The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously

Merve Emre
Illustration by James Gallagher

No figure in the whole of English literature is as reviled as the critic. He seems to have been invented to provoke scorn and skepticism. Among the first men to borrow from the Latin criticus (“one who judges”) to create the English word critike was John Bridges, Bishop of Oxford, who, in a 1587 treatise, advised young parish clerks not to “write, & be carried away with a light madness.” To show them madness in action, he told a story about a fictitious clergyman named “Grunnius,” the grunter, whose name called to mind a whining pig. Appearing before an audience of scholars to debate a matter of scripture, Grunnius mocked his opponents. He accused them of harboring vices that he knew himself to be guilty of. He flaunted what little learning he had. “You would have said he had been Longinus the Critike (one that gives his judgment against everybody),” Bridges complained.

This vision of the critic as a pig, an uncouth, if mildly intel­ligent, animal rolling in his own sweet filth, has resonated with writers across the centuries. “Critikes,” “Criticks,” or “Crieticks” were the enemies of pleasure and praise, the scourge of writers and readers alike. In William Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, first published in 1598, the lovestruck Lord Biron dispatches a letter to his fair Rosaline, then laments his inability to express his affection in words: “And I, forsooth, in love! I that have been love’s whip; / A very beadle to a humorous sigh; / A Crietick, nay, a night-watch Constable.” Translators of travel logs and philosophical tracts alike decried the audacious and habitually dishonest “Critikes,” who would “transpose, and omit, and foist into the Text many words and conceytes, whereof the Author never dreamed.” For satirists writing in that delightful seventeenth- and eighteenth-century genre, the character sketch, the critic presented an especially attrac­tive figure for ridicule. Both Samuel Butler’s Characters, written between 1677 and 1679, and Abel Boyer’s The English Theophrastus, published in 1703, denounced the critic with the same savage glee with which the critic denounced the poets and the playwrights. “How strangely some words lose their Primitive Sense!” Boyer exclaimed. “By a Critick, was originally understood a good Judge; with us now-a-days, it signifies no more than a Fault-finder.” The critic once was useful, he conceded, but so too were “Executioners and Informers.”

The wisest commentators understood that at issue was the problem of authority. Who granted the critic the power to judge? What justified his judgments? In his 1750 essay for The Rambler, “An Allegory on Criticism,” Samuel Johnson attempted to answer these questions by imagining Criticism as a shining and virtuous demi-goddess. The eldest daughter of Labor and Truth, Criticism was raised by Justice in the palace of Wisdom, where she learned from the Muses the ancient rules of tragic and comic drama: the unities of action, time, and place; a sense of proportionality and balance. When Criticism came of age, she was given a scepter by Justice, one end of which was bright and the other dark, and a torch by Labor and Truth. By the light of her torch, she could perceive the beauties and the faults of all manmade objects. With the bright end of her scepter, she could consign what was harmonious and true to immortality. With the dark end, she destroyed whatever appeared twisted and false.

But as the ancient rules of art were forgotten or cast aside and as new forms were forged out of old ones, men brought before Criticism works that were beautiful in certain ways and faulty in others, works that were too mixed, too modern, for her to judge with any conviction. Bewildered, Criticism referred these works to Time, who did exactly what she asked of him; he bequeathed the most deserving works to the future and crushed everything else. Satisfied with Time’s conduct, Criticism withdrew from the world and broke her scepter. From its fragments, there arose the modern critic, a genus composed of two species: Flattery, which discov­ered the scepter’s bright shivers and touched them to whatever fur­thered their own careers, and Malevolence, which found the dark shivers, and to whom the Furies gifted a special torch to illuminate only a work’s flaws.

