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The Constructive Critic (Panel discussion)

November 14, 2019

For some reason that I can’t quite explain – a sudden rush to the head methinks – I agreed to be part of a panel being organised by the ACT Writers Centre for this year’s Design Canberra Festival. The panel, called The Constructive Critic, was described as

a unique panel discussion about art criticism across multiple disciplines including visual arts, design, theatre and literature, and its importance and impact.

What is the point of arts criticism? What has changed now everyone has a voice via social media? What is the relationship between artist and critic, and what about the blurred lines of artists who critique others?

The panelists (check bios on the event website) were art curator and critic Peter Haynes (also the moderator), local authors Jack Heath and Karen Viggers, and me. This is not one of my verbatim reports because I was too busy taking part, but I want to document some of the things I remember that we discussed.

It was an enjoyable evening – for me, anyhow – largely because both the panel and the audience were friendly and engaged. We didn’t always completely agree on topics, but the ensuing discussion invigorated rather than diminished our thoughts and ideas.

My favourite description of arts criticism came from the most experienced critic amongst us, Peter, who said that:

For me writing criticism is about opening a dialogue and first the critique is for me to explore the work. Whatever medium. A review should start with a question. The critic opens the questions that the artist and curator have posed. (Tweeted by the ACT Writers’ Centre whom I thank for capturing this so nicely!)

I love this, the idea of opening the questions posed by the creator of the work (the book, the play, the exhibition, the film, etc), and will try to do it more. [PS: I forgot to say that we later talked about how social media at its best can encourage this dialogue/conversation.]

The topics we covered included defining what criticism is, what creators want from criticism, who criticism is for, the role of social media in contemporary criticism (is everyone really a critic?), the economic impact of criticism, whether creators can critique or review each other’s work, and what we think about negative criticism.

Most of us seemed to agree that there is a review-criticism continuum. The highest level of criticism we saw as comprehensive, academic, knowledgeable about the wider culture/genre/context within the work fits, while reviewing at its most basic can be short, narrowly focused and, perhaps, more oriented to promoting the work. This is not to say, however, that high level criticism can’t/doesn’t promote a work too, but the link is, I’d say, more tenuous.

Related to how we define criticism is the question of who/what criticism is for. For some critics*, it seems to be for the consumer (the reader, for example), for some it can be for the creators (the authors), and for others seems to be more for the producers (the publishers). At least, this last is how it looks when you get to the emerging “influencer” role, upon which we touched briefly. For the authors in our panel, the second was particularly relevant. They appreciate criticism which can help them develop their own work. There is a fourth option, which is the one I ascribe to. It’s that criticism is about contributing to the wider culture. While of course what critics write will encourage or discourage people from reading the book, going to the show, whatever, the main loyalty is to the culture. This means I’m keen to see the work I’m discussing within the context of both literary and social culture, to talk about how it adds to the body of work to which it belongs and how it addresses or contributes to the society in which we live. Looking at it this way, I’m less interested in ascribing value – this is a “good” or “bad” book – than in where it fits. I’m not sure I achieve this, but that’s my goal.

We talked briefly about social media: the destructive impact of thoughtless negative comments on authors; the positive and negative economic impact social media can have; the impact and application of ratings (like those on GoodReads); the current plethora of free review copies which can result in reduced early sales; and the value of hindsight versus the immediate response that is common in social media.

Opposing opinions were offered about whether artists can critique artists. The affirmative suggested that artists know what’s involved in creating the work and can therefore bring that understanding to their review, while the negative suggested that it is hard to properly critique people you know, and that creators, knowing the techniques involved, will often focus on technical aspects rather than the work as a whole.

Negative reviews came up several times throughout the discussion, and again at the end. Peter announced early on that he didn’t write negative reviews, which, regular readers here know, would appeal to me. What he meant by this – and how I also see it – is that if he doesn’t like something, he won’t review it. However, he will, in an overall positive review, refer to aspects that might not have worked so well. Yes! However, a question came from the floor about negatively reviewing a work that is against current social values – that is blatantly sexist, racist, ableist, for example. Karen spoke for all of us when she said that such ideas should be called out. Jack, earlier in the session, had entertained us by describing how he had learnt from a one-star review. The reviewer had missed the main point of his work he felt, but nonetheless the comment had made a valid observation, one that he used in the next book in his series!

Of course, like my old school exam days, I came away thinking about all that I could have, or wished I’d, said. One issue we didn’t discuss in any detail was the critic him/herself: the degree to which critics should aim to be “impartial” (whatever that is) versus put their preferences and background on the table, and, indeed, whether, in our current environment regarding who can write what, whether there’s also a question concerning who can critique what? But, I’ll leave those for another day!

Meanwhile, thanks to Paul and the ACT Writers Centre for asking me to be on the panel, and to Peter, Karen and Jack for being such fun and so interesting to talk with.

* I’m using the term “critic” broadly in this write-up to cover the whole continuum of arts writers, and my examples are mostly from the book world (but in most cases you can substitute your art form of choice!)

The Constructive Critic
Design Canberra Festival 2019
Gorman Arts Centre, Main Hall
12 November 2019

24 Comments leave one →
  1. November 14, 2019 11:05 pm

    I wish I’d been there!

  2. Neil@kalleroo permalink
    November 14, 2019 11:41 pm

    Careful, Sue. Soon someone will be asking you to write a book…

    • November 14, 2019 11:49 pm

      Haha, Neil … they’d get short shrift then! A blog is more than enough for me.

  3. November 15, 2019 12:35 am

    Criticism in general is a fascinating topic. Negative reviews, just I’d if several interesting points here, are always a topic that leads to a lot of varying opinions. I understand why some critics will not engage in them, but I think that it is important that some critics do sometimes write them. Life is a mix of the positive and negative.

    • November 15, 2019 8:16 am

      Yes, it is Brian. I think if you do write them you need to be as clear and respectful as possible…. Though when the work itself isn’t respectful, then you have some thinking to do about how to handle it.

  4. November 15, 2019 1:53 am

    Sounds fascinating. I like that notion of starting a review with a question, either literally, posing a question in the text of the review, or just having one in your mind… going to steal that 🙂

    • November 15, 2019 8:17 am

      Haha, steal away Laura. I agree that the question can just be in your mind, so that it frames what you write in your head.

  5. November 15, 2019 6:11 am

    So awesome you got to be part of the panel! Sounds like it was a great event.

  6. November 15, 2019 6:34 am

    ST, you do not need to re-think a single aspect of your reviewing. When doing my Post-Grad Cert, I found book reviewing absolutely impossible; and realised how very specialised an art it is. You are exemplary. Do not change anything. Do not accuse me of bias. Do not become wedded to the idea of opening with a queston. JUST CONTINUE AS IS.
    I have spoken.
    [grin]

    • November 15, 2019 8:21 am

      And I have heard! Thanks M-R… Though I will keep trying to improve, keep honing my skills, because you can always get better can’t you?

  7. Sara Dowse permalink
    November 15, 2019 8:44 am

    Don’t know what happened to my previous comment, but it was further endorsement of what others have said. The blog’s terrific. Considered, perceptive, enjoyable to read. Keep it up, please!

    • November 15, 2019 10:24 am

      That’s weird Sara, but thanks for persevering – and thanks so much for your support. I really appreciate it.

  8. George permalink
    November 15, 2019 12:18 pm

    In Guy Davenport’s Every Force Evolves a Form there are the essays “The Artist as Critic”, “The Scholar as Critic”, and “The Critic as Artist”. If you can locate a copy, you might find the essays interesting.

    Criticism seems to me a natural activity. The student who does not react to the matter read must be every teacher’s burden. And having read and reacted, why not make one’s reactions known? Yes, one will be regarded as wrong-headed by some number of one’s contemporaries who read one’s criticism; yes, the few still read in a generation or two are more likely to be seen as bad examples than as prescient thinkers. But one will have said one’s piece. At best one will have pointed readers to books they wouldn’t have noticed, or made them think harder about those they had.

    In his biography of Gladstone, Roy Jenkins quotes some noted lawyer of the 19th Century, roughly as “I can be mistaken, and I sometimes am. But I am never in doubt.” That seems a good enough attitude for a critic.

    • November 15, 2019 5:36 pm

      Thanks George, those essays do sound interesting. I will add the book to my list!

      Your comment about students who do not react to what they read reminds me of a time when I was volunteering in a primary school classroom – we are talking around 8 year olds as I recollect – and the students were asked to respond to a book, focusing in particular on what it was about. It was fascinating. Some kids went straight to the plot while others went straight to theme or meaning, like “it was about being a good friend”.

      Love that lawyer’s statement, though I’m not sure that I can always say of myself that I’m not in doubt!

  9. Meg permalink
    November 15, 2019 8:19 pm

    Hi Sue, I can understand why they asked you to be on the panel. Your reviews are always revealing and excellent. What an interesting evening. I am glad you enjoyed the night. .

    • November 15, 2019 8:36 pm

      Thanks Meg … that’s lovely of you to say. We’ve been on this online reading journey together for rather a long time haven’t we? It makes me happy to have you along here.

  10. November 16, 2019 3:21 pm

    What an interesting life you live! It sounds as if the you and the other panel members enjoyed yourselves enormously along with the audience. Who on earth manages to come up with the topics discussed? This one is genius.

    • November 16, 2019 4:48 pm

      It was wasn’t it Rose. The ACT Writers Centre came up with the topic. We all felt we could have talked much more.

  11. November 16, 2019 7:09 pm

    My idea as a lit blogger is to discuss how books contribute to ideas – ideas of ourselves, ideas about writing. In practice, quite similar to your fourth path. In my experience as a reader, that is a debate to which authors as critics are often valuable contributors.

    • November 16, 2019 7:24 pm

      Thanks Bill, yes, I think we are a bit alike in this, though we probably go about it a bit differently. I’m not sure I always achieve as much as I aim to in this regard, mainly because I lack the knowledge (or the memory) to go as deeply as I’d like.

      • ian darling permalink
        November 16, 2019 8:48 pm

        I wonder if the panel got around to the declining space for book reviews in printed media and whether blogs, however excellent, can compensate? Also, at least in the UK, there are really no serious literature programmes on TV or radio.

        • November 16, 2019 10:13 pm

          No, we didn’t Ian, I think, because of the way the questions were framed. We did touch on the fact that the quality of criticism varies; the question was asked whether it made a difference to authors whether criticism comes from a recognised literary critic versus, say, GoodReads. But that conversation didn’t really develop. Interestingly, things have improved in our city, in that once again our city newspaper, which recently changed hands, is employing local reviewers rather than taking syndicated reviews as had been happening for the last 3-4 years. We are all really happy about that. I hope the new owners are able to stick with this, as we are only about 6 months into this new regime.

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