#Critfail

Sat. October 9, 2010
Categories: phill

glowworm
Creative Commons License photo credit: -sel

The Wheeler Centre’s Critical Failure series, designed to encourage debate about the failure of Australian arts criticism, has generated a huge amount of ancillary commentary around the interwebs. As proof, take the number of reference links I’ve got listed at the bottom of this post. Indeed, it’s yet another ‘mission accomplished’ moment for the WC, whose activities online and off have certainly been living up to the funding behind them. I found a lot of arguments repeated in the videos of the events and in the responses, and I thought maybe I’d explore a few of them and see if there’s any further discussion that can be generated.

The Function of Criticism

Obviously when considering whether something has failed, it’s useful to define that something in the first place. So when deciding whether arts criticism has failed its readers (and therefore itself) defining what good criticism actually is came first. While there was generally a disappointment in this questioning not being answered to any degree of satisfaction in the book event, overall there seemed to be the sentiment that good criticism should:

  1. Engage the reader.
  2. Pass a judgement.
  3. Provide something more than just a review of the art.

The first point is obvious. If a reader isn’t engaged with the critic’s words, then they have automatically failed. The second point is similarly easy to relate to. If a critic doesn’t provide the reader with their opinion of the art in question, then what are they doing there?
The third point is less obvious, but still not exactly rocket science. Rehashing the plot of a novel and giving some background on the author isn’t being critical. That’s a review. Good critique of a novel takes into account a lot of things: the history of the novel, the literary canon that has influenced it, the social context into which it is introduced and from which it has been produced, etc. etc. As the Culture for Amateurs blog says, “Remember to tell us a story that tells us much more than whether a book is good or bad.”

Real estate

One phrase which I hadn’t encountered before the WC events was ‘capsule review’. I had encountered them out in the wild before, but didn’t know there was an industry term. A capsule review is what most people think of when they think of art reviews. From Wikipedia:

“A capsule review is a form of criticism, usually associated with journalism, that offers a relatively short critique of a specified artistic work (movie, music album, restaurant, painting, etc.). Capsule reviews generally appear in publications like newspapers and magazines, and can range anywhere from just a few sentences up to around 300 words.”

It’s your basic basic plot outline, author background, and summation of who would like it kind of thing. Much has been made about the fact that these capsule reviews are becoming the default mode of critique in print media as more advertising is required to keep the newspapers golden. In her round-up of the Critical Failure: Books event, Rebecca Starford says:

“Diminishing space may not, therefore, be a problem for [established literary critic Peter Craven], but for us more humble critics it is – and that is hardly conducive to healthy critical culture.”

Rebecca’s sentiments have been echoed by multiple guests on each of the #critfail events, and it’s easy to see why. The kind of in-depth analysis I mentioned in the earlier section on the function of criticism simply cannot be expressed in 300 words or less. “We would love to be more critical and provide a more thorough and engaging critical experience for the reader,” cry the critics. “Just give us more space.”

Online media is an obvious choice for answering these cries. Its space is practically infinite. Not only that, but all kinds of information can be pulled into it, moving beyond the static placement of words. Rather than expectantly dropping of names of authors who have influenced the novel in question, critics can link us to their biographies, perhaps their works themselves, or even interviews with them on YouTube. The combination of this huge space, hypertextual ability, and interactivity can and should be known as something altogether distinct from ‘criticism’ or ‘review’: I propose community.

Criticism versus review versus community

I’ve already given a rough definition to what a good bit of criticism entails. Reviews are an entirely different beast, but Emmett Stinson nails my personal sentiments perfectly in this quote from his blog:

“There is a weirdness, however, in bemoaning the problems with book reviewing, given that reviews, at worst, are simply a form of indirect marketing, and, at best, are a sort of informed consumer recommendation.”

I can’t think of anything more to add to that. So what does the community of blogs do that good criticism or reviews don’t? Well, for a start, they aren’t tied to mainstream events. That is, the content of the blog is not determined by media releases. As Rebecca Starford says in her post at Killings, the Kill Your Darlings blog:

“When, for example, do you ever see a lengthy review – steeped in the style and technique of the work, the complexity of its narrative, the socio-historic content – of a first-time, unknown novelist? An emerging poet? When do anthologies (outside the annual ‘Best of…’) receive sustained evaluation? What of genre fiction? Graphic novels? Counter-cultural tracts? Gay and lesbian writing? Literature in translation?”

It’s true that critical review in blogs have the opportunity to occupy much tighter niches than those in print. Print media often has to cater to the most common denominator, which can lead to a tendency to see the same review (or critique) of the usual suspects over and over again in various newspapers. With a quick Google search, it’s possible to find any number of well-written blogs (and, admittedly, an equal number of badly-written blogs) discussing the most far-flung genres imaginable. And usually in great depth due to the devotion of the bloggers.

The community of blogs also has a strength in that they are, generally speaking, interactive. The blogger might have comments enabled, or if they don’t there might be a Twitter account available for the reader to explore the criticism beyond the bounds of the paragraphs. This cannot be said for reviews in print, and as such there is the feeling that they should be able to stand on their own completely. Which, given the aforementioned lack of space, they have not been able to do. It’s not just blogs that have this ability; some of the deepest and greatest commentary I’ve ever seen on the arts has arisen in the threads of forums.

All this is not to say that the community of blogs, forums, and social media doesn’t have its weaknesses. The rise of blogs has been referred to as ‘the aggressive democratisation of public commentary.’ (Alison Croggon on The Drum Unleashed). But democracy doesn’t guarantee quality; it often means those with the loudest voices drown out the rest. And what are supposedly socially-motivated measures of cultural importance are often easily ‘gamed’. Take, for example, the number of Twitter followers any user has. I think it’s fair to say that no-one believes that number has anything to do with the person’s real-world social influence. The same could be said for Facebook friends. But with such a range of new tools available should they shift online, why then are critics hesitant to do so?

Traditional versus new media

I think it was one of the visual arts guests who explicitly stated that criticism is not automatically good or bad because of the media it appears in. This is an important sentiment to highlight, as other commentators gave blanket statements about how bloggers are basically all monkeys pedalling dross. Obvious nonsense.

“That so many of these critics mistake institutional authority for critical authority says everything you need to know.”
“The institution guaranteed status and respect. “Authority”, in other words, was vested in an institution rather than in the quality of a critic’s work.” — Alison Croggon on The Drum Unleashed.

I think the reason why this tendency to consider traditional media and its fortresses as somehow more authoritative is because print criticism is legitimised before the fact. A book reviewer is hired for their educational background, their CV. This is then combined with the institutional authority of the paper they appear in. Whereas blogs are legitimised after the fact: by the social interaction that it generated by them, by the comments and interactions that arise. By their Technorati ratings, or their being linked on other blogs. At the moment there are few blogs that are legitimised before the fact, and it could be argued that very few critical reviewers in print media whose authority is questioned after the fact. Both forms of legitimisation have their flaws, so why are successful blogs considered to be somehow lesser to a successful column?

“For every brilliant new blogger that has emerged, 100 pallid yes-men (and women) have sprung up.”– Georgie Williamson at The Australian.

How is this different from print? I can open up just about any newspaper and point to arts pages that fail to excite me. And later in the article:

“However marvellous it may be, the web is no more than a medium: its content is not more virtuous, intelligent or correct for appearing in a novel space.”

Again, the same argument could be applied to print media. It is no better for appearing in a traditional space. There’s no secret formula of legitimacy that is sprinkled on an op-ed before it is printed between the broadsheets. It seems ridiculous to dismiss such a ubiquitous technology as the Internet by fobbing it off as ‘no more than a medium’. Perhaps it’s a generational thing? Have these critics even seen what the Internet can do? Have they ever been in a chat room staffed by enthusiastic arts lovers as reams of insightful conversation streams down the monitor? Have they read the discourse generated by two master’s students as they battle to the death over the interpretation of a text? The Internet is alive and kicking harder than any print journalism right now. If there’s any one critical failure to speak of, it might be the inability for some members of the critical elite to see that.

Anyway. I’ve banged on enough. The next post will be on either games criticism (inspired by Paul Callaghan’s post on the unconference and my recent reading of Tom Bissell’s latest book, Extra Lives), or on what emerging writers might want to think about when they consider the act of blogging (inspired by both Nikita Vanderbyl’s and Lisa Dempster’s posts)

References:

http://wildyoungunderwhimsy.blogspot.com/2010/09/post-conference-letdown.html

http://nikitavanderbyl.com/09/legiticrism-critical-failure-unconference-part-1/

http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s3010961.htm

http://www.killyourdarlingsjournal.com/2010/09/failing-critical-failure-the-problem-with-engaging-in-real-conversation-about-literary-criticism/

http://danielwood.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/critical-failure-indeed/

http://emmettstinson.blogspot.com/2010/09/literary-links-reviewing-reviewers.html

http://dilettanteandmiddlebrow.wordpress.com/2010/09/17/talking-about-writing-about-writing/

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/arts/bugger-the-bloggers-old-world-critics-still-count/story-e6frg8nf-1225911745917

And all of the Wheeler Centre’s Critical Failure videos.

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