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Bad writing and criticism: a response to Alison Croggon

There was a time in my life when I felt that I’d read everything I wanted to read about the state of criticism. The year was 2010, and the source of this remarkable though temporary delusion was Rónán McDonald’s short book The Death of the Critic. I was in the midst of completing my honours thesis on what is now a well-worn theme both here and in McDonald’s native England: the democratisation of opinion in the age of the blog.

McDonald’s thesis was that the critic, at least in the old-fashioned sense of the public and incontestable arbiter (almost certainly male) of all that is good and true in art, was no longer a living cultural force. Continuum’s graphic design department, perhaps unduly diffident about the clarity of McDonald’s arguments, or just in the book’s capacity to shift copies, put a picture of a corpse with a kitchen knife sticking out of it on the cover just in case.

The designers needn’t have worried. There was little doubt about what McDonald’s prognosis for the future of criticism was: bleak. In his estimation, the critic had become a victim of the rise of cultural studies, and criticism’s utility as an expressive and evaluative mode of writing having been stripped away by years of post-modernist relativism and misdirected scientism within the academy.

I liked this argument at the time because I had a nose for bad writing and universities were, and remain, breeding grounds for what Mark Tredinnick calls ‘writing-like substances’. I liked McDonald’s argument even more because angry young men are always going to find something to be angry about, and I had decided academic obscurantism might as well be it for a couple of days.

Four years later, I can happily admit that making a hero out of McDonald (again, a very angry young mannish thing to do) was a mistake. Not only was the critic not dead but also McDonald had, I think, fallen for a red herring. Of course, the title should have given the game away. Any piece of commentary proclaiming the imminent demise of the novel/the West/the open toed sandal should be received with extreme caution. Everybody knows that hyperbole of this kind rarely fails to irritate a lot of people, which is why it will keep on appearing, even (especially?) after somebody has confidently pronounced it dead. The danger is that the subsequent debate inevitably kicks off on the wrong foot – and usually ends up falling on its posterior, forced into inelegant defensiveness and over-corrective shrillness instead of graceful, nuanced analysis.

While overestimating both the internal and external reach of academic set-tos about the dearth of evaluative criticism, McDonald also underestimated the Internet’s role in reshaping the way criticism is written and written about. Whatever else we may have to say about the quality of online writing (more on this later), we should be more thankful that the lack of commercial urgency in the blogosphere largely immunises online debate from the kind of screaming certainties that are considered necessary to sell books and newspapers.

One Australian writer who consistently produces the kind of writing I am talking about is Melbourne-based theatre critic Alison Croggon, who has written a long and characteristically thoughtful essay called ‘The Critical Gap’ for AustralianPlays.org. It would have come as no surprise to anybody who has followed her career over the past years that Croggon was the first person invited to ponder ‘the dialogue between artists, ideas and critical responses’ in what will be a series of posts from ‘leading voices in Australian theatre’.

Croggon, by her own admission, has had much to say on these matters in the past, but there is something new in ‘The Critical Gap’, a novel point that is worth some consideration: that, between academic and mainstream engagements with theatre criticism, a gap that once seemed to be closing is now opening up again. But Croggon’s essay is not simply another audit of critical mortality – it is a complex and searching analysis of what theatre reviewing in Australia today looks like, and the ways in which it may be changing or, perhaps, degrading as the gravitational waves of digital media’s Big Bang fade away.

As Croggon says, ‘there has been a lot of talk’, but much of the chatter is now over. Critics and artists alike have correctly grown tired of the print vs. digital debates that proliferated a few years ago and almost always devolved into bad-tempered purges of increasingly flimsy straw men. The apogee of this kind of thing was a 2010 Wheeler Centre panel that saw an ‘energetic discussion’ between Croggon, academic and director Julian Meyrick, critic Cameron Woodhead, and playwright Stephen Sewell. I wasn’t alone in my perplexity as to how a room occupied by some of the country’s best thinkers on theatre could produce so much heat and so little light.

