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Changing Our Minds

Two writers talk about when they get it wrong—and what it means for the art of criticism.

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Jennifer Senior recently wrote in The New York Times about changing her mind over Senator Jeff Flake’s book, Conscience of a Conservative. “At some point or another, all book critics agonize over whether they’ve taken the wrong measure of a book,” she wrote. “They’ve done a bum job explaining why a book sang or—and this is the worst—they’ve done a bum job explaining why a book stank, robbing the authors of the intelligent criticism they were owed while being shown the way to the abattoir.” 

Any critic will agree that this happens, unless they are a truly consistent genius or possessed of a pathologically high opinion of themselves. The New Republic’s Jeet Heer and Josephine Livingstone sat down to talk about what it means to have public opinions, what a critic can do when they realize they’ve gone wrong, and whether any person—however smart—can ever make definitive statements about another person’s art. 

Livingstone: This subject has been knocking around my head for two chief reasons. The first is that a lot of people have asked me about it. And I never know what to say! The truth is that I try to learn from mistakes and move on, but it actually bothers me much more than that. Because I do feel responsible. I just don’t have a strategy for when I don’t live up to my own standards. 

The second reason is that I have recently changed my mind about a TV show I reviewed: Bodyguard. I had watched the whole thing in the breathless context of a hit show that had swept the U.K. into enthusiasm. As soon as I’d published my glowing review, I felt uncertain. The show’s plot hinges on a terrorist group, a right-wing government that won’t acknowledge that terrorism is a response to its own illegal warmongering, and an ex-army cop who interacts with both. The problem is in the last episode, where a previously sympathetic Muslim character named Nadia suddenly gets recast as having been evil all along. The show makes half-hearted attempts to use this shift as proof that our white protagonist was himself stereotyping Nadia, assuming she’s a helpless woman. But the show just doesn’t back that analysis up with an adequate characterization of Nadia, or any other Muslim characters. 

Bodyguard, in other words, relies on tired stereotypes of Muslims. I had extended the show a generous reading; that its writers were engaging with political stereotyping to make more complex points. But the last episode gives the lie to that. The show pays lip-service to Nadia’s humanity, but we just never truly witness that full humanity on screen. 

So, what do I do? I tried asking my editor if I could re-review the show, but that was out of the question. One option was to tweet about my new view of the show, which I thought might at least establish my change of heart. But that felt feeble.

Instead, I thought I would ask you, Jeet, what experience have you had with this miniature crisis of mine. Have you found yourself in this position? Have you ever been given any good advice on the topic?

Heer: I think there’s nothing more natural in the world than a critic changing their mind about a work of art. Our reaction to art is shaped by who we are, and none of us remain the same. As a working critic, there have been very few reviews I’ve written where I would change the underlying opinion, but there are some where I regret the wording. I heartily disliked Charles Foran’s novel Planet Lolita (2014), a misguided attempt to bring social media slang into fiction. I vented against the book in an angry review. There’s nothing in the review I would disagree with now, but the tone seems like overkill, with a harshness that makes me wince. Looking back, I wish I had expressed my displeasure at the book in a calmer way. 

But my more serious critical reevaluations have not been about reviews I’ve written but my attitude toward particular creators. When I was a teenager I loved the science fiction and fantasy writer Harlan Ellison, but whenever I’ve revisited his work in recent years, I’ve found even his most praised stories grating. He’s a hectoring, sputtering, slapdash, one-dimensional writer who mistook loudness for passion. When Ellison died earlier this year, I wrote an obituary that tried to do justice to the two sides of my feelings, my former admiration and my current disillusionment. 

Other revisions have gone in the opposite way. Creators I dismissed when younger like Vladimir Nabokov (“a fancy-pants show-off,” I once thought) or Stanley Kubrick (“cold, sterile, boring”) are now among my favorites. I would like to think there’s a process of maturing at work! 

