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Dr. Johnson and the critic's role

If you have not read Adam Gopnik’s excellent and thoughtful essay on Samuel Johnson in the latest number of The New Yorker, here is a perceptive passage on Johnsonian criticism:

No critic has ever been wiser about the limits of criticism, and about how few rules can ever be made for writing; Johnson is the model of a reactive critic, seeing when a piece of writing was made, and how it works, then and now. His premise was always that something that had long pleased readers must have pleased them for a reason; sometimes it was because of a quality or a problem in their time that had made the work seem briefly pleasing, sometimes it was because of some permanent quality of imagination or truth. The critic’s job was to distinguish between what belonged to the history of taste and what belonged to the canon of art, and to try to explain what made the permanently pleasing permanently please. For Johnson’s great question is not how to write, or what to write, but why write. His criticism provides a simple answer: to help us enjoy life more, or to endure it better.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:11 AM | | Comments (1)
        

Comments

Thanks for the tip, enjoying the article. I can see why you might identify with the "No. 1 Word Man." Another one of my favorites other readers may enjoy: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/06/28/040628crbo_books1

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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