So, apart from Woodhead’s unnecessarily combative showboating, what went wrong? Once more, the title ought to have given the game away. The debate was one in a series of five, each on a different art form, and each taking place under the umbrella ‘Critical Failure’. Catchy to be sure, but precisely one question mark too short. Nobody, no matter how bright, is going to be likely to say anything worth hearing with a gun like that held at his or her head.

Critics are, on the whole, frantically self-reflective in a way other writers are not. We are subject to a seemingly-permanent anxiety about our place in the scheme of things, about what our reviews are supposed to do, about who is supposed to read them. We are more attracted to the idea that criticism is in crisis than we should be because it would let more than a few of us off our own eviscerating hooks.

As Croggon points out, the problem seems to apply with special force to theatre criticism but literary criticism, too, has had more than its fair share of what Kerryn Goldsworthy called ‘decline polemicists’ in her 2013 ABR piece ‘Everyone’s A Critic’ (the name, incidentally, of my thesis, and one I think on which there now needs to be imposed the severest of moratoriums). Croggon has been careful not to use the word decline but she did, when I put it to her via Twitter that I thought I had detected a note of weariness in her essay, nominate ‘entropy’ as a key issue facing theatre criticism. The word nimbly encapsulates Croggon’s sense that the national conversation around new work is in danger of failing to match the rigour and enterprise often shown by the artists themselves.

I don’t think it takes a catastrophist to state the obvious: that a poorly conceived and written review – and there’s no use pretending we don’t know what one looks like – does everybody, from the artists down, a terrible disservice. I have never been thanked by an artist for a review I have written on the grounds that the review was praiseful. In my experience, artists value deep critical engagement with their work far more than unreasoned approval. Audiences, too, stand to lose in this scenario if they have a taste for anything more lastingly interesting than a crude buyer’s guide (on this point I am in furious agreement with Croggon – the star ratings system, used all over the place, including in the Guardian, is reductive and should be euthanised with all deliberate speed).

‘Critical cultures in Australia differ from city to city,’ Croggon writes, ‘so it’s difficult to generalise’. There is no question that Melbourne, probably on account of its higher population and greater abundance of theatre production and funding opportunities, is able to support a much healthier critical culture than Adelaide. The gap is wider here, but then Adelaide has got used to gaps; we still don’t have, as Richard Watts recently underlined on artsHub, a permanent second-tier company like La Boite or the Malthouse. But we do have work of a consistently high quality being made outside of the State Theatre Company, particularly in the areas of disability practice and theatre for young people, and it is work which demands criticism of high intellectual and empathetic calibre. The work of an Adelaide equivalent of Belvoir or Griffin would not, as things stand, be met with the kind of critical scrutiny it would almost certainly merit, but it is conceivable the challenge would be answered, perhaps by voices as yet unheard or just freshly energised.

Nationally, there is less cause for alarm. Out of the dust of collapsing column inches in print have arisen new platforms for critical engagement with the performing arts – the Guardian, ABC Arts Online and the controversial Daily Review among them. RealTime, still in print and now remarkably into its twentieth year, has a vibrant web presence and continues to provide wide-ranging coverage of experimental and innovative film, music and performance. Modesty has so far prevented Alison Croggon from acknowledging what we all know to be the truth – that the demise of her blog Theatre Notes has left an indelible gap all its own in the national debate – but others, mostly also in Melbourne, are picking up some of the slack. Some of the passionate and informed debate familiar to Theatre Notes’ readers will recognise at least a partial transfer has been made to Jana Perkovic’s Guerilla Semiotics. If the critical culture is failing then it is, to paraphrase Samuel Beckett, at least failing better.

There remains much to be said about criticism, and many ways in which its practitioners must lift their game, but my hope is that we can at a minimum look forward to a debate free from the overstated binaries – print vs. digital, professional vs. amateur – which have in the past narrowed rather than broadened our understanding of the field of criticism.

