“How to Be a Literary Critic” by Georgette Heyer

Just a month after her biting essay on biographies of the Brontës appeared in Punch, Georgette Heyer let loose with an even more pointed attack in those pages, this time on literary critics.

Heyer was ever beset by critics across her writing life, and while rare was the poor review of her work, those still stung — as they do us all.


Originally published in Punch, 1954

THE first step towards this goal is to write a book, or even, if you are very industrious, two or three books, and to get these published. Failing a book, a few articles will, do. They need not be profound, or beautifully written, and the book need not be successful, the whole point of this admittedly laborious start to your chosen profession being that by getting into print you will subsequently be able to appear as a critic in the guise of a Well-known Author. The publication of an article will turn you into an author; and editorial or B.B.C. propaganda will very soon make you well known.

The next step is to rid yourself of diffidence. If, when you are first handed the latest work of one whom you suspect to be your literary superior, you feel that it would be effrontery for you to criticize it, do not decline to do so.

Remember that no qualifications are necessary for a Literary Critic, and that this is the Day of the Little Man, when the more insignificant you are, and the more valueless your opinions, the greater will be your chance of obtaining a hearing. Moreover, if you stick to the job you will soon cease to feel such qualms. There is nothing like sitting in judgment on other people’s work for increasing your self-esteem.

There are four kinds of Literary Criticism, but it will only be necessary to discuss three of these, since the first kind is a fast-vanishing one, and is in the hands of a few survivors from the Bad Old Days. These persons hold obstinately to the belief that a Literary Critic should not only be himself a distinguished man of letters but should also be (if not an expert on the subject of the book he is to review) at least a man of wide culture and critical ability. This belief is obviously too out-worn to be worthy of consideration, so we will pass on to the three more important kinds of Literary Criticism.

The first of these is the Descriptive. For this you write a précis of the plot of the book—which doesn’t, of course, mean that you have to read the whole book. All you have to do is to skim the first half and write an outline of the plot up to the point where you left off. You then say that to divulge how the story ends would spoil it for the author’s countless admirers, adding (to spike the guns of carping persons who might otherwise object that you hadn’t criticized the book at all) that it is an excellent story, or a very indifferent story.

The second and the third kinds are for the more advanced critics, who have gained enough assurance to deal with any book, from the latest novel to a definitive work on Ancient Greek Civilization. The second kind is the Hagiological, and the third the Abusive.

Much the same rules apply to each, except that the second kind should be practised with less discrimination than the third. In neither should you allow yourself to be deterred by ignorance, and never should you waste your time verifying either the author’s statements or your own, possibly erroneous, convictions. If you are a Hagiologist, the author will be gratified by your praise (always supposing that he reads your review), and the people you are writing for won’t know any better than you do. If you are an Abuser, it is rather more difficult, for in the case of the book which deals with a specialized subject you must take care to condemn it only on general grounds, such as saying that it is dull, or has too many footnotes, or hasn’t convinced you. In neither case is it necessary to go into detail. Do not, for instance—supposing you should recognize them—say anything about the style or technique. These are very unimportant matters, and won’t interest Mr. and Mrs. Littleman in the least.

The book dealing with Ideas can be regarded by the Critic as a piece of cake. If the ideas happen to coincide with your own, and the author is not a political opponent of the organ which employs you, you can spread yourself in encomiums, though this won’t be such fun as when the author’s ideas aren’t yours, and the policy of your organ is to suppress him. You can then work off any personal spite you may have against him by writing slightingly of his mental capacity and hinting that he is on the verge of senility; or, if you merely disagree with his opinions, you can just condemn his book without reserve. After all, if he’s only writing about Ideas, no one can say that you’re wrong when you state that these are childish, trashy, laughable, or so boring that they sent you to sleep; and as you won’t be called upon to pit your wits against his in public argument, your readers, or hearers, won’t have the chance to compare your respective mental powers, and will very likely assume that you must be pretty brainy yourself to have been given the book to review at all.

But this last form of Literary Criticism should not be attempted by the novice who has not entirely shaken off his modesty. Let but a doubt of your competence to criticize the work of a possibly distinguished author creep into your mind and you will find yourself demurring at his conclusions only in terms verging on the polite, or even the respectful. Don’t be afraid of making a fool of yourself! Reflect that you could have written the book much better yourself, if only you had had the time and the inclination for the task; and that the literate won’t be listening, if you’re speaking on the air, or doing more than glance at your review, if it appears in print; and go right ahead! There will be no reprisals. If the author is young, and struggling, he won’t dare to expose your pretensions; and if he is well established he won’t think it worthwhile to do so.

SOURCE: Heyer, Georgette, et al. “How to be a Literary Critic.” Punch, 28 Apr. 1954, p. 520+.

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