where the writers are
Is Everyone a Critic?

I've been reading a little about the Stephen King/Stephenie Meyer kerfluffle-actually, maybe it's just a King kerfluffle. I don't know how or if Meyer responded to his statement in a USA Weekend interview that " . . . Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can't write worth a darn. She's not very good." Given that so many people have said about King what he says about Meyer, the statement is kind of ironic. I remember hearing King talk about a conversation he had with Amy Tan in which they lamented that critics never comment on their "language." (He writes about this in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft as well.) I guess "language" implies literary merit and comments about plot or story indicate mainstream or commercial. But so many books with great plots and beautiful language suggest that the divide is often an artificial one. I just finished Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith-it's a page-turner that was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. And I can think of others: Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, for example, beautifully written, great story. I read it in one sitting the same way I read Stephen King's The Shining and Toni Morrison's Beloved.

I've never read Stephenie Meyer, but I can say that I was thrilled that having read the first Harry Potter book aloud to my children they read the rest on their own. The occasional plot and character update from my kids was more than enough for me. (When he was in middle school, one of my kids commented about the fifth Potter book, "J. K. Rowling needs a better editor.") So I don't know if Rowling is a terrific writer or not. If sales equal merit, than it isn't even open for discussion. But I think most of us know that sales are not the whole story.

The discussions that have followed the King interview prompted me to look for an essay by W. H. Auden in which he outlines the job of a critic. Rereading it, I was reminded of what I value about good book reviews and criticism. As tasty as little gossip bits can be, this has staying power. So I thought I'd pass along an excerpt (I found the essay in the archive of Narrative Magazine).

What is the function of a critic? So far as I am concerned, he can do me one or
more of the following services:

1) Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.
2) Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not
read them carefully enough.
3) Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I
could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
4) Give a "reading" of a work which increases my understanding of it.
5) Throw light upon the process of artistic "Making."
6) Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics,
religion, etc.

The first three of these services demand scholarship. A scholar is not merely
someone whose knowledge is extensive; the knowledge must be of value to others.

                    W. H. Auden