had this conversation a zillion times, even my colleagues don't read classic criticism. And my feeling is that if you don't do that then you're not really practicing your craft. That's how you learn how to do it. You don't learn how to write about jazz just from listening to jazz. You learn how to write by reading the great writers and how they worked, the great music critics.

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Now, one of the essential books that I always recommend to anybody who wants to write about, or even think about music, is Slominsky’s Dictionary of Musical Invective. It's a collection of quotes by critics over the last 250 years that are just so totally off base that they are hilarious. “No one will ever listen to Beethoven’s Third Symphony because it's 40 minutes long, and who will ever listen to a 40-minute symphony?" Beethoven’s response was to write a 90-minute symphony. But when you read those reviews in the context of their period, these are not stupid people; they're simply reflecting the tastes and the limitations of that period.

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But Slominsky’s is a book you should have on your bookshelf just to keep you humble. Humility is a very important trait in a critic.

Recorded on November 13, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

Can criticism be as ageless as art, or is it inseparable from its time and place? Gary Giddins takes a tough look at his own profession.

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