In Johnson’s allegory, Criticism was the heavenly ideal of the preservation of beautiful objects over time; the critic was Criticism’s earthly maladaptation, her bad son, her great and enduring disap­pointment. In the absence of strict moral or aesthetic rules gov­erning Criticism’s judgment, the critic embraced either his naked self-interest or the secret malice of the human spirit. A deformed creature, he should have gone extinct long ago. Instead, having tasted power, he grew shrewder, conscious of his shriveled status and infatuated with fantasies of cultural heroism—of continuing to aid Time or even to beat him at his own game. Anxiously, the critic began to take any opportunity he could to not only justify his existence but also to exalt it.

In the burgeoning print public sphere of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, more species of critics emerged than Johnson’s flatterers and malcontents. They sought shelter in insti­tutions like reviews and monthlies. They cloaked themselves in the noblest and most winning guises they could contrive. Some elabo­rated a philosophy and a practice of criticism that enabled the spec­tator to “judge in the same spirit in which the Artist produced,” the poet Samuel Coleridge wrote in his 1814 treatise “On the Principles of Genial Criticism in the Arts.” Others modeled an appealing tem­perament or an ethos that one could cultivate through criticism: the cool, abstracted discrimination by which one could “reconstruct the fragments” of a painting or a novel “into a whole,” George Eliot wrote in an 1868 essay; or “the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects,” as Walter Pater described criticism a decade later, in a language of hot, panting communion between the critic and the work of art. Still others opted to ally the critic not with an ethos but with a profession. John Addington Symonds, in his 1900 essay “On Some Principles of Criticism,” suggested that one could think of the critic “as judge, as showman, and as scien­tific analyst.” “The true critic,” he wrote, “must combine all three types in himself, and hold the balance by his sense of their recip­rocal relations.”

Pope’s critics were fallen creatures, moderns with no compass to guide their judgment other than the “glimm’ring light” of their own minds, which too often bent sinister.

The balance, though, did not hold. The showman mostly fell out of favor. The analyst retreated into the academy. The judge remained, becoming the preeminent analogy for critics to describe their own actions through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “The very word critic means [judge] and nothing more, etymo­logically considered,” William Morton Payne observed in his tart response to Symonds’s essay. The mottos of magazines like the Edinburgh Review—“Judex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur,” or “The judge is condemned when the guilty are acquitted”—suggested to Charles-Augustine Sainte-Beauve “the spectacle of the court.” “Reviewers we have but no critic; a million competent and incor­ruptible policemen but no judge,” Virginia Woolf complained in her 1923 essay “How It Strikes a Contemporary.” The appeal of the analogy is easy to understand. Criticism’s function was to preserve worthy artworks through acts of judgment; the figure of the judge seemed buried in the word itself, as if to unearth him, one needed only to scrape away the excess letters. The judge was animated by the idea of propriety, of power checked by sense and compassion. He set the precedent by which future readers and writers had to abide. He anointed himself Time’s co-regent in the realm of culture.

But inherent in the image of the critic as judge were the unsa­vory ideas that the critic was superior to the text and that criticism was a matter of crime and punishment. As Northrop Frye put it in the 1980s, trying to play the role of judge was a “preposterous ego trip for the critic to attempt.” It turned the critic into an “intel­lectual thug” who uttered only “clap-trap”: “I approve of this,” or “I am disappointed by that.” What was needed instead, Frye argued, was a different figure, an image of “understanding” and “deep con­cern for literature” that captured “the subjection of the critic to the uniqueness of the work being criticized.”

this figure who meets Frye’s criteria of concern and subjection is the critic as a friend to the text. To appreciate her, we must pull on a parallel thread in the history of criticism, different than the one that leads to the judge’s chambers. This thread runs through essays in which the writer interrupts his lengthy rebuke of the state of criticism by invoking the friend as “the real helper of the artist, a torch bearing outrider, the interpreter, the brother,” as Henry James writes—a friend whose presence, like the sun breaking through the clouds, can make a gray and inhospitable world suddenly seem expansive and warm. William Hazlitt’s “On Criticism” (1812), James’s “Criticism” (1899), and Marcel Proust’s “John Ruskin” (1906) represent the high points of this tradition, although its ori­gin is surely Alexander Pope’s 1711 “An Essay on Criticism,” which hails the critic as “the Muse’s judge and friend.”