At the risk of perpetuating another false dichotomy, I should say that if I have an abiding worry about theatre criticism’s immediate future it is that too many critics are allowing experiments in form to trump solid thinking and writing. It is self-delusion, rather than open-mindedness, that leads to excitable vacillations about what constitutes a good piece of criticism. The Internet’s space, not its limitless potential for conceptual gimmickry, has been the real boon for critics and it is one that we must continue to embrace. Online, particularly in the blogosphere, function will usually follow form, and, if anything, it is form we ought to be anxious about.

In practical terms, this means that it is not a lack of evaluative criticism that threatens the usefulness of the critic but a rich kind of complacency that prevents him or her from thinking deeply enough and, following on, writing well enough about our theatre. The long-form review, once confined to specialist and academic circles, is a natural fit for the blogosphere and will always find an audience of artists, writers and the culturally aware, for whom a 150- or 300-word newspaper review (with or without attendant stars) is rarely going to provide the required depth of engagement. But who, apart from those already entrenched in the mainstream media where space is at a premium, are capable of writing them, and who can sustain a career with so little financial reward and so much uncertainty for long enough to get really good at doing so?

These are questions for the future, perhaps even for a new generation of critics who will have to contend with all of the obstacles Australian reviewers have historically come up against – a lack of opportunities, little to no remuneration, the absence of anything like a national tradition – in addition, no doubt, to some new ones. My optimism resides in the fact that, on the whole, theatre criticism is always going to attract a more literate kind of writer than, say, pop music criticism, which in this country remains mired in a lack of expertise, too much subjectivity and a damaging insistence on hermetic genre specialisation. Nor is theatre criticism subject to book reviewing’s oft-lamented culture of incestuous politeness (‘The New York Review of Each Other’s Books’).

The success of Alison Croggon’s Theatre Notes shows us that, contrary to Kerryn Goldsworthy’s assertion that hope for criticism’s future lies in the emergence of new forms, the ones we have already will do for as long as there are people capable of utilising them with the highest level of skill. It is not cultural conservatism but simply commonsense that should allow us to see that what matters and can never be substituted is good writing – informed, articulate and well argued, and always mindful that the best responses to art ought always to be artful in themselves. This may sound self-evident but, as Dorothy L Sayers observed, ‘It is the mark of all movements, however well-intentioned, that their pioneers tend, by much lashing of themselves into excitement, to lose sight of the obvious.’ The narrowing of the critical gap will depend on our determination not to do so.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, critic and playwright. He is the author of many published short stories, poems, essays and reviews and has written for New Matilda, New Internationalist, Australian Book Review and his blog Marginalia. He lives in Adelaide.

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Comments

  1. Hi Ben – Nothing really to add here, but I want to thank you for your thoughtful response. And to underline your point here: “I have never been thanked by an artist for a review I have written on the grounds that the review was praiseful. In my experience, artists value deep critical engagement with their work far more than unreasoned approval.” That is also my experience, even with negative reviews, and it is too little acknowleged in many conversations around critical response.

  2. Yes, thank you Ben for a rich essay,

    NB. the notion of the decline polemic discussed by Goldsworthy drew on a piece that I wrote under the Critic Watch moniker for the Sydney Review of Books, which in turn was indebted to Gail Pool’s excellently informative _Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America_; which you probably know about, and which I recommend to others following this discussion. See also: http://emmettstinson.blogspot.com.au/2013/06/decline-polemics.html

    A couple of disconnected thoughts:

    I think decline polemics arise out of a keen and justifiable sense of despair – that so many of the public performances of artistic experience (aka ‘criticism’) fail to articulate well the truth of those experiences; and nearly always under the predictable pressures of the distribution of real and symbolic capital.

