The Ethics of Criticism (15 may 1899)

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The Ethics of Criticism is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Daily Chronicle on 15 may 1899.

The Ethics of Criticism

Sir, — You have more than once been good enough to put your columns at my disposal when I had occasion to broach some subject which appeared to concern the general interests of literature in this country. May I be allowed once more to draw attention to what seems to me to be a growing scandal, and to invite some expressions of opinion from my brother authors upon the subject? I refer to the publications of reviews upon the same book by the same reviewer in many different periodicals, so that what to the uninitiated might seem to be a general burst of praise or blame may really when analysed prove to be the work ofa single individual.

I am aware that the subject has been discussed before now; but it becomes year by year a more crying evil, and things seem to me to have now come to such a pass that some attempt must be made to find a remedy. I have no desire to descend to personalities; but one cannot state a case in a convincing manner without giving a concrete instance, which I shall do with as little offence as possible.

There is an excellent and useful monthly, The Bookman. in the columns of which the editor, a well-known critic, is naturally able to express his opinion of any new book. The same editor sends or has until recently sent — a letter to the New York Bookman, and so exercises a double influence on each side of the Atlantic. This seems to me to be quite legitimate and fair.

There is a well-known weekly, the British Weekly, which is edited by the same gentleman. It is the chief exponent of Nonconformist literary opinion. In this journal this same gentleman can, and does, review the same volume. The reviews are anonymous and there is no reason why the outside public should connect the one review with the other. To it they appear to be two important independent judgments.

In the same paper there are two different columns of paragraphs devoted to literary comment and chat, which are signed respectively by "Claudius Clear" and by "A Man of Kent". I am credibly informed that both of these noms de guerre cover the individuality of the same critic who has already had his opportunity of literary criticism in three other forms. If all these strings are pulled simultaneously a prodigious consensus of opinion seems to exist. And yet there is only the one pair of hands to pull them.

Turning now from these more serious papers to their somewhat frivolous contemporary the Sketch, we come upon a colum of literary criticism signed by yet another symbol, "O.O." Yet, incredible as it may seem, the opinion of "O.O" is still the opinion of "Claudius Clear," of "A Man of Kent," of the critic of the Bookman, of the critic of the American Bookman, and of the critic of the British Weekly. This, I hold, is not legitimate criticism.

And now when I add that this same critic frequently expresses his opinion of any important new book in the anonymous columns of a daily paper, and thus adds a sixth to his possible methods of influencing public opinion, I think that I have said enough to show that a protest is needed. I have not chosen this example as being the only case, though perhaps it is the most notorious; but there are other groups of papers controlled by a single opinion, and any two of these groups by forming an alliance can at any time exert an enormous influence upon the fate of a book. It is not too much to say that the property of authors and of publishers comes in this way to be at the mercy of a very small clique of men. To revert to the instance already given, it is obvious that four or five such critics would cover the whole critical Press of London, and no beginner could gain a hearing without their sanction. I hold that such a state of things is intolerable.

The question now is by what possible means we can check such an abuse. Perhaps the mere ventilation of it with a free expression of opinion may do something in this direction. Perhaps also we may appeal to the good feelings of editors, and ask them whether it is not right that the opinion of their paper should be the opinion of their paper, and not the echo of some other paper. But in the last resort we have one final method of ensuring fair play. It is so powerful a weapon that I should be loth to see it used unless it were necessary for the higher interests of literature. Authors and publishers have between them the regulation of advertising, and literary papers are dependent upon advertising. A combination of authors who are opposed to wire-pulling and pluralism would easily, either acting independently or through the Society of Authors, break down this pernicious system.

Let me repeat, in conclusion, that it is not adverse criticism which I deprecate. We do not get enough of it, though it is sometimes misapplied. But it is the system by which one man writes many notices which are quoted as separate opinions. This is the great danger, as it seems to me, of modern British literature.

Yours truly,

Reform Club, Pall-mall, S.W.

See also