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The Cambridge Scene

By Christopher Jencks

Every so often somebody with a very intent look on his face comes into this building looking for the book editor, "the fellow who is always mouthing off about art, and where is his office?"

Invariably he is told that his intended victim has no office, and that perhaps he should write a letter to the editors. But sometimes he will not be put off, and so I have to explain that I am the very loudmouth he seeks, and that since I have no office I will try to choke down a cup of Bick's coffee with him.

The most recent of these explosions arrived wrapped in a rather loud voice and an aura of artistic integrity. After initially choking on the coffee, he drew his critical revolver and began the attack.

"Your book page is affected with the most awful snobbishness. Why don't you stick to telling your reader what's in a book instead of trying to pass judgement on it?"

"In the first place, I don't think that a reviewer can open his mouth without having first passed hundreds of judgements, conscious or unconscious. In the second place, I woudn't want to see reviewing limited to objective reporting, even if it could be."

"One at a time. Why can't you just tell what kind of a book it is. Tell how it smells and tastes, what kind of things it is about, and how he shows them."

"But those aren't the important things about books. Nobody really cares what the book is "like", who the major characters are. The relevant thing is what it does, or what it might do, to the reader, or for him. And what it does depends on who the reader is. A book can never do quite the same thing to two people, and that means that the reviewer has to look at his own reaction and make an imaginative guess at what will happen to somebody else--a judgement."

"But that's not a judgement of goodness or badness."

"Of course it is. Most books don't do anything at all to most readers. Those books are bad. Any book that does anything important to anybody is good, in the sense that it is effective. Of course whether what it does is morally good is something entirely different."

"But you don't even try to be objective. You flaunt your judgments, as if they were divine."

"Well, in a way that's true. The critic makes judgements because he hopes to set standards which will lead to more good writing and less poor writing."

"Isn't that up to the writers?"

"Of course, but writers don't work in a vacuum. If critics don't maintain independent standards, then the only way a writer can judge himself is by intuition or by the fact that the publishers and the public prove that his book is marketable."

"You don't have much faith in public taste."

"No. Do you? A book is good if it effects a few people a great deal. It is popular if it amuses or indulges a great many people hardly perceptibly."

"And you think the critic is a sensitive minority?"

"Probably not very. But at least he is an articulate minority. If he likes it, the writer knows it can work. If he doesn't he may be able to show why."

"A lovely ideal. And where do you find these deities?"

"I don't know."

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