A pet peeve of mine is “the critic,” even though I might qualify as one because I’ve scribbled a few lines about a book or two. But I’m not talking about ordinary people expressing an opinion. I’m talking about professionals who make a living posturing as literary experts. I don’t know how these third persons came to stand between an author and a reader, of if their opinions are of any use. In my view, if you want to know whether or not a book is good, read it or at least as much of it as you can stand.
But I admit a greater offender exists than the critic. I refer to the critic who comments upon the critiques of other critics. They are as convenient as being saddled with an extra thumb and put an even greater distance between a book and its audience. What’s more something mystical occurs when critics begin talking about other critics. Some private language emerges to which the reader is not privy. I call it meta-speak.
An example of meta-speak appears in a recent issue of The New Republic. To be specific, I refer to Adam Plunkett’s review of Tom Kendall’s review of Robert Frost’s poetry. (“Frost at Midnight,” by Adam Plunkett, The New Republic, June 30, 2014, pgs 56-59.) Plunkett’s complaint against Kendall is that the author missed the central mystery that surrounds the poet’s work – that while Frost wrote simply, the thoughts he provoked were profound.
Had Plunkett stopped with this observation, we might have scratched our heads, but the point wouldn’t have been lost, entirely. Instead, he seems determined to add further clarifications that muddy the water:
Critics have looked past him [Frost] because of his lack of ostensible difficulty, and we misunderstand him because of his difficulties. It is difficult even to say what they are. (Ibid pg. 57.)
Not satisfied with this degree of opacity, Plunkett adds more. Referring to Frost’s poems as oeuvre, a nuanced word embraced by elitists, he insists that the poet’s “greatest moments of intimacy are the ones in which he is most hidden.” (Ibid, pg. 59)
A person might be tempted to ask how Plunkett knows what’s hidden, but my response is to take two aspirins and go to bed, particularly when what he writes next throws me into total darkness. “The art of Robert Frost, according to The Art of Robert Frost, is that of meaning a number of things by what he said.” (ibid 56.)
Frankly, such nose-in-the-air pretension — the smug assumption that one’s profundity cannot be understood — should come with a literary warning:
Beware the Jabberwock my son!
The jaws that bit, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!
(The Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll)