Brief thoughts on negative criticism

Today’s essay by Sordello brought back a couple of thoughts I had regarding the kerfuffle over Marilynne Robinson’s dismissive comments about Flannery O’Connor and the ensuing negative reviews of Robinson’s own recent novel, Lila. I have not yet read Lila so I can’t comment on that. But Robinson is one of my treasured influences, along with O’Connor, Roger Scruton, and others. (I reviewed Scruton’s Beauty a couple of years back. Along with Robinson’s The Death of Adam, it’s in my personal “top 10.”)

Every reader shares, to some degree, the tendency to look for what we want in a book, and to be disappointed if we find something else. I had a disappointing experience recently when I read Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The first half of the novel was thrilling and evocative, I thought a real triumph in postmodern literature. I didn’t like the ending. Set in the prosperous postwar 1950s, the latter half of the book expressed a kind of spiritual malaise and depression which was quite a contrast to the hope and magic of the beginning.

But it would be going too far to say that, because I did not enjoy how the novel ended, it was a bad story, or even that it did not hold together as a story. Perhaps the disenchantment of the 1950s was part of what the author wanted to convey—the emptiness and disillusionment that adults often find in the dreams of their youth. As a reader, I was probably approaching the book looking for some of the things it offered—its exploration of Jewish mystical traditions, for example—without accepting the fact that its central concern had to do with the rise and fall of the “Golden Age” of American comics.

We must first read a work on its own terms. Marilynne Robinson makes no bones about being a liberal Calvinist, and so a reader should not be surprised and offended when these views are expressed in her writing. Robinson reminds us that liberal Protestantism need not always be the kind of dry, politicized stuff that emerges from graduate theology programs. Robinson’s writing about Calvin helped open up for me the heart and personality of the Geneva divine, which tend to be obscured by later Reformed glosses.

There is also a right way and a wrong way to disagree with a philosopher. The wrong way is (as Sordello observes) to balk at the philosopher’s aesthetic preferences. I used to despise Wagner, and was surprised when I learned that the eminent conservative philosopher Roger Scruton is a big fan of his work. Scruton has motivated me to understand Wagner better, even if he’s still not my favorite composer.

Scruton’s primary weakness is still, I think, a certain aestheticism in the way of Matthew Arnold, which needs to be held in balance against a strong, rationally-based philosophy reaching back to Plato. But that subjective preference for the beautiful is a weakness inherent in conservatism, which conservatives must in fact embrace. As the poet Richard Wilbur writes, “Love calls us to the things of this world.” Conservatism is the philosophy of this love expressed.

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THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

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