Classics Club #1: “The Dyer’s Hand” by W. H. Auden

For a number of reasons, I knew that I wanted to start my Classics Club project with a look at W. H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand. For one, of all the books on my list, it’s the only one that I’d read any part of; during the first semester of my MFA program, I had to read several essays from the book and then write poems inspired by them. For another, as a work of literary criticism, I thought that The Dyer’s Hand might provide a high-level view from which to consider the rest of the books on the list. And for a third, it just happened to be next on my queue regardless.

But while I was reading it, I found it difficult to settle on a direction to take this post. After the first three or four essays, I thought about comparing Auden’s fragmentary style to the philosophical inquiries of Ludwig Wittgenstein, but then Auden’s style became more streamlined and structured as the collection went on. I thought about comparing my thoughts on various artworks to Auden’s, but let’s just say that he’s seen Don Giovanni infinitely more times than I have. And I thought about discussing the Ariel/Prospero distinction he mentions in his essay on Robert Frost, until I remembered that I wrote such an essay in grad school and decided I didn’t want to repeat myself.

I was completely stuck, until I happened upon a discussion that has apparently been raging across the internet: the state of the negative review. It’s a topic that the book-blogging community raises frequently (see, for instance, this post from Krysta of Pages Unbound), but of late the topic has come up more in the popular press. In recent months we’ve seen Kyle Paoletta decry the overly-celebratory nature of TV criticism for The Baffler, Rob Harvilla contemplate the role of the take-down in the age of social media for The Ringer, and sci-fi author John Scalzi defend the virtues of the pan on his blog. And I found all this fascinating in the context of The Dyer’s Hand, because if high-brow W. H. Auden were to walk into this conversation that’s been going on, he’d actually be the most skeptical of the negative review’s value.

In the first essay in The Dyer’s Hand, entitled “Reading,” Auden says that a critic ought to perform at least one of the following tasks when discussing a work:

1) Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.

2) Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.

3) Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.

4) Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.

5) Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”

6) Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

The Dyer’s Handpp. 8-9

Looking closely at this list, one can conclude that Auden doesn’t really see aesthetic appraisal as a vital role for the critic. Auden’s ideal critics should provide context, draw connections, share discoveries, and reveal truths, but it’s not clear that they should provide up-or-down judgments as to whether a book is good. The task which comes closest here is the second, and even there, it would seen that Auden wants the critic to go in a specific direction: to show that a work is better (or perhaps just more interesting) than the audience had given it credit for. He does not advocate that critics tear down works which they believe have been wrongly praised.

Indeed, throughout “Reading,” Auden is skeptical of the notion that writing bad reviews serves any purpose, and he addresses either directly or implicitly some of the common arguments in favor of the practice. An obvious argument would be that writing a negative review will persuade readers not to waste their time on a given work. But Auden reminds us that even a negative review acts as publicity and keeps a work in the current conversation. “Had Macaulay never written his review of Robert Montgomery,” he writes, “we would not today be still under the illusion that Montgomery was a great poet” (p. 10). Instead, Auden would have advised Macaulay to remain silent on the matter, allowing Montgomery’s work to fade into obscurity.

I’ll admit, I find this argument to be Auden’s weakest, or rather the least generally applicable. Being a poet, Auden naturally has poetry on his mind as he’s writing this essay. Even by the standards of book publishing, the poetry market is incredibly small; one could probably count on one hand the number of people making a living solely off revenue from writing poems. There aren’t any big marketing campaigns to smear the latest chapbooks across the public consciousness, so reviews are basically all the advertising a poet may get. Thus, if their collection is terrible and no one wants to review it, then it will almost certainly be forgotten for all time. But the same rules don’t apply to Hollywood films and popular TV shows. The machinery supporting those cultural products is so large and powerful that there is little chance of them simply withering in the darkness.

But at other points, Auden’s critique of the negative review seems not only reasonable, but also insightful. For example, he takes up the notion that one must critique bad works of art, lest those works inspire artists to make even more inferior pieces. The problem with that argument is that influence doesn’t necessarily work like that. Those who make bad works of art often draw inspiration from masterpieces; they simply lack the skill or vision to duplicate their forebears’ successes. Think about how many terrible student films come from kids who fashion themselves the next Quentin Tarantino or David Fincher. “The more powerful and original a writer,” says Auden, “the more dangerous he is to lesser talents who are trying to find themselves. On the other hand, works which were in themselves poor have often proved a stumulus [sic] to the imagination and become the indirect cause of good work in others” (p. 10). That last point rings especially true for me: I find I have far more success in writing when I use mediocre poets as a model, rather than trying to write something like Milton or Dryden.

This is not to say that Auden sees no value in the take-down. First, he concedes that in practice, critics often can’t just refuse to review a bad work. The terms of their employment may require them to write something, and if they can’t stay silent then they’ll at least be honest. Second, Auden still believes that the “corruption of the language” should be “continually publicly attacked,” but even then he says the true culprit is not the work in question but “the misuse of language by the man-in-the-street, journalists, politicians, etc.” (p. 11). But that’s about as far as Auden is willing to go in this essay. Personally, I’d carve out a larger space for the negative review. In particular, the belief that one should connect a work “to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.” requires that a critic call out harmful or dishonest artworks when they encounter them, lest we pretend the realms of art and life are somehow separable. And the more prominent a work is in the culture, the more harm it can do, and the less compelling Auden’s arguments seem to become.

It will be interesting to see whether I can, or whether I should, keep to the spirit of Auden’s position for the rest of my Classic Club posts. At the very least, I always want to keep those six tasks he listed in mind when writing a post. I’m certain that I’ll dislike at least some of the next forty-nine books I read for this project, but whatever I write about them should have some substance beyond mere vitriol. It may be true that, as Auden claims, [o]ne cannot review a bad book without showing off” (p.11). But I’m sure one can do so without just showing off.


Please feel free to share your thoughts on The Dyer’s Hand or on negative reviews in the comments below. If you’d like to get a sense of what’s on the horizon for my Classics Club project, you can access my list of fifty books here. And as always, thank you for reading.

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