“A Critic is a Man Who Knows the Way, But Can’t Drive the Car”

 

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Kenneth Tynan.  He was right about critics.  He was (She said, hopefully) probably speaking from a perspective of age and experience.

One of my emails this morning informed me that February 25, 2024 is the 53rd anniversary of the opening, at New York’s Belasco Theatre, of Oh, Calcutta!, a play written by, among others, Kenneth Tynan.

Tynan, one of the most famous British theatre critics of the late twentieth century, was born in the UK city of Birmingham, on April 2, 1927, and this mention stirred in me not the memory of his illegitimacy, his antics at Oxford, his collaboration with Roman Polanski (with Hugh Hefner, on a Macbeth movie, complete with the infamous nude witches scene), or his eventual professional diminishment after his family’s move to California in 1976.

No.

My instant reaction was a memory of my mother.

Now, to be completely clear, Mum functioned in my family as the Forrest Gump character.  She was always running into famous people, apropos of doing nothing other than living her life:  Duke Ellington.  Anne Murray.  Colonel Sanders.  Harry Secombe.  Cozy Cole.  Danny Kaye.  Probably others.**

Her childhood holidays in Cornwall were sometimes spent in the company of Bertrand Russell (this is how I came to hear of his “Dirty Bertie” nickname, one which caused me difficulties in ever taking him seriously when I came across him later in life, in college courses), his third wife Patricia, and their young son Conrad.

And when my mother was very young, before the outbreak of WWII, she used to walk to school in a small group of children, one of whom she always described as a “little boy with an awfully spotty face, and a very nasty disposition.”

Kenneth Tynan.

Funny how memory works.  Don’t you think?

PS:  From Wikipedia’s Kenneth Tynan page

At thirteen, he was nearly killed when a parachute landmine destroyed the houses on the other side of the Birmingham street where the Tynans lived, killing the inhabitants.

Mum often told the story about the house directly opposite to her family, waking up one morning (after sleeping overnight in the bomb shelter underneath the living room floor) to discover that it had been flattened, killing all the inhabitants.

**Oh, yeah.  People whom my mother met, at greater or lesser length: Queen Elizabeth II.  Prince Philip.  Princess Alexandra.  The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.  I forgot about them.

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  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    She: Now, to be completely clear, Mum functioned in my family as the Forrest Gump character.  She was always running into famous people, apropos of doing nothing other than living her life:  Duke Ellington.  Anne Murray.  Colonel Sanders.  Harry Secombe.  Cozy Cole.  Danny Kaye.  Probably others.

    Well, after all she married the Gagara Yasin. One would expect the extraordinary to be commonplace for one such as her, rolling off her like rain rolling off of a duck’s back.

    She probably met Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia back there somewhere.

    • #1
  2. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    She, please do write a book on all this.  I am willing to put in for the deluxe first edition, signed and with knit cover.

    • #2
  3. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    She: “A Critic is a Man Who Knows the Way, But Can’t Drive the Car”

    On the other hand, some are both artist and critic.

    • #3
  4. She Member
    She
    @She

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    She: “A Critic is a Man Who Knows the Way, But Can’t Drive the Car”

    On the other hand, some are both artist and critic.

    Very true.  I don’t think it happens often that a person is good at both.

    • #4
  5. She Member
    She
    @She

    Percival (View Comment):

    She: Now, to be completely clear, Mum functioned in my family as the Forrest Gump character. She was always running into famous people, apropos of doing nothing other than living her life: Duke Ellington. Anne Murray. Colonel Sanders. Harry Secombe. Cozy Cole. Danny Kaye. Probably others.

    Well, after all she married the Gagara Yasin. One would expect the extraordinary to be commonplace for one such as her, rolling off her like rain rolling off of a duck’s back.

    She probably met Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia back there somewhere.

    She probably did.  Unfortunately, by the end of her life, she wouldn’t have remembered.  Not like Auntie Betty, whose social circle grew wider and more elevated the older and woollier she got.  For the last few years of her life (these would be the years between, say, ages 99 and 102), she carried on a torrid romance with her boyfriend John, the King of China.  Chagrined that he didn’t come to her 100th birthday party, she broke things off with him at the urging of the wonderful people at her care home, who told her that if he couldn’t be bothered to attend, he wasn’t worth her time and attention.  But she resumed the relationship shortly thereafter, and it lasted until her death, just a few weeks before her 103rd birthday.

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    She, please do write a book on all this. I am willing to put in for the deluxe first edition, signed and with knit cover.

    Thanks for this lovely comment!

    • #5
  6. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    It reminds me of the importance of not knowing the way, for a healthy economy. Were it not for the vast number of drivers who don’t know the way, many of us critics would be unemployed.

    People will immediately suggest government job training programs for critics. They are well-meaning, but the scheme runs up against a harsh reality. You can train a critic to drive, sure. But driving will consume so much of his mental focus that he will forget the way.

    Instead of creating one driver who knows the way and eliminating one critic who can’t drive, you will just add one more to the already burdensome mass of people who can drive but don’t know the way.

    It’s the Law of Unintended Consequences. Economics 101, as they say.

    • #6
  7. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    She: “A Critic is a Man Who Knows the Way, But Can’t Drive the Car”

    On the other hand, some are both artist and critic.

    You can make a valid point by substituting “professor” or “consultant” for “critic.” 

    • #7
  8. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    She (View Comment):

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    She: “A Critic is a Man Who Knows the Way, But Can’t Drive the Car”

    On the other hand, some are both artist and critic.

    Very true. I don’t think it happens often that a person is good at both.

    It’s rare enough that someone is good at even one of those. To be good at both is even more unusual. Gene Wolfe and Roger Zelazny were rare examples: they wrote superb stories and also wrote insightfully about their field.

    • #8
  9. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    DaveSchmidt (View Comment):

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    She: “A Critic is a Man Who Knows the Way, But Can’t Drive the Car”

    On the other hand, some are both artist and critic.

    You can make a valid point by substituting “professor” or “consultant” for “critic.”

    ? I’ll suggest that professors of literature are far less likely to write great fiction, as they are stuck in the academic world where the culture and incentives are mostly wrong. When was the last time that an English professor wrote a novel or short story that was read by more than a few other academics? And with every passing year academic criticism seems more and more irrelevant, caught up in obscurities and political correctness.

    But perhaps we are misunderstanding each other’s intended points.

    • #9
  10. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    She: “A Critic is a Man Who Knows the Way, But Can’t Drive the Car”

    On the other hand, some are both artist and critic.

    Very true. I don’t think it happens often that a person is good at both.

    It’s rare enough that someone is good at even one of those. To be good at both is even more unusual. Gene Wolfe and Roger Zelazny were rare examples: they wrote superb stories and also wrote insightfully about their field.

    Raymond Chandler was another one, with The Simple Art of Murder for detective fiction, specifically, but the observations he makes apply outside that genre as well.

    Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” is a satire with two targets: JFC’s novels and literary criticism in general.  JFC fans who were critics didn’t (and probably still don’t) take  it very well. One can also read Twain’s travel literature (The Innocents Abroad, A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator) as satires of its genre as well.

    • #10
  11. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    J. R. R. Tolkien wrote some very good criticism, too. See “On Fairy Stories”. His 1936 essay on Beowulf was very influential.

    Side note: I get the impression from my reading that additional authors have written good criticism in private correspondence, only a very small portion of which is ever published.

    In addition, nuggets of good criticism can occasionally be found in “mere” reviews.

    • #11
  12. She Member
    She
    @She

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    J. R. R. Tolkien wrote some very good criticism, too. See “On Fairy Stories”. His 1936 essay on Beowulf was very influential.

    Side note: I get the impression from my reading that additional authors have written good criticism in private correspondence, only a very small portion of which is ever published.

    In addition, nuggets of good criticism can occasionally be found in “mere” reviews.

    Tolkien was excellent.  Dorothy Sayers was a great novelist and a good critic (and her translation of The Divine Comedy is still viewed by many as the gold standard). Edith Pargeter (aka “Ellis Peters”) another fine mystery writer loved Czechoslovakian literature, learned the language, translated a great deal into English and wrote several pieces of criticism intended to introduce the field to an English audience.   The peerless, but flawed, Dorothy Parker.  Maybe GB Shaw.

     

    • #12
  13. She Member
    She
    @She

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):
    In addition, nuggets of good criticism can occasionally be found in “mere” reviews.

    This is true.  I’m thinking of the New Yorker in its heyday (certainly not now).

    • #13
  14. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    DaveSchmidt (View Comment):

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    She: “A Critic is a Man Who Knows the Way, But Can’t Drive the Car”

    On the other hand, some are both artist and critic.

    You can make a valid point by substituting “professor” or “consultant” for “critic.”

    ? I’ll suggest that professors of literature are far less likely to write great fiction, as they are stuck in the academic world where the culture and incentives are mostly wrong. When was the last time that an English professor wrote a novel or short story that was read by more than a few other academics? And with every passing year academic criticism seems more and more irrelevant, caught up in obscurities and political correctness.

    But perhaps we are misunderstanding each other’s intended points.

    I am pretty sure we view this the same way. 

    • #14
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