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Six Critics in One

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Six Critics in One is an article written by William L. Alden published in The New-York Times on 10 june 1899.


Six Critics in One

The New-York Times (10 june 1899, p. 379)

Aspects of the Conan Doyle and Robertson Nicoll Controversy.

Written for THE NEW YORK TIMES SATURDAY REVIEW by William L. Alden.

LONDON, May 25. — Dr. Conan Doyle has pleased a crowd of unsuccessful writers by complaining in a letter to the daily press that a certain well-known critic is as multiform as Andrew Lang himself. The critic in question is the editor of The Bookman and the correspondent of The New York Bookman. He is also editor of a Nonconformist weekly, and he writes criticisms under different signatures in a variety of other papers. If he dislikes a book he can say so in six different articles, and thus create in the public mind the impression that the book is so bad that there is a general insurrection of critics against it, where-as, in point of fact, the six adverse criticisms merely mean that one man disapproves of it. Dr. Doyle thinks that this is an intolerable state of things, though he does not seem to have any remedy for it in his mind.

The critic of whom Dr. Doyle complains has of course answered his accuser. His answer is perhaps good, considered as repartee, but it is hardly argument. He says that he recently found fault with a book written by Dr. Doyle on the ground that it contained a chapter calculated to bring a blush to the cheek of the conscientious Nonconformist Hence these tears on the part of the aggrieved author! The critic, however, does not deny that he is six critics rolled into one, though he declines to admit that he is guilty of any offense.

There certainly does seem to be more or less justice in Dr. Doyle's complaint. In spite of what Miss Corelli says, criticism has ordinarily an important effect upon the sale of a book. The sort of people who admire Miss Corelli's productions probably do not know what criticism means, and it is extremely improbable that any one of them ever reads a criticism in any of the leading weeklies. The average reader of Dr. Doyle's books, on the contrary, would be almost certain to read criticisms of any new book from his pen, and if those criticisms were unanimously adverse, he would not buy it. If the critic of The Bookman points out in six different papers that Dr. Doyle's last book is unfit to be read, there are hundreds of people who will say: " The critics all agree that the book is bad, and eo I will not read it." It does not seem fair that one man should have this power, but what can be done to remedy the abuse?

Obviously nothing. It would be absurd to demand that a law should be passed forbidding a man to criticise a book more than once. Even a critic is entitled to some little semblance of freedom of action, though in the judgment of a vast number of people he is entitled to no freedom of opinion. If a man can obtain employment as a critic on half a dozen papers he can-not be prevented torn writing half a dozen criticisms of every new book that appears.

Dr. Doyle Is inclined to think that if a critic were compelled. to sign his criticisms he would be able to do less harm than, in Dr. Doyle's'opinion, is done by the multiform critic of The Bookman. But this would prove a very inefficient remedy. Suppose that Smith writes criticisms in six different papers, and signs them all with his name. They will be read, not as Smith's opinion, but as the opinions of the papers in which they appear. The public will simply note that such and such papers have praised or condemned a certain book, and they will accept the opinions expressed by Smith in those papers as a consensus of critical opinion. if every critic were to be compelled to sign his criticisms the practice would perhaps be welcome to an aggrieved author who wished to calm his mind by assaulting the critic with a club, but in no other way would It bring him any sort of satisfaction.

The conclusion of the whole matter seems to be that in a free country nothing can prevent a man from writing all the criticisms that editors may employ him to write, and that signing his name to such criticisms would have no effect except to bring upon him a shower of sarcastic postal cards and the bitter hatred of every author whom he does not praise. Personally, I warmly sympathize with Dr. Doyle, and feel that he has a genuine grievance. At the same time I cannot see that the critic of The Bookman has exceeded his rights as a free-born Briton, and I certainly cannot conceive of any remedy for the wrong of which Dr. Doyle complains.

Criticism is something which can never be made perfect in this imperfect world. It is all based upon the false assumption by the critic that he is infallible. When an honest critic writes of a book that it is a feeble and worthless production, he is giving merely his own opinion, but unless he is morally certain that such opinion is right he has no rights to express it. Of course he is perfectly certain that his opinion of the book is a just one; in other words, he is certain of his infallibility. As a matter of fact, we all know that critics are not infallible. Of what value, then, is criticism based upon the fallacy that when a critic declares ex cathedra his opinion of any book such opinion is infallible? The more one thinks of what criticism is, of what it ought to be, and of what it never can be, the more nearly one approaches to the confines of insanity.

The Doyle-Nicoll controversy ceased with a suggestion on the part of Dr. Nicoll that a stern sense of duty might compel him to appeal to the law of libel, and a disclaimer on the part of Dr. Doyle of any insinuation against his opponent's honesty. Various other people have written letters on the subject of critical pluralism, and most of them think that it is a shame that one man should write criticisms under six different signatures; but, beyond the suggestion that criticisms ought to be signed, they have no remedy to propose. As t hinted this remedy would fail to meet the case. There is only one remedy which would be efficacious. Let every one refuse to read criticisms of new books, which contain anything beyond a mere bald statement of their subject matter. In that case it would make no difference how many times a critic might duplicate himself. It is the judgment which a critic pronounces upon a book which does either good or harm.

Of course my remedy means the abolition of all true criticism, but that would not be a serious loss. So long as a man is known to be a capable and honest critic, so long will it always be possible for him to write criticisms in half a dozen different papers. Dr. Doyle and lesser men may complain that this is not fair, but they can do nothing to prevent it. Whereas, if the public would only abstain from reading criticisms there would be an end of the trouble. Once in a century there is born a man whose opinions about books are worthy of attention, but what is one real critic among such an intolerable quantity of books? Even our cleverest men merely express their own likes and dislikes when they write what they call criticism. Mr. George Moore honestly regards Kipling as a hideous blot on our civilization. Mr. Andrew Lang thinks that Mr. Moore cannot write a novel that is worth reading, but at the same time he regards Mr. Rider Haggard as one of the greatest novelists of the day. If the public accepts the opinions of these critics what an extraordinary mental condition the public must be in!

One would naturally fancy that Sir Edwin Arnold would know a good novel from a bad one. And yet look at the list of "the one hundred best novels in the world " published by The Daily Telegraph.. This list was selected by Sir Edwin Arnold with the assistance of Mr. H. D. Trail and Mr. W. L. Courtney. In the list we find "Guy Livingstone," "The Wide, Wide World," "Valentine Vox," "The Deemster," and books by Miss Amelle Rives, "Ouida," Whyte-Melville, and W. H. Ainsworth, not one of which deserves a place in any library. When Messrs. Arnold, Trail, and Courtney agree in classing the books I have mentioned among the "one hundred best novels in the world," of what value Is their critical judgment? Is the opinion of a man who regards " Valentine Vox " as one of the best novels in the world entitled to any weight when he brings It to bear on a new novel?

Very possibly The Daily Telegraph's list of novels is well adapted to meet the tastes of its readers, in spite of the fact that none of Miss Corelli's works is mentioned in it. Still, a list of the most popular novels is one thing and a list of the best novels is quite another. We have recently had several lists of the "best books" in the language issued by rival publishers, but The Daily Telegraph's list of the best novels is by far the most wonderful of them all.

W. L. ALDEN.




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