Karl Popper, who was, by all accounts, a man of autocratic temper, was nevertheless a vigorous enemy of dictatorship. His The Open Society and Its Enemies advocated a democracy of dialogue and competition, in which no assertion was valid ex cathedra and no single party could claim to sail on the flagship of History. To minimise delusions of disinterestedness, Popper advocated that critics, of policies and persons, should frankly admit their parti pris. In view of the difficulty of approaching a social or critical problem disembarrassed of preconception, a critic should make a habit of self-scrutiny before offering an “objective” judgement. Such declarations of bias in one’s mental baggage are consistent with Popper’s “scientific” view that honesty requires actually assisting others to find flaws or faults in one’s theories.
So? I am not sure that Antonia Byatt’s defence of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader (April’s Prospect) honoured Popper’s principle. I do not contest her right to differ from me in her estimation of the book, but I do suggest that her assessment pretended to be dispassionate. Might it not have been better if she had confronted my objections to the novel (she ignored them entirely) rather than merely declaring its genius? I say this not because I wish to engage in polemic with a fellow writer whose merits I was, as it happens, one of the first to applaud (when I reviewed fiction for The Sunday Times). Antonia is a civilised woman of manifest intelligence. I do not doubt her honesty or her “sincere” admiration for The Reader. What I do doubt is that she wrote her eulogy only because she liked it so much. The heading on her piece stated that she was “incensed” by what I had written about the same novel. It did not say also that she was incensed at my attack on the BBC panel which compiled the list of the “100 most seminal works of the 20th century,” of which she was a member. To hint at that indignation would have been less high-minded.
It can be said, and often is, that it does not matter why a critic argues a case; her arguments are valid or they are not. In any event, I have small right to resent any indignation which I may have provoked. It would be disingenuous to pretend that what I am writing here is intended only for her eyes, but…