In fact, I know that aging has definitely helped me revise my opinion of one writer. When I first dipped into the novels of Anthony Powell a few decades ago, he seemed to me a fussily minor snob, sharing Waugh’s upper-class milieu but without Waugh’s ferocious comic cruelty. This summer, I read Perry Anderson’s epic review of a new Powell biography in The London Review of Books, which basically argued at great length (two parts! 28,000 words!) that Powell was better than Marcel Proust. 

This seemed so far-fetched and outside my experience of reading both Powell and Proust that I had to test it out. I went to my local university library to take out the twelve volumes of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (published from 1951 to 1975). As it turned out, these dusty volumes didn’t have bar codes, just catalogue cards that were blank. I was the first person ever to take these books out from that library.

As I made my way through the novels, I found I liked them much more than my earlier, more cursory readings. The Dance cycle is a roman-fleuve (a snooty way of saying “soap opera”) spanning five decades (roughly from 1914 to the early 1970s). The narrator Nick Jenkins tells about the people who have come in and out of his life over those years, with once tight school chums becoming distant, new friends and lovers made and unmade, and the surprising turns that people take (with once mocked figures becoming successes or staid figures turning out to have kinky sexualities). 

Reading it this time, it occurred to me that the Dance novels really capture what it’s like to be middle-aged, to have lived long enough to have gone through the ups and downs of relationships and seen the twisty turns that mark every life’s arc. And what once seemed vices in Powell could be reevaluated as virtues: His fussiness was also a passion for precision in delineating what is exactly knowable about other people; his snobbery was also a sensitivity to the gradations of social milieu; his chilly dispassion also a necessary part of his anthropological curiosity about human oddness. It’s not surprising that I’m much fonder of Powell now than I was in my twenties. 

So that’s one part of how critics change, and perhaps there should be age recommendation for books: no Harlan Ellison after 16, no Anthony Powell before 45. 

Livingstone: You’re bang on there; a reader and a writer must meet at just the right time for real chemistry to take place. You mentioned Waugh, whom I loved as a teenager, but only really because E.M. Forster had appealed to me so deeply. It was a logic all my own. I wasn’t mature enough to be put off by Waugh’s aristocratic themes, so I lumped him in with all the other authors I credited with warming my cold English heart: Forster, D.H. Lawrence, Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, L. P. Hartley. 

You just observed that Powell’s Dance novels captured something of what it means to be middle-aged. By the same token, I put together a personal canon in my younger years, because they all represented something that I needed. None of those books reflected my experience, exactly, but they had a collective meaning that together shaped my life. But that canon has expired; I no longer get the same thing out of Waugh that I once did. I’m “over it,” if you will. 

But let’s get back to the critic specifically. We’ve established that readers and writers change over time, so there must be an important relation between the artwork and time, age, biography, and ultimately interpretation. If that’s so important, as I think we both agree it is, then how can a critic go about their career without acknowledging that relation? We seem to be getting at an ethical question and an aesthetic one at the same time... 

Heer: Yes, I think changing opinions does carry with it an ethical obligation: You have to be honest about how and why you’ve come to your new opinions. One thing that annoys me is when critics fail to be upfront when they change their mind. Consider the husband and wife duo of F.R. and Queenie Leavis. In their early work, the Leavises were very condescending toward Dickens. In her Fiction and the Reading Public (1939) Queenie wrote, “Dickens stands primarily for a set of crude emotional exercises. He discovered ... the formula laughter and tears’ that has been the foundation of practically every popular success ever since (Hollywood’s as well as the bestseller’s).” 

In his book The Great Tradition (1948), F.R. Leavis pointedly left out Dickens from his canonical list of the great English novelists (a tight little clubhouse that only had room for Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and D.H. Lawrence). Dickens, F.R. Leavis admitted, had “genius” but it was “the genius of a great entertainer.” Further, “the adult mind,” according to the critic, “doesn’t as a rule find in Dickens a challenge to an unusual and sustained seriousness.” In 1970, the Leavises (the Leavi?) ... 

Livingstone: Leavises. 

Heer: ... collaborated on a book called Dickens the Novelist where they had the chutzpah to berate fellow critics for not appreciating that Dickens was one of the greatest writers who ever lived, the peer of Shakespeare and Tolstoy. In the preface of the book they set out their agenda: “We should like to make it impossible ... for any intellectual—academic, journalist or both—to tell us with the familiar easy assurance that Dickens of course was a genius, but that his line was entertainment.” They further denounced critics who were so foolish as to believe that “Dickens never grew up intellectually.” (Decades earlier, Queenie Leavis had written that Dickens’s “originality is confined to recapturing a child’s outlook on the grown-up world.”) 

Did the Leavises have a right to change their mind on Dickens? Sure, absolutely. But what makes Dickens the Novelist an intolerable book is that they don’t ever acknowledge that their minds changed. They act as if they were right all along and other benighted critics held the views that they themselves propagated. The whole exercise amounts to a kind of critical Stalinism, a relentless whitewashing of their own past in order to uphold their authority. 

So much of critical authority depends on confidence of opinion. To change your mind risks undermining that authority, an act of self-subversion. But I still think the better path is honesty.

Livingstone: Critical Stalinism! Well, we don’t want that. How does one approach this kind of honesty, in practice?

Heer: Well, I think Susan Sontag provides a better model than the Leavises, but even she still had difficulty in reconciling her conflicting opinions. 

In 1965, Sontag in her essay “On Style” praised Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will and The Olympiad, claiming “these two films of Riefenstahl (unique among works of Nazi artists) transcend the categories of propaganda or even reportage.... Through Riefenstahl’s genius as a filmmaker, the ‘content’ has—let us even assume, against her intentions—come to play a purely formal role.” In 1974, in an essay called “Fascinating Fascism,” Sontag argued that The Triumph of the Will was “a film whose very conception negates the possibility of the filmmaker’s having an aesthetic conception independent of propaganda.’’ 

On the face of it, these two positions seem contradictory. Yet both essays were reprinted in A Susan Sontag Reader (1983). More importantly, in an interview (also in the Reader) Sontag doesn’t disavow the first essay. Rather, the critic argued the two essays show “a continuity, to be sure, in that both statements illustrate the richness of the form-content distinction, as long as one is careful always to use it against itself. My point in 1965 was about the formal implications of content, while the recent essay examines the content implicit in certain ideas of form.” 

I’m not sure if I fully buy Sontag’s attempt to paper over the contradiction. What I do admire, however, is that she shows that an engaged mind never settles down definitively before a work of art, but rather improvises competing responses. My contention is that, like Whitman, every good critic contains multitudes. 

Livingstone: The Sontag example is helpful, because her inconsistency—let’s call it internal heterodoxy?—is such a core feature of her thought. She had little shame about flitting from position to position, but that flexibility helped her build a lot of bridges as she moved between essay-writing, reporting, fiction, and criticism. 

“Every good critic contains multitudes.” Sure, that sounds good. But what about that other kind of critic—the pure, blazing genius who will never admit that he’s wrong in the moment, but continues instead to change, and change again, and in so doing forces culture forward like a very arrogant runaway train? I’m thinking of Wittgenstein. 

Of course, he wasn’t a critic. But Wittgenstein’s work has long been divided into the early and the later parts of his career: his work up to and including the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, on logic and language and metaphysics, and the period that culminated in his Philosophical Investigations, which took aim at all philosophy that had gone before it, including Wittgenstein’s own book. In his great transition period, Wittgenstein rejected all philosophical dogmatism, and totally changed the direction of his philosophy. 

What I am trying to point out is that Wittgenstein didn’t announce his changes of mind as he went along. He worked with total commitment, but in phases. He didn’t waste time apologizing for or retracting his early works. He is Sontag’s opposite, in many ways. She was the ultimate brilliant dilettante, skipping across fields to deliver powerful, glancing blows. He dug a hole and sat in it. And yet they both were able to evolve. 