    As with the notion of a ‘motorist’ I believe it can be a misleading abstraction to speak of a ‘critic’ (though there are people that make money from driving trucks and even others from writing review journalism). We drive to work to do work, we articulate our experiences of art to influence and contest the trajectory of aesthetic purpose; and ‘we’ are just as often ‘artists’ or ‘scholars’ or ‘teachers’ too.

    I think when we speak of a failure of criticism it is a failure of significant artistic practice to make itself adequately known in the world. If this failure necessarily leads to discussions such as these, I don’t mind if philistines call it ‘naval gazing’.

  3. Thanks for the piece, Ben. One small but significant point: Ronan McDonald is Irish, not English (they tend to be particular about the difference). He’s currently Professor (at) and Director (of) the Global Irish Studies Centre at UNSW. As one who still finds his monograph on criticism convincing, I would defend his lack of awareness regarding the evolving nature of online critical landscapes by pointing to the fact that it was written a decade ago: pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, pre-Tumblr, and so on. He’s a smart critic, not a futurologist.

  4. ‘… contrary to Kerryn Goldsworthy’s assertion that hope for criticism’s future lies in the emergence of new forms …’

    No, that isn’t what I said. I did say that I was optimistic about new forms, but I didn’t say or, I hope, imply that that would be at the expense of the old. As a practitioner of the old, I am obliged to believe, and really do believe, that the two can exist side by side, and anyone who assumes a dichotomy isn’t thinking clearly. Otherwise, great piece.

  5. Alison – thanks! I’m pleased you picked up on that particular point. It’s one I’ve felt strongly about for some time and is still not as widely understood as it should be.

    Ben – I had not read either your Sydney Review of Books piece or Gail Pool’s ‘Faint Praise’ but will endeavour to do so now! On your last point, I don’t think you have to be a philistine to acknowledge that these kinds of discussions can at their worst descend into navel gazing. I just don’t like seeing that label used to shut down debate when it is lively and informed – and it seems we’re on the same page there.

    Geordie – I’m aware McDonald is Irish. I was (somewhat clumsily) referencing the fact he was based in England (at least when he wrote ‘Death’ – I wasn’t aware he had an Australian teaching post). I don’t quite buy your point about his ‘lack of awareness’. ‘Death’ came out in 2007 when Facebook had been around for several years and the blogosphere was already well and truly exploding (there were 42 million bloggers by May 2006 according to one study).

  6. And yes, as Ben Etherington says, the phrase ‘decline polemic’ belongs to him, and was clearly attributed to him in the essay.

  7. for good or for bad criticism has mostly always been perceived as an investiture in negative theology, so critics damn with faint praise at best (cataphatic theology)

    • good too to add, in honour of Critics and the OL 50, the great Siegfried Sassoon poem “The Investiture”:

      GOD with a Roll of Honour in His hand
      Sits welcoming the heroes who have died,
      While sorrowless angels ranked on either side
      Stand easy in Elysium’s meadow-land.
      Then you come shyly through the garden gate,
      Wearing a blood-soaked bandage on your head;
      And God says something kind because you’re dead,
      And homesick, discontented with your fate.

      If I were there we’d snowball Death with skulls;
      Or ride away to hunt in Devil’s Wood
      With ghosts of puppies that we walked of old.
      But you’re alone; and solitude annuls
      Our earthly jokes; and strangely wise and good
      You roam forlorn along the streets of gold.

  8. Kerryn – thanks for your comments. I had no intention of mischaracterising your very fine essay (in my defence I don’t think I did) but the clarifications are appreciated.

  9. critic

    NOUN

    1A person who expresses an unfavourable opinion of something:

    2A person who judges the merits of literary or artistic works, especially one who does so professionally:
    a film critic

  10. Definition 1A above – ‘expresses an unfavourable opinion of something’. mmmm…food for thought.

    Dali Lama says ‘Don’t tell someone your opinion, unless they have thoughtfully asked for it.’

    Should critics be paid?

    I spