I have been reading Stephen Spender’s autobiography “World Within World” recently, and while I don’t think much of the writing—it’s a little too florid, using three adjectives when one would do today
“As I walked in the dangling, lost, isolated way of my adolescence along the dusty roads through the cruelly beautiful foreign landscape”
(although I can appreciate it was probably the fashion in the fifties)—there’s a passage I’d like to quote, because it rings true 60 years on, and has probably always done, and will always do!
A part of my literary experience was not just reviewing but being reviewed. Here I showed all the vulnerability which I believed other writers could not show. The good reviews which I received sometime gave me a sense of being recognised with that warmth which is truly encouraging, but more often that of having scraped, with all my glaring faults, by the reviewer’s defences. Adverse criticism was a terrible blow to me in my early days, and I still find it extremely discouraging when it is made of my poetry. In fact I think that it is more difficult for a poet than for other kinds of writer to “take” criticism. It is impossible to “prove that a poem is good, and a refusal to enter into the illusion created by a poem demonstrates that there is failure of the poet to communicate, at least with the reviewer. A poem succeeds completely or not at all. Every weak place in a poets armour is an opening for a fatal thrust.
Gradually I came to realise that the review which a writer receives are less his business than that of anyone else. They are a kind of conversation which goes on behind his back, which happens, though, to be published. Reviewers do not address themselves to writers but to readers. To overhear conversations behind his back is more disconcerting than useful to the writer'; though he can perhaps search for criticism which may really help him to remedy faults in style. but he should remember that the tendency of reviewers is to criticise work not for what it fails to be, and is not necessarily true that he should remedy this by try to become other than he is.