Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Daniel Mendelsohn Considers Criticism of Works by Writers Using Pseudonyms

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Daniel Mendelsohn Considers Criticism of Works by Writers Using Pseudonyms

Article excerpt

As a critic, the question I want to ask is whether criticism untainted by knowledge of who the author is and what she has already done is desirable in the first place - or, indeed, valid.

Daniel Mendelsohn

I wonder whether criticism untainted by knowledge of who the author is and what she has done is desirable, or indeed, valid.

The joke, apparently, was on us: on you the reader, on us the critics.

This summer, when it was revealed that the British detective novel "The Cuckoo's Calling," by an unknown first-timer called Robert Galbraith, was in fact the work of J.K. Rowling, a good deal of smirking ensued. Published in April, the book had garnered a bouquet of admiring reviews -- and modest sales. About 1,500 copies had sold by July, when its author's identity was exposed, at which point the novel predictably rocketed to No. 1 on Amazon. The general feeling was that Ms. Rowling's hoax had laid bare a kind of hypocrisy, that the interest in the book on the part of the first 1,500 buyers was "honest" in a way the subsequent enthusiasm for it was not.

Ms. Rowling's own interest, it seemed, was less in her audience than in her critics. The pseudonym, she later wrote, was meant to allow her "to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback." It's not hard to understand the appeal: Almost without exception, negative reviews of her 2012 "grown-up" novel "The Casual Vacancy," her first post-Harry Potter work, featured unfavorable comparisons to the series that made her famous. "Fails to conjure Harry Potter's magic," went one not atypical response. It's hard to think of feedback less varnished than that.

Ms. Rowling's trick raises the question of whether a "pure" critical reaction is possible when authors' reputations precede them. But although the desire to be judged on one's merits alone can strike us as noble, the word "pure" troubles me. As a critic, the question I want to ask is whether criticism untainted by knowledge of who the author is and what she has already done is desirable in the first place -- or, indeed, valid.

The most important role of the critic, after all, whether the scholar of literatures past or the reviewer of contemporary literature, is to mediate usefully between a work and its public, to present the novel or play or movie in the fullest possible way so the reader of the review can make sense of it: understand its ambitions, analyze the technical means by which it achieves them. …

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