The Role of the Arts Critic: a Childers Group Public Roundtable

Last week, I reorganised my Friday Lunch Group’s schedule in order to attend a public roundtable on the role of the arts critic organised by the Childers Group. This group, formed in late 2011, describes itself as an “independent arts forum … committed to the long-term viability and vitality of the arts”. It aims to advocate for the arts across government and private sectors. Last week’s roundtable was, I think, the third public forum they’ve held. All have been well-attended, which hopefully bodes well for the arts!

The event ran for two hours and featured a large panel of local critics/reviewers, administrators and practitioners in a wide range of the arts. They included the universally well-known, like Robyn Archer and Marion Halligan, and more local luminaries such as arts critic Helen Musa and Canberra Times editor-at-large Jack Waterford. It was emceed by writer and arts administrator Yolande Norris, who put questions herself and managed contributions from the audience. The ideas and viewpoints flowed – with a lot of concordance but some differences as well. Below is my summary.

Trader in ideas

Lucy – with a self-deprecating “I’m a poet so you won’t know me” – Alexander made the point of the day, for me. Late in the panel, she (from the audience) suggested that the critic is a trader in ideas. By this she meant that, in looking at a work, the critic picks up the ideas contained within it, weighs them, and explores what they might mean for people.

Another arts practitioner from the audience said, along similar lines, that she values information and insight into what is going on – into what the creator may have intended and what the critic actually “read”.

Somewhat related to these ideas, Marion Halligan said earlier in session that she regularly reads reviews (or criticism) of books, plays etc, she doesn’t expect to see or read, because “a critic tells you what’s going on” and gives you “a sense of the arts landscape”. A critic, therefore, she and others said, needs to be able to write (or speak) authoritatively and engagingly.

All this neatly sidestepped discussions about negative and positive criticism and got to the nub – to my mind anyhow – of the real value of criticism. While negative or constructive “criticism” of a work may be useful for the creator, Alexander’s point captured the bigger picture value of criticism. And it reflected, I think, what Robyn Archer meant at the beginning of the session when she suggested that “the arts” comprises three prongs: artist, audience, and the dialogue between them. These three need to be in balance she said for there to be a strong culture.

There was some discussion about the form of this dialogue, with film critic Cris Kennedy suggesting that dialogue is easier in the digital age. Robyn Archer queried the role of expertise in the digital age. She was concerned about the rise of “a new cultural democracy” – the world of “likes” and “unlikes” – and the resultant attitude that “if it’s popular it’s good”. I suspect there has always been this tension – but I guess it’s increasingly visible in our social media dominated world, isn’t it?

Overall, it was agreed, at least as far is there was agreement, that the critic should be knowledgable, that criticism should be “artful”, but that the important thing is opening dialogue.

What is criticism?

There was, of course, quite a bit of discussion about what criticism is. The point was quickly made that a review or criticism does more than describe. It takes up broader questions relating to the art form being reviewed, and should involve a studied reaction drawing on knowledge. It should illuminate and “bind things together” and requires a “critical” frame of mind. This was contrasted to “opinion” which seemed to be defined as “judgement” without a firm basis of knowledge.

Jack Waterford suggested that a lot of cultural discussion is occurring, such as on local ABC radio, but that this isn’t necessarily the same as criticism. Related to this, an audience member mentioned the issue of public art in Canberra, suggesting there’d been a lot negativity in the news pages and not enough criticism in the arts pages of the newspapers.

There was discussion about the need for disinterest, and that this was tricky to achieve in a small arts community like Canberra. (Marion Halligan suggested most arts communities are small – take England, she said, where the writers all review each other!)

One contributor suggested that food criticism is currently leading the way, and that the arts could look at what’s happening there! (There wasn’t discussion, however, on what this criticism entails and how it is leading the way.)

Who is criticism for?

The general view was that criticism is for the reader, though who the reader is wasn’t fully teased out. Those writing for papers and journals clearly see the reader as their public, and feel a responsibility to inform. One panel member made the point that criticism written for, say, a specialist dance journal should be different to that written for a general newspaper. An audience member pointed out that in the online world, the audience is international, and that this can (should) impact style and content.

There was also some discussion about creators and the role of criticism for them. Many appreciated constructive criticism, but quite a few said they use trusted friends to vet criticism, as negative criticism (that written from a point of ignorance) can be destructive. Criticism is also affirmation that people are looking at their work. As Marion Halligan said, the worst thing is silence. No review, she said, is worse than a bad review.

What is the aim of criticism?

In addition to the ideas implied above – contributing to the culture, informing the consumer and increasing people’s knowledge, providing constructive feedback to creators – it was also suggested that “the critic is a cog in the marketing machine”. I wouldn’t like to think that “marketing” per se is the critic’s role – and I don’t think that’s quite what was meant. But the critic does help promote the culture, can function as an advocate – in both cultural and political spheres.

This is certainly how I see my blog – as an advocate for Australian (in particular) literature . Of course, I’d like to think my reviews encouraged people to actually buy books, but my specific goal is to raise awareness about Australian literary culture.


Hmm … this is the hard part. Did the roundtable come to any final agreement or resolutions? No, I wouldn’t say it did. But I assume the organisers will take away the ideas presented and feed it into their future activities.