Many of us are familiar with the trope of the book as a friend or of reading as a “form of friendship,” as Proust described it. “The fact that it is directed at someone who is dead, who is not there, lends something disinterested, almost moving to it. It is a form of friendship freed moreover from all that makes other forms ugly.” In Proust’s account, the ugliness of friendship between people emerges from interest—from expectations of equivalence and rec­iprocity and from a sense of mutual obligation. We want to know and to be known by our friends, to love and to be loved by them. We notice, and we are irritated, when a friend talks about himself ceaselessly, without asking after us; when he takes and never gives; if he is moody when we want him to be cheerful, or cheerful when we are moody. We keep score, even though we know, as we count, that it diminishes us.

Ideally, no such ugliness is possible for the critic. One should not expect mutuality from a text. It would be absurd for its themes or its style to accommodate who the critic is or what she desires, morally, politically, or emotionally. The text is what it is. It cannot be otherwise. It owes us nothing. We can demand nothing in particular of it. It is easy to lash out in the face of such vast indifference, to surface a disappointment so intense, a desire for gratification so bottomless, that it eclipses everything other than the drama of its own emergence. The challenge, as Pope elaborated it, is to meet the text with generosity—with a readiness to give more of one’s gifts than is necessary or expected. “Just as propriety finds figu­rative expression in the image of the judge,” Harold Bloom wrote, “generosity for Pope also calls forth its representative figure: the critic as friend.”

“An Essay on Criticism” is written in heroic couplets and divided into three parts. Part One begins rather acidly: “’Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill / Appear in writing or in judging ill.” Poets may test our patience, Pope claimed, but critics—partial, arrogant, defensive—“mislead our sense.” Their writing was distorted by “false learning,” “pretending wit,” “vain ambition,” and “needful pride.” The drive to censure turned them into drones, “half-form’d insects” that swarmed by the dozens to a single dull verse. Like Johnson’s critics, Pope’s critics were fallen creatures, moderns with no compass to guide their judgment other than the “glimm’ring light” of their own minds, which too often bent sinister. But it was not always so, Pope assured us. High on Parnassus, the precepts of art were derived from the poetry of the ancients, which the first critic brought down to earth. He was like Prometheus, only guile­less and gentlemanly: “The gen’rous critic fann’d the poet’s fire, / And taught the world with reason to admire.”

“The gen’rous critic,” as Pope reconstructed him in Parts Two and Three of the essay, had a great capacity for “gen’rous pleasure” and a highly developed sense of commensurability, which allowed him to “regard the writer’s end / Since none can compass more than they intend.” The generous critic identified and accepted the work’s intentions, its conventions. He never approached, for instance, a romance as one would read a history and always sit­uated the parts of the work in relation to it as a whole. This was in contrast to ordinary critics, who, Pope wrote, had an offensive “love of parts”: a fascination with conceit, a fixation on meter and rhyme, and an overvaluation of style, which often masked a dearth of sense. Particularly offensive was the obsession with the individ­ual word, a tendency Hazlitt would later deride as the practice of “mere word-catchers, fellows that pick out a word in a sentence and a sentence in a volume, and tell you it is wrong.” Colossally offen­sive was the decision that only “one small sect” of writing deserved one’s attention: “Some foreign writers, some our own despise; The ancients only, or the moderns prize.”

Running underneath Pope’s account of the commensurability between the generous critic and the text was a wonderfully com­plex and democratic theory of pleasure. Pleasure, for Pope, arose neither from the critic’s purely subjective reaction nor from the poem’s objective perfection. It derived from the mingling of admi­ration and reason—“a happiness as well as care.” Reason reconciled wholes and parts, intentions and expectations, to show “the joint force and full result of all.” It distinguished a principle from a mere notion, saving a critic from sacrificing a work to his own folly and his impossible fantasies of perfection: “Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see, / Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be.” It taught the critic to be staunchly catholic in his pursuit of pleasure, not to limit it based on notions of what count as simple or diffi­cult, popular or niche. Reason was as spirited as it was judicious, as open as it was exacting.

Once the critic understood the intent of the text, the question became how to talk about it—or, more accurately, with it. The critic as friend had “manners gen’rous” and a talent for “gen’rous converse,” or conversation. He addressed the text as an equal, with patience and humility. He did not shout over it or drown it out with his own theatrics. He refused to twist words or pluck them out of context. He listened for their subtler inflections, and he spoke where the text chose to remain silent. A poem did not announce its metrical structure or its rhyme scheme. A novel did not declare its shifts in focalization or its point of view. It was up to the critic to give voice to these mute essentials and “like a friend, familiarly convey / The truest notions in the easiest way,” Pope wrote. This conversation would open outward, drawing one person’s under­standing of the text toward “human kind.” The conviviality of criticism permitted the friend of the text to speak such that others would want to not only eavesdrop but also participate: “’Tis not enough, taste, judgment, learning, join; / In all you speak, let truth and candour shine: / That not alone what to your sense is due, / All may allow; but seek your friendship too.”

Generosity, commensurability, conversation—how calm, how dispassionate these words can seem. They do not, however, mean that the critic must be uncritical or mild-mannered. Far from it. It would be wrong to confuse generosity with approval, or commen­surability with inattention. Being generous does not mean ignoring a friend’s lapses. Nor does it mean maintaining a perfect equanim­ity, a composure so thoroughgoing that it shades into neutrality or indifference or, worse, into a laissez-faire injunction to simply let people enjoy things.

In a 2015 essay that argues for criticism as a supremely personal experience, Frances Ferguson articulates a startling, unsentimen­tal vision of the critic as friend that makes room for all kinds of judgments. “The friend doesn’t merely recognize a friend at his or her most characteristic,” Ferguson writes. The friend recognizes the writer at his absolute worst as well as his absolute best. How is it possible that the same writer who wrote To the Lighthouse also wrote The Voyage Out? Ulysses and Stephen Hero? Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss? The Wings of the Dove and The American? For Ferguson, the critic is “a writerly friend” who “sustains the identity of the writer” over time. The critic sees “a style, a name, an attach­ment” in moments “unrecognizable to less committed admirers”—the moments of imperfection or failure that mark a career, a life, as sharply as the moments of success.

Ferguson is primarily interested in the identity of the writer over time, but her argument shows us how the critic as friend can broker a new relationship between Time and Criticism. With one eye fixed on the present and the other on the future, the critic pre­serves the author’s identity not by uncritically celebrating or canon­izing his books but by transmitting the generosity—the generous pleasure, generous manners, and generous converse—by which others can learn to read these books as the singular works that they are. The critic models the practice of inquiry and the manner of feeling by which you, the reader, can also become a friend to the text. Of course, just because I am someone’s friend does not mean that you can be persuaded to be his friend too. But our friendships do not resist all attempts at articulation. I can suggest that you may come to feel as I feel about a person, a book, that you may want to know it as intimately as I do. I can help it pass gracefully from my hand to another’s, from the present into the future.

Merve Emre is the Shapiro-Silverberg Professor of Creative Writing and Criticism at Wesleyan University. She is a contributing writer at The New Yorker.
Originally published:
June 10, 2024


Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books
Teju Cole

Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre


Renaissance Women

A new book celebrates—and sells short—Shakespeare’s sisters
Catherine Nicholson

You Might Also Like

Critical Navel-Gazing

If criticism is in crisis, it’s not the critic’s problem
Namwali Serpell

Poetically Speaking

A new book makes the case for bewilderment as a critical virtue
Brian Dillon

Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre


New perspectives, enduring writing. Join a conversation 200 years in the making. Subscribe to our print journal and receive four beautiful issues per year.