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The Critic's Credo

REVIEWERY, By Christopher Ricks, Handsel Books: 386 pp., $30

July 28, 2002|WENDY LESSER | Wendy Lesser is the author, most recently, of "Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering." She edits the Threepenny Review.

Disinterestedness is certainly an ideal in book reviewing, if by disinterest we mean not the absence of interest, not even the lack of a personal stake, but the scrupulous avoidance of ax-grinding, hobby-horse-riding, character assassination, self-aggrandizement and all the other things we have come to associate with a badly done review. The poet Louise Gluck has defined disinterestedness as "reading as though one had no personality," which I can't imagine ever being able to do--but in the same place she also remarks, "The essay that means to defend disinterestedness by claiming it exists will be both very short and very weak; even the essay on perfect goodness would be longer."

In pursuit of this unattainable ideal of disinterestedness, a reviewer might begin by declaring her interests so that other readers would be able to calculate around them. Let me say, then, that out of the 37 years represented in Christopher Ricks' "Reviewery," I have known him for 30. But that's the least of it. No other teacher, no other model--and he has been both, for me--has had more influence on my idea of what a critic's role is, or should be. This is not to say that we think exactly alike. Ricks' tastes in literature are deeper and narrower and stronger and more original than mine. Regarding movies, I agree with him about the virtues of Frederick Wiseman but disagree with him about much else. And as for Bob Dylan, who recurs in these pages whenever you least expect him, I share the passion though not the degree of it. (Does anyone share the degree of it?) Still, the sensibility that gave rise to these reviews is the one that shaped me as a reviewer. All of which goes to say that you are better off reading "Reviewery" than reading my review of it, and that's as it should be, with any worthy book.

The collection is arranged in nonchronological order, but by careful reading of the footnotes, I discovered that the earliest piece, on Sartre's "Saint Genet," appeared in January 1964. Time, however, is surprisingly unimportant here. The reviews have not, to my ear, dated; no doubt the author has winnowed out the unfit, but few of us would be able to come up with this many survivors. They have been sorted into five groups: "Lives," "Arguments," "Critics," "Novelists and Poets" and "Other Arts" (a category that ranges from Stanley Kubrick to Saul Steinberg, from Robert Capa to the Beatles). And there are gems in every category. It's a pleasure to see what Ricks had to say about Ian McEwan's "The Comfort of Strangers" and Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song" when they first came out (he admired both enormously); it's equally enjoyable watching him soundly thwack Leslie Fiedler, Norman Podhoretz and Stanley Fish. There are no lukewarm opinions here, no shilly-shallyings between possible perspectives: Ricks knows how he feels, and he makes his allegiances evident. They come through clearly, for example, in the loving review of William Empson's posthumous "Using Biography." "Empson's own magnanimity is his element; the magnanimity of others is often his subject," the review points out, and because the preceding 160 pages have exposed the all-too-frequently self-serving strategies of other biographers and critics, we know exactly how much Ricks values that particular quality of Empson's.

What, I asked myself, is Ricks' "element"? The first word that came to mind was "fairness," but I soon found it being augmented by other words such as "loyalty" and "passion," with the result that it ended up some distance from our garden-variety sense of evenhandedness. Ricks' fairness is admittedly partisan: He has well-chosen favorites, such as Brian Moore, Erving Goffman and Samuel Beckett, whose work always earns his praise. But what he is really working against, when he applauds or practices fairness, is not partisanship but cheating. And what he means by cheating is not exactly lying (good novelists and poets sometimes do that) and not exactly withholding information (great novelists and poets always do that), but the withholding of potentially damaging information so as to better one's own position, one's own career, one's own stock in the literary or artistic or intellectual world.

He is duly critical, for instance, of Stanley Milgram's famous investigations into how easily people submit to authority--experiments in which the subjects, thinking they were acting upon others, were themselves being tricked by their tester. Of Milgram's resulting book, Ricks comments: " 'Obedience to Authority' refuses to acknowledge the dilemma inherent in its own obedience to authority, in this case the authority of experimental psychology as a discipline .... To anyone who is not an experimental psychologist, there is something morally equivocal--and often unequivocally immoral--about a discipline built on systematic deception."

And about a biography of Capa he says: "Photography, or at least such war-photography as Capa's, has a contract with its contemplators

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