Which of them was the more honest? I think it all boils down to whether you think the critic has to engage with society on an equal footing—as more a friend to the reader, like Sontag—or whether he can ignore the world and thereby ultimately give more of himself. 

Heer: I think the Wittgenstein/Sontag distinction is a useful one and might be related to their separate vocations. The philosopher is searching for truth and, in his or her more confident moments, tries to be the voice of truth. In articulating ultimate truths, a contradiction is a sign of failure. Conversely, the critic is a flightier creature, a flibbertigibbet whose changeability can be charming.

In 1933, Sidney Hook wrote one of the best books ever in the Marxist tradition, Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation. But as his politics shifted from revolutionary to reformist socialism, Hook grew embarrassed by this book and resisted requests to reprint it. During the 1960s, a bootleg copy circulated in New Left circles. It was only after he died that his family, quite reluctantly, allowed a reprint. There were at least two Sidney Hooks, and the older one tried to censor his younger self. A shame, really, since the younger Sidney Hook was the more interesting of the two thinkers. 

The Canadian philosopher Michael Allen Fox underwent a similar experience. In 1986, he published a book called The Case for Animal Experimentation, a book that was savaged by animal rights activists. As he read his hostile critics, Fox realized he had no good answer to their objections. “The more I read of my critics, the more I came to the conclusion that the difference between humans and animals is of degrees, not kind,” Fox told me in 2001, when I interviewed him for an article I did for The National Post. Fox would later go on to write a book called Deep Vegetarianism (1999), which, spoiler alert, takes a more pro-animal approach than his earlier volume.

When I interviewed Fox, I asked him how he would react to a request to publish his earlier book. “I would probably say OK, but with the proviso that I be allowed to write an introduction explaining how my thinking has changed,” he replied. “If the publisher said, ‘no new introduction,’ I would have a serious quandary. Even then, I would probably say, ‘publish it’. I don’t support the suppression of research, even in the case of my own work.” 

I’ve always like Yeats’s aphorism that, “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” But I would qualify it by saying that good criticism and good philosophy have the quality that Yeats ascribes to poetry: They grow out of internal wrestling. 

Internal strife is the true origins of changed opinion. I often have the experience when I’m making an argument of trying to address not some external opponent but my own mixed feelings. For example, I recently wrote a piece arguing against gloating over the death of The Weekly Standard. I stand by the piece, but if I had wanted to, I could have easily written (with almost equal conviction), “The Weekly Standard was a harmful magazine. Good riddance to bad rubbish.” I partly wrote the piece to settle the issue in my mind and to resolve contradictory emotions. 

For deep insight into all this, I want to recommend to you (and to readers) Nicholson Baker’s essay “Changes of Mind” (found in his 1996 collection The Size of Thought). Better than anything I’ve read, this essay gets at the involuntary nature of these changes, the strange but true fact that our mind has a mind of its own. 

“We have no choice,” Baker writes. “Our opinions, gently nudged by circumstance, revise themselves under cover of inattention. We tell them, in a steady voice, No, I’m not interested in a change at present. But there is no stopping opinions. They don’t care about whether we want to hold them or not; they do what they have to do.” 

Livingstone: Curse and bless you for bringing up Nicholson Baker. His book U & I has been haunting me. It’s about John Updike, but written from Baker’s memory of Updike, rather than according to normal research methods. It’s such an inventive book, but it’s also so anxious. It demonstrates several uncomfortable things at once: a) that the critic is only ever working from an incomplete understanding of an author’s work, because we are trapped in our subjectivity as readers; b) that is a painful crux to work in; and c) it doesn’t get any less painful even when you know what’s happening. 

I’ll turn to this essay now, “Changes of Mind.” From what you have described, it seems like a kinder theorization of the critical condition of incompleteness. A change of mind doesn’t have to mean inconsistency or weakness; perhaps it’s just a characteristic of our many-pronged, magical ability to care about other people’s work.