Auberon Waugh

Another Approach to Criticism

The growing success of Greenwich’s infamous Dome – at any rate among schoolchildren at half-term – has led to calls for those who criticised it in the first place to eat their words. My friend and colleague Richard Ingrams has a robust answer to this suggestion. Even if the project can succeed in paying for itself, he wrote:

‘It doesn’t follow that the Dome is any good. Though I have not been myself, I have closely cross–questioned those who have, and have read innumerable accounts by men and women whose judgement I respect. And there can be no getting away from the fact that the contents of the Dome are thoroughly tacky and second-rate.’

This would seem to open a debate on the vulgarity and ghastliness of mass culture, but the most interesting aspect of Ingrams’s criticism is that he admits to not having been there or seen any of these tacky and second-rate things himself. He would seem to be basing his judgement on a mixture of intuition and the reported opinions of other people, of whom only a certain number may themselves claim first-hand experience. ‘As for the Dome, others may eat their words but I will not be numbered among them. Great is the truth and it will prevail.’

In quoting all this, I am not questioning Ingrams’s conclusion about the Dome. I am sure he is absolutely right. Without having been there myself, I am convinced it is an embarrassment and a national disgrace. My purpose is to draw attention to a new critical discipline – where the critic cheerfully admits he has not seen, heard or smelled the object he is criticising. Having had one’s attention drawn to it, one realises it is frequently used in literary conversation if less often in written work. But it exists, and having identified it as a school of criticism, we must surely give it a name.

To call it the Ingramsian school might be thought insulting, although there is no suggestion that it is a less valid form of criticism than any other. The idea no longer holds that ignorance of a subject should prevent anyone from having an opinion on it. Nowadays we must accept that the opinion of those with no knowledge is just as valid as that of an expert, or ‘so-called expert’ as these people are more rightly dubbed.

Perhaps if we cannot call it the Ingramsian method we might call it after the Greenwich structure that so few people have actually visited – either ‘Domestic’, in approval, or ‘Domboid’, in disparagement. The essence of the new school is that the critic should admit to not having read the book he is discussing or reviewing. One does not need to have great experience of literary criticism, let alone literary conversation or any other aspect of the literary life, to realise that people inside it already spend an enormous amount of time discussing books and authors they have never read.

In many cases they do this very well, and produce amusing, sometimes memorable criticism. They do it, in part, out of politeness, for fear of casting a gloom if they admit ignorance and withhold comment on that score. But of course most of those present will guess they are bluffing. It does not detract from our enjoyment of the performance, but it adds an unnecessary element of uncertainty if we have not been told. Some may disagree with me, but I should judge it will add a new dimension of enjoyment and insight if we know for certain whether the critic has read the book or not.

A few people to whom I have put this idea have grown quite angry, saying that of course criticism must be properly informed to have any value. If they remain unimpressed by my argument that this weight of knowledge has never stopped critics from drawing all the wrong conclusions or writing gibberish, I have to tell them that I think they are out of date; times have moved on without their noticing. I draw their attention to a book produced in Berlin by five German writers which has taken Germany by storm.

Tristesse Royale, as it is called, is the account of five male German friends staying the weekend in a luxury Berlin hotel, talking about the enjoyment of life. Although the book has none of the ingredients that sometimes cause offence – pornography, violence, obscenity – and does not even commit any of the new crimes of racism, sexism or homophobia, it has been bitterly attacked in every respectable literary quarter.

This is because the five authors are uninterested in history and guilt, unconcerned with social reform, political purpose, literary and artistic theory. They like drinking champagne and enjoy unfashionable rock music. They despise the mass culture of television and down-market films, disdaining it as ‘proletarian’. Much of their conversation would be seen in this country as unacceptably snobbish.

Yet Tristesse Royale, dismissed by the German president’s wife as ‘dreadful’ and denounced at great length in Der Spiegel, continues to sell in its hundreds of thousands in Germany for the simple reason that it describes a new generation of Germans who live for pleasure, and who have never been allowed to read about themselves before. Awareness of this new generation has been suppressed – and not only in Germany. When news of Tristesse Royale breaks through to the young people of Britain, France and Italy, I suspect it will be seen as the most important book of the new decade. They will not need to have read it – any more than I have.

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