The really competent critic must be an empiricist. He must conduct his exploration with whatever means lie within the bounds of his personal limitation. He must produce his effects with whatever tools will work. If pills pail, he gets out his saw. If the saw won't cut, he seizes a club... (p. 8, Library of America edition of Mencken: Prejudices: First, Second, and Third Series)
Over the past several months, I have been reading H.L. Mencken's six series of Prejudices, as I find myself reacting to and being inspired by a critic whose works cited above were published between 1919 and 1927 and came from reproduced newspaper columns and pieces that appeared in his The Smart Set. Mencken was a shrewd critic; he said what he believed, he said it with force, and he accepted the consequences of those observations. He had a dim view of early 20th century American institutions, those now-quaint and defanged American Lodges, chautauquas, Rotary Clubs, Ku Klux Klan local chapters, and other assorted products of a society that couldn't decide if it wanted to be forward-thinking and progressive or if it wanted to remain hide-bound to the hypocritical moral codes of the previous two centuries. Reading his Prejudices is bound to get a rise out of most anyone who has any sort of moral or political code, as the sharp criticisms Mencken had for the then-venerable institutions reads too uncomfortably for some as blasts against their modern counterparts, whether that be the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, or anything else that might be viewed as being placed upon some social, political, or economic spectrum.
Like most other art forms, the Critic has been reduced to being a jackanapes, scurrying about and trying to maintain the appearance of importance while off to the side readers whisper about the Critic being defanged and beholden to interests that stifle his or her critiques. Look about us today. Where can one find a true Critic? On any of the plague-infested political shows, where they appear to caper and foam at the beck and call of marketeers? In the newspaper columns, where what interests them is the story that can be "sold" rather than the story that might bring the entire editorial house of cards tumbling down? Blogs? Ninja, please. Even in the remotest brackish regions of the literary blogosphere, too often the meta-commentary among the neophyte reviewer wannabees concerns their access to publisher review copies, sometimes with the undertone that it is not wise to irritate the "hand that feeds you."
It is a world almost devoid of those who can say what needs to be said. Oh, sure, it is easy to find those who possess the trappings of provocativeness, yet scratch the surface and most always one will find someone seeking to gain further wealth and/or fame rather than someone who tests the system surrounding everything and finding it to be lacking. Narrowing the topic down to book reviewing (lest this essay go several thousand words), are there many reviewers who strive to be like what Mencken describes in the quote at the beginning of this essay? I am uncertain of this.
All I know is that we do not go far enough most of the time. There are times when I re-read an older piece I've done and I think to myself, "I shouldn't have been 'nice.' I should have just said, 'the author is at best a xerox of a xerox of a faded carbon copy of a ditto where any hint of originality or value has been scrubbed nearly clean from its surface.'" It would have been more honest when discussing those interminably mediocre works that clog stores in a way similar to arteriosclerosis sets in after one has consumed too many so-called Happy Meals.
Yet tell someone that those "supersized meals" are not good for you and chances are high that one will hear various iterations of "what do you know about that?"; "why should I listen to you?" or "my tastes are not those of an elitist." It is hard to counter this at first. After all, do you really want to dictate tastes to someone who is not receptive to experimentation? Yet too often we retreat back into polite mutterings and then the subject is dropped. Unfortunately, this leaves the floor to the third-rate, to the sycophants, to those whose literary tastes are so bland that one can almost predict what they'll like by encountering a derivative work of something they favored on a previous occasion.
In today's world, those who try to be critics are relegated to the sidelines of book promotion (that itself a sign of capitalist times) because their tastes are too idiosyncratic. No, the current arbiter elegantiarum will espouse the least original works, because they are so self-identified with the "marketable middle" that they serve as barometers of what the mouth-breathing masses unthinkingly desire rather than as beacons for those who wish to stand the literary world on its head. In such a situation, the most influential "critics" will be those who are akin to market analysts or accountants, as they will be best suited to select what will appeal to the unwashed hordes than anyone who is liable to be a loose cannon and deride the commercial whenever its values threaten to stamp out originality or creativity.
When Mencken wrote his "Criticism of Criticism of Criticism," he spent much time denouncing the moralists who sought to reduce art and literature to whatever "higher purpose" they could serve. Nearly a century later, he likely would be railing at the dominant literary mood, but in this case the likely targets would have been the marketers who are on the cusp of succeeding at reducing literature and literary criticism to mere appendages of the buy/sell regime. He would not have thought of using the pill; he would have eschewed the club and gone straight for the axe and he likely would be tempted to go Lizzie Borden on them. If only we are brave enough to take up the axe in these times...