Like most people who sell their opinions for a living, I get a certain amount of mail (and e-mail) from readers who beg to differ with me, sometimes quite forcefully. Their letters are typically concise, fair-minded, and intelligent, and I make every effort to answer them personally. From time to time, I also get letters that usually run to about six pages in length and are invariably single-spaced with very narrow margins. More often than not, these correspondents start out by explaining why I’m all wrong about something trivial, and end up revealing that their fillings have been bugged by aliens in the pay of the CIA. Hard experience has taught me never to reply to such mail, though I always enjoy reading it.
Perhaps the most common complaint I get is from people who claim that my writings are full of “unsubstantiated pronouncements” (or nastier words to that effect). This never fails to throw me. Virtually all criticism, after all, is full of “unsubstantiated pronouncements.” They’re called opinions, and yours are as good as mine. The only difference is that I get paid to write mine down. To be sure, I like to think that my opinions have at least some validity, based as they are on a lifetime of intense professional involvement with the world of art. In the end, though, you must be the judge. If my opinions rarely tally with your perceptions, then chances are you’ll stop taking my criticism seriously, no matter how cleverly written it may be. Conversely, if I have a history of steering you straight (or at least making you think twice), then chances are you’ll be inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt when I praise a book you haven’t read, or a play you didn’t see. That’s the main reason why I write criticism: I want to share my pleasures. Yes, I sometimes feel the need to smite the heathen, but I’d be perfectly happy to spend the rest of my life writing solely and only about things I like.
Alas, I’ve found over the years that many people (especially midwesterners, who are trained to say “sir” and “ma’am” and be polite to strangers) become uncomfortable whenever they’re confronted with strongly expressed opinions on any subject whatsoever–even positive ones. It took me a long time to figure out the reason why, which is that all positive opinions have negative implications. If the Copland Piano Sonata is the best piece of piano music written by an American, then it follows logically that the Barber Sonata isn’t as good. But there’s plenty of room at the top: just because the G Minor Symphony is Mozart’s finest work for orchestra doesn’t mean the “Jupiter” isn’t uniquely great in its own way. Besides, it’s only my opinion, right?
Lest you suspect me of having succumbed to spineless relativism, let me make haste to declare my firm belief in the existence of absolute artistic truth. When I say I think The Great Gatsby is a better book than The Sun Also Rises, I mean I think The Great Gatsby is a better book than The Sun Also Rises, and I don’t mean maybe: if I were appointed Keeper of the Canon of American Masterpieces tomorrow morning, my first act would be to send a memo saying so to every librarian in America. As I see it, then, my duty as a critic is to speak my mind–in this case, my opinion of the relative merits of two great books–as clearly and compellingly as possible. In time this opinion will either be forgotten or make its way into the vast mass of criticism through which posterity will slowly winnow, a process that ultimately leads to the emergence of a consensus of taste. The critics of 2106 may well consider Gatsby to be less good than The Sun Also Rises, or maybe even not very good at all. They may not like either book. The one thing of which you can be sure is this: if I don’t speak frankly now, it won’t matter what I thought, be it a hundred years from now or next Friday.
But will it matter at all? If artistic truth is absolute, then won’t it emerge inevitably over time, regardless of what critics have to say? I believe so. In art, the good guys always win, sooner or (usually) later. Critics can’t turn a bad play into a good one, or vice versa. What they can do, if they’re perceptive and persuasive enough, is speed up the process by nudging their contemporaries in what they believe to be the right direction. It’s fine with me if you like Hedda Gabler better than Three Sisters. I don’t feel threatened by the fact that we differ, nor do I feel any compulsion to try to change your mind. I’m not in the mind-changing business–I’m in the mind-opening business. If I can get you to go see a play you’ve never seen before, and at least consider the possibility that it might be good, then I’ve done my job.
Having said all this, let me close by speaking directly to those readers who get all steamed up whenever I write something with which they disagree: I’m genuinely sorry that my work upsets you. I don’t set out merely to make anyone angry or stir up a fuss. I always mean exactly what I say. Naturally, you’re entitled to your opinion–but so am I. So the next time you write, please do me the favor of giving me the benefit of the doubt. Merely because you happen to disagree with me doesn’t necessarily mean I’m stupid, or even ignorant. Who knows? I might even be right.