Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Lockhart’s Criticism

When you first read Keats in college, as I did, you learn that he died not just of tuberculosis but that he died of bad reviews. The cruelty of Lockhart’s reviews of the Cockney School of Poetry, of labeling the young genius by his class rather than his talent, are legendary.

Virginia Woolf’s love of Keats was as intense and loyal as that of any passionate English major. Still, she’s the one who taught me to think with sympathy about the demonized Lockhart. She explores the difficulty of judging one’s contemporaries in “Lockhart’s Criticism,” her review of a collection of the writings of John Gibson Lockhart. Lockhart was Walter Scott’s biographer and son-in-law, editor of the Quarterly Review and, as a twenty-three year old contributor to Blackwood’s, the author of the “Cockney School of Poetry,” a series of six articles which famously and virulently condemned Keats. Keats, who stands consistently among the very highest writers on Woolf’s Olympus, lies at the center of “Lockhart’s Criticism” and of Woolf’s exploration of her own prejudices.

Of Lockhart’s job as a reviewer, Woolf writes:
When Lockhart, we have to remember, saw ranged on his table the usual new books, their names conveyed nothing to him. Keats, Hook, Godwin, Shelley, Brontë, Tennyson--who were they? They might be somebodies, but they might, more probably, be nobodies.

This, in miniature, is how I feel when I sit in judgment of books for the LitBlog Co-Op. It is an intimidating and thilling task. I started writing book reviews in graduate school because I felt like I needed to flex my critical muscles on untested books. It's one thing to find greatness in Shakespeare, it's quite another to read the latest novel by Nadine Gordimer or a new book by Kellie Wells and decide, unaided by professors and reputation, where it stands.

When I read Toussaint’s Television, for example, I can’t tell if it’s pale Beckett, bad Beckett, or some other, more interesting good new thing that I’m too ignorant to understand. Is my dislike of the sado-masochistic scenes in Gina Frangello’s novel a sign of my prudery (I am a bit modest) or part of a smarter judgment about the way the novel fit uncomfortably and unsuccessfully between genres.

Lockhart's failure, of course, is that he judged Keats by his social class--a "cockney"--not his poetry. That we must strive not to do. I read a review of the World Cup in the New Yorker that noted the disconnect between Ghana's conservative playing style and descriptions of the team as "exuberant, spirited, energetic, passionate, musical" that seemed to be more about prejudices about Africa than actual observations of the team.

I love reviews that take their gloves off. It’s a lot more fun to read a review that really and frankly expresses and opinion than to read someone who sounds like their straining to be quoted for the blurb in future editions. It’s harder for me to be frank now, in the LBC, because I “know” the writers, nominators and publicists. So, I think about Keats and try not to write a thumbs-down review that would kill a young genius. And, I think about Lockhart and try to remember not to judge literature by my own prejudices but, instead, to judge it on its own terms. For me, that means following the lesson of Woolf, who always tried to discern a book’s own goals for itself. What is it trying to do? Does it do it?

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