We Are All to Blame – or Is It the Others?

by Theodore Dalrymple (May 2013)

Compared with the labour of reading through these volumes, all other labour, the labour of thieves on the treadmill, of children in factories, of negroes in sugar plantations, is an agreeable recreation. There was, it is said, a criminal in Italy, who was suffered to make his choice between Guicciardini and the galleys. He chose the history. But the war of Pisa was too much for him. He changed his mind, and went to the oar.

(Guicciardini was a contemporary of Machiavelli and wrote a history of Italy.)

I soon revised my opinion, however, because I found that I preferred to praise rather than to bury. In part this was because reading bad books was a waste of time by comparison with reading good ones. And the thought occurred to me that the authors even of bad books had devoted a lot of their lives to them, and therefore that adverse criticism would pain them. Hence I began insensibly to accentuate the positive, at least toward the end of the review, so that the author, if he ever saw what I had written, would be left with the taste of honey rather than of wormwood and gall, without my having in any way encouraged the public to go out and buy the wretched book. Only if I thought a book was bad (and bad in an important way) because of outright dishonesty did I write anything destructive. Once, for example, I read a short work by a famous man who claimed to have written it in three days, no doubt to impress us with the fecundity of his genius. The book was very bad and I said that I was surprised that it took him that long. He replied with the fury of the self-important eminent who regard criticism of others in much the same way as summer holidaymakers in the north of Scotland regard the attention of the midges, that is to say very, very annoying but not dangerous.

I make these remarks prefatory to my reflections on a book I read recently, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, by James Lasdun. This book is an account of the e-mail persecution of the author by a student of creative writing whom he had briefly taught, who fell in love with him and then turned against him when it became clear to her that he was not going to transform her fantasy into reality.

Architects are not entitled to the same indulgence as the writers of bad books because bad books are easily avoided, consigned undisturbed to the remoter shelves of libraries, whereas bad buildings obtrude on passers-by and create an obligation on future ages, either to maintain or to replace them. Bad buildings are to the eye what passively-breathed smoke is to the lungs of the non-smoker: something noxious and unwanted but inescapable. An author has a right to his badness, but not an architect.

Farewell Fear.

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