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Katie van Schaijik

Bumping up against a bogus notion of charity

May. 9 at 2:36pm

The other day a friend sent me a message asking if I'd be interested in reviewing a book she's just published.  I told her I was scared I would hate it, which would put me in a dilemma.  I'm a critic by nature and vocation.  I can't dissemble.  And I'm afraid my honest impressions would discourage her in her work.  

She laughed and assured me that she finds private criticism helpful.  Then she sent me the book.  It came in the mail just now.  

As I held it, disliking the cover art, it occurred to me:  Wait a sec.  "Private criticism"?  Did she mean (perhaps unconsciously) to bind me not to say anything in public? 

Maybe she didn't mean to do that at all, but it's a notion I come across frequently in Catholic circles, viz. that is that public criticism is a violation of Christian charity.  The idea is that If a fellow Catholic writes a book or an article that you disagree with or have objections to, you have an obligation, in charity, to approach that person personally and privately, before making your criticisms known.  

I would like to say right here, right now, (as I have before and elsewhere), before I read the book, that this notion is false. Bogus and delibilitating.

If a friend were to come to me in confidence and ask me, as a favor, to review and critique her work before it's published, then (assuming I agree to do it) I would have an obligation, in friendship and in professional courtesy, not to make my criticisms public until she's had a chance to address them.  

Once a book or article is published, however, it is ipso facto part of the public domain.  And this point, a critic's concern is not primarily with the author, but with her readers, or, in other words, the public.  A critic owes the public her honest response.

Now, that doesn't mean that there are never good reasons in a concrete case for choosing to keep criticisms private.  But as a matter of principle, it is not wrong, not a breach of charity, to make them in public.  On the other hand, it would be wrong--and a breach of charity--to accuse a critic of uncharity for doing her job as she understands it.

If you don't want to be publicly criticised, keep your thoughts and your creative works to yourself.  Once they're out there, it's not about you, it's about them, and everyone else.

Just this week I read a fun and perhaps apropos anecdote about the great critic Hilton Kramer, who died recently.  It was in a commemorative piece in the marvelous magazine he founded thirty years ago, The New Criterion.

Hilton liked to quote Walter Bagehot in this context: "The business of the critic," said Bagehot, "is to criticize."  One of Hilton's favorite stories involved the movie director and actor Woody Allen.  Back when Hilton worked at The New York Times, he happened to be seated next to Allen one night at a dinner.  He asked whether Hilton ever felt embarrassed when he encountered socially artists he'd written disparagingly about.  Without missing a beat, Hilton replied, No, why should I be embarrassed? They made the crappy art.  I just described it.


 

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