Anthony Trollope’s autobiography is a classic study of the working life of one of English literature’s best-known writers. His strong opinions on working practices, contracts, deadlines, and earnings have divided opinion ever since. Below is an extract from Trollope’s An Autobiography and Other Writings, edited by Nicholas Shrimpton, in which he shares his views on literary criticism and the critics themselves.
Literary criticism in the present day has become a profession,—but it has ceased to be an art. Its object is no longer that of proving that certain literary work is good and other literary work is bad, in accordance with rules which the critic is able to define. English criticism at present rarely even pretends to go so far as this. It attempts, in the first place, to tell the public whether a book be or be not worth public attention; and, in the second place, so to describe the purport of the work as to enable those who have not time or inclination for reading it to feel that by a short cut they can become acquainted with its contents. Both these objects, if fairly well carried out, are salutary. Though the critic may not be a profound judge himself; though not unfrequently he be a young man making his first literary attempts, with tastes and judgment still unfixed, yet he probably has a conscience in the matter, and would not have been selected for that work had he not shown some aptitude for it. Though he may be not the best possible guide to the undiscerning, he will be better than no guide at all. Real substantial criticism must, from its nature, be costly, and that which the public wants should at any rate be cheap. Advice is given to many thousands, which, though it may not be the best advice possible, is better than no advice at all. Then that description of the work criticised, that compressing of the much into very little,—which is the work of many modern critics or reviewers,—does enable many to know something of what is being said, who without it would know nothing.
I do not think it is incumbent on me at present to name periodicals in which this work is well done, and to make complaints of others by which it is scamped. I should give offence, and might probably be unjust. But I think I may certainly say that as some of these periodicals are certainly entitled to great praise for the manner in which the work is done generally, so are others open to very severe censure,—and that the praise and that the censure are chiefly due on behalf of one virtue and its opposite vice. It is not critical ability that we have a right to demand, or its absence that we are bound to deplore. Critical ability for the price we pay is not attainable. It is a faculty not peculiar to Englishmen, and when displayed is very frequently not appreciated. But that critics should be honest we have a right to demand, and critical dishonesty we are bound to expose. If the writer will tell us what he thinks, though his thoughts be absolutely vague and useless, we can forgive him; but when he tells us what he does not think, actuated either by friendship or by animosity, then there should be no pardon for him. This is the sin in modern English criticism of which there is most reason to complain.
It is a lamentable fact that men and women lend themselves to this practice who are neither vindictive nor ordinarily dishonest. It has become ‘the custom of the trade,’ under the veil of which excuse so many tradesmen justify their malpractices! When a struggling author learns that so much has been done for A by the Barsetshire Gazette, so much for B by the Dillsborough Herald, and, again, so much for C by that powerful metropolitan organ the Evening Pulpit, and is told also that A and B and C have been favoured through personal interest, he also goes to work among the editors, or the editors’ wives,—or perhaps, if he cannot reach their wives, with their wives’ first or second cousins. When once the feeling has come upon an editor or a critic that he may allow himself to be influenced by other considerations than the duty he owes to the public, all sense of critical or of editorial honesty falls from him at once. Facilis descensus Averni. In a very short time that editorial honesty becomes ridiculous to himself. It is for other purpose that he wields the power; and when he is told what is his duty, and what should be his conduct, the preacher of such doctrine seems to him to be quixotic. ‘Where have you lived, my friend, for the last twenty years,’ he says in spirit, if not in word, ‘that you come out now with such stuff as old-fashioned as this?’ And thus dishonesty begets dishonesty, till dishonesty seems to be beautiful. How nice to be good-natured! How glorious to assist struggling young authors, especially if the young author be also a pretty woman! How gracious to oblige a friend! Then the motive, though still pleasing, departs further from the border of what is good. In what way can the critic better repay the hospitality of his wealthy literary friend than by good-natured criticism,—or more certainly ensure for himself a continuation of hospitable favours?
Some years since a critic of the day, a gentleman well known then in literary circles, showed me the manuscript of a book recently published,— the work of a popular author. It was handsomely bound, and was a valuable and desirable possession. It had just been given to him by the author as an acknowledgment for a laudatory review in one of the leading journals of the day. As I was expressly asked whether I did not regard such a token as a sign of grace both in the giver and in the receiver, I said that I thought it should neither have been given nor have been taken. My theory was repudiated with scorn, and I was told that I was strait-laced, visionary, and impracticable! In all that the damage did not lie in the fact of that one present, but in the feeling on the part of the critic that his office was not debased by the acceptance of presents from those whom he criticised. This man was a professional critic, bound by his contract with certain employers to review such books as were sent to him. How could he, when he had received a valuable present for praising one book, censure another by the same author?
While I write this I well know that what I say, if it be ever noticed at all, will be taken as a straining at gnats, as a pretence of honesty, or at any rate as an exaggeration of scruples. I have said the same thing before, and have been ridiculed for saying it. But none the less am I sure that English literature generally is suffering much under this evil. All those who are struggling for success have forced upon them the idea that their strongest efforts should be made in touting for praise. Those who are not familiar with the lives of authors will hardly believe how low will be the forms which their struggles will take:—how little presents will be sent to men who write little articles; how much flattery may be expended even on the keeper of a circulating library; with what profuse and distant genuflexions approaches are made to the outside railing of the temple which contains within it the great thunderer of some metropolitan periodical publication! The evil here is not only that done to the public when interested counsel is given to them, but extends to the debasement of those who have at any rate considered themselves fit to provide literature for the public.
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