So, what makes a great (or even a good) critic? One would imagine breadth of culture, cultivation of taste, a reverence for great work from antiquity to the present day, and discrimination.
And then, you could be novelist/reviewer, Nick Hornby (born 1957). He has none of the above, as he writes here:
Something has been happening to me recently – something which, I suspect, is likely to affect a significant and important part of the rest of my life. The grandiose way of describing this shift is to say that I have been slowly making my peace with antiquity; or, to express it in words that more accurately describe what’s going on, I have discovered that some old shit isn’t so bad.
Hitherto, my cultural blind spots have included the Romantic Poets, every single bar of classical music ever written, and just about anything produced before the nineteenth century, with the exception of Shakespeare and a couple of the bloodier, and hence more Tarantinoesque, revenge tragedies. When I was young, I didn’t want to listen to or read anything that reminded me of the brown and deeply depressing furniture in my grandmother’s house. She didn’t have many books, but those she did own were indeed brown: cheap and old editions of a couple of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, for example, and maybe a couple of hand-me-down books by somebody like Frances Hodgson Burnett. When I ran out of stuff to read during the holidays, I was pointed in the direction of her one bookcase, but I wanted bright Puffin paperbacks, not mildewed old hardbacks, which came to represent just about everything I wasn’t interested in.
This unhelpful association, it seems to me, should have withered with time; instead, it’s been allowed to flourish, unchecked … I soon found that I didn’t want to read or listen to anything that anybody in ay position of educational authority told me to. Chaucer was full of woodworm; Wordsworth was yellow and curling at the edges, whatever edition I was given. I read Graham Greene and John Fowles, Vonnegut and Tom Wolfe, Chandler and Nathanael West, Greil Marcus and Peter Guarlnick, and I listened exclusively to popular music. Dickens crept in, eventually, because he was funny, unlike Sir Walter Scott and Shelley, who weren’t. And, because everything was seen through the prism of rock and roll, every now and again I would end up finding something I learned about through the pages of New Musical Express.
So, for Your Correspondent, (self-confessed snob, aesthete and reactionary), this is enough to disregard each and any of Hornby’s critical assessments. To us, his seeing the world through the prism of rock and roll is especially damming – as that is surely a sign of a severely arrested development.
And yet, Hornby clearly loves literature and is besotted by books. It’s almost impossible to read his criticism and not come away with a deep and abiding admiration for Hornby and his own, peculiar aesthetic. Even more telling, it’s almost impossible not to like him. Here is a man of real warmth and charm, with a lively intelligence, a big heart, and a detestation of cant.
The reviews collected in Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books were written for The Believer magazine between 2003 and 2013; many of then were collected in two previous books: The Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, but the current volume collects everything in one handy book. He brings to his role as critic a lively intelligence, a sense of what makes fiction work, and great good humor. Here is the opening of a typical column:
The advantages and benefits of writing a monthly column about reading for the Believer are innumerable, if predictable: fame, women (it’s amazing what people will do to get early information about the Books Bought list), international influence, and so on. But perhaps the biggest perk of all, one that has only emerged slowly, over the years, is this: you can’t read long books.
At the start of each column, Hornby lists the books that he bought (and, at times, it would seem that he is keeping the publishing industry afloat single-handedly), and books read. The two don’t always tally, but he will always tell you what led him to read the chosen books that month, and if they lived up to expectations.
A successful novelist (we here at The Jade Sphinx are especially fond of About a Boy and The Long Way Down), Hornby is wise enough to know that different writers with different styles all bring something to the table, and his indiscriminate taste allows him to find and recommend many terrific books we would otherwise overlook.
Perhaps the most significant bow in his quiver is the fact that he does not engage in critical smackdown. When he doesn’t like something, he’s more likely to leave the reader chuckling than quaking at the quality of his venom. Here he is on a comedic novel that he found decidedly unfunny:
On my copy of Michael Frayn’s The Trick of It, there is a quote from Anthony Burgess that describes the novel as “one of the few books I have read in the last year that has provoked laughter.” Initially, it’s a blurb that works in just the way the publishers intended. Great, you think. Burgess must have read a lot of books; and both the quote itself and your knowledge of the great man suggest that he wouldn’t have chuckled at many of them. So if The Trick of It wriggled its way through that forbidding exterior to the Burgess sense of humor, it must be absolutely hilarious, right? But then you start to wonder just how trustworthy Burgess would have been on the subject of comedy. What, for example, would have been his favorite bit of Jackass: The Movie? (Burgess died in 1993, so sadly we will never know.) What was his most cherished Three Stooges sketch? His favorite Seinfeld character? His top David Brent moment? And after careful contemplation, your confidence in his comic judgment stars to feel a little misplaced: there is a good chance, you suspect, that Anthony Burgess would have steadfastly refused even to smile at many of the things that have ever made you chortle uncontrollably.
Sometimes it feels as though we are being asked to imagine cultural judgments as a whole bunch of concentric circles. On the outside, we have the wrong ones, made by people who read The Da Vinci Code and listen to Celine Dion; right at the center we have the correct ones, made by the snootier critics, very often people who have vowed never to laugh again until Aristophanes produces a follow-up to The Frogs … If I had to choose between a Celine Dion fan and Anthony Burgess for comedy recommendation, I would go with the person standing on the table singing “the Power of Love” every time. I’ll bet Burgess read Candide – I had a bad experience with Candide only recently – with tears of mirth trickling down his face.
Despite his critical liberality, there are some things that still fail to register with Hornby. He does not understand the appeal of series characters (why read many James Bond adventures, he wonders, rather than just his greatest one?), and is immune to most genre fiction. (Given the choice of a terrific science fiction novel, or a way-we-live now book about divorce, he’ll take the latter.) But these foibles are few, and may even be evidence of his aesthetic maturity being great than mine own.
At any rate – Nick Hornby is a gifted novelist, and perhaps an even more gifted literary critic. Readers interested in intelligent, thoughtful and amusing criticism could do no better than Ten Years in the Tub.