Near the end, it was suggested that it’s time to start populating the digital media with criticism and dialogue. This is an area that was not really tackled – that was just played with around the edges – and is possibly a good subject for the Childers Group to take up for their next roundtable.  What is happening in the online world and how can it best be harnessed to support and promote the arts. What impact does the growth of the amateur reviewer/critic have? Is there a difference between reviewer and critic?

Finally, returning to the opening idea of the critic as a “trader in ideas”, I liked the related suggestion that arts criticism is about the big things, about living and who we are. Can’t say better than that, eh?

A big thankyou to Nigel Featherstone and the Childers Group for holding this roundtable.

Lit Blogs and Lit Students

If you are a litblogger like me, have you come across actions or comments that suggest your blog is being used by students? What do you think about it?

I’ve noticed three specific behaviours that suggest student use:

  • outright questions in the comments, some specifically telling me that they are a student and can I help them, and some simply giving their student-status away by the style of question. I don’t know about you, but my response varies depending on the sort of question. Mostly, I try to refer them to other sources and encourage them to think for themselves, rather than telling them outright what I think the theme is or what a metaphor means. If commenters (who may or may not be students) engage in discussion, as in “I thought x meant y”, then I’d happily respond back. Otherwise, I try to be wary about pontificating!
  • searches reaching my blog that seem to clearly be an assignment or school question of some sort, such as what significance does “whitaker’s table of precedency” have in “the mark on the wall” or what literary devices are used in “the mark on the wall”? They seem like giveaways to me.
Book covers - HMS Press (Toronto/London) Canada

Couldn’t resist this (From HMS Press Canada; Public Domain, via: Wikipedia)

  • searches reaching my blog that I suspect are made by teachers searching for, well, plagiarism. These are the most bothersome ones. They are ones where someone has entered in a sentence or two verbatim from a blog post of mine, as in, recently: “Clearly, given the story Ariyoshi has told, she rather agrees  – or, at least, agrees for such societies as she depicts here in which women’s lot is not only an inferior one but works to discourage them from cooperating and supporting each other. The novel may be set in Japan, but the fundamental truths, unfortunately, are not so confined.”  That’s a pretty convoluted thing to type into a search engine, don’t you think? Is testing for plagiarism the only reason something like this would be entered as a search term? Or, am I being overly suspicious?

Have you experienced these? What do you think? Are you flattered? Bothered? I don’t mind students using my reviews if they cite them properly. It’s their risk if the teacher thinks my ideas are up-the-creek after all, but the plagiarism issue is another matter. In those cases, I wouldn’t mind not being cited (so much), if the teacher thought it was rubbish!

If you’re a litblogger, have you had similar experiences, and if so what you do think or what have you done about it? Or, are you are student or teacher? What do you think?

On pathologising fictional characters

Jane Austen's Mr Darcy, illustration by CE Brock

Mr Darcy, illus by CE Brock (Presumed Public Domain, courtesty Wikipedia)

Was Mr Darcy autistic? Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer, a Canadian speech pathologist, suggests that he was in her book So odd a mixture.  Her theory has not been taken seriously, but it throws up an issue I’ve confronted before, the pathologising of fictional characters.

Take M.J. Hyland for example. I have read two of her novels and must admit that, as I read them, the word “autism” did cross my mind more than once. I did not, however, define the characters as such in my reviews, though I did footnote my temptation to do so in my post on This is how. I didn’t succumb to the temptation because I’m not sure it is relevant or helpful to ascribe to a fictional character a condition that the writer him/herself has not identified.

And, as it turns out MJ Hyland herself has something to say on the matter, at least as far as her works are concerned. She said in an interview on Slow TV that many people suggest her characters have autism but she does not, she said, want to “pathologise” her characters, she does not want such a neat cause and effect. She explains this further by saying that she does not want to present her characters as victims but rather, she wants them to be “as complicated as we are”. I like that … her characters are highly complex and would become immediately less so if she identified them as having a diagnosed condition.

Book cover for Toni Jordan's Addition

Addition Paperback cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

What is it that makes readers want to “diagnose” characters? Is it a desire to do the opposite to what Hyland wants, that is, to simplify them, to put them in neat explainable boxes rather than allow them all the messiness that make us human? By saying this I am certainly not suggesting that “real” people with these conditions are simple. Far from it. But I am suggesting that making such diagnoses, extratextually, can be used to simplify the fictional world. Labelling Darcy as autistic denies us the challenge of teasing out who he is, and why he does the things he does. Or what about Albert Camus‘ Meursault from L’étranger? Had Camus labelled him autistic, as some critics/reviewers have suggested, would we, could we, analyse the book in the same way? Or Patrick Suskind‘s Grenouille from Perfume? Does it help or hinder our analysis to call him a sociopath? I don’t have an answer to this except to say that I like to proceed with caution when I go beyond the text on the page.

Of course, there are books in which characters are ascribed conditions by their creators. Think Mark Haddon‘s The curious incident of the dog in the night-time in which the protagonist defines himself as having “behaviour difficulties” (though nothing more specific than that) and Toni Jordan’s Addition in which the heroine has OCD. Because these characters admit to their conditions, the focus of their novels is different. They deal more directly with the issue of how these characters face the challenges of their particular “condition”.

Anyhow, what do you think? How far do you think it is reasonable to go in terms of describing fictional characters – and why?