Sunday, September 7, 2003

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The art of criticism

One of the amusing aspects of being a professor is watching the evolution of graduate students.

During their first two years -- immersed in coursework -- they become excellent critics. As they sharpen their analytical skills, the students excel at exposing the flaws of every article or book put in front of them. By the end of their coursework, they are thoroughly unimpressed with the cutting edge of the literature.

Of course, that's usually the point at which they have to start drafting their own work. At which point they discover that the enterprise of developing original ideas is a wee bit trickier than it appears to the critical eye. And suddenly, the stuff that they had savaged six months earlier doesn't look so bad.

The good students, after getting the wind knocked out of them, develop the proper equipoise between respect for the good but imperfect work that's out there and disdain for the hackwork that, to be blunt, pervades most of the social sciences.

Clive James reminded me of all this in his amusing essay in the Sunday New York Times op-ed page on the merits of snarky literary reviews. His conclusion:

When you say a man writes badly, you are trying to hurt him. When you say it in words better than his, you have succeeded. It would be better to admit this fact, and admit that all adverse reviews are snarks to some degree, than to indulge the sentimental wish that malice might be debarred from the literary world. The literary world is where it belongs. When Dr. Johnson longed for his enemy to publish a book, it was because he wasn't allowed to hit him with an ax. Civilization tames human passions, but it can't eliminate them. Hunt the snark and you will find it everywhere.

Indeed. What James is saying about fiction applies with equal force to nonfiction.

[Er, isn't it contradictory to praise an essay that praises the art of not praising bad writers?--ed. Not if the essay is well-written. I'd be happy to savage bad editors, though. Never mind!!--ed.]

posted by Dan on 09.07.03 at 10:50 AM


You just couldn´t be more right Daniel!
As an IR MA student in Brazil, I had to poit out time and again the errors of briliant authors. But now that I´m struggling to finish my dissertation, I´ve recently fallen in love with people I had dispised last year. Go figure...

Besides that, congratulations for the excellent blog as well as the academic texts (botton feeders was particularly helpfull).

Erasmo Lopes

posted by: Erasmo Lopes on 09.07.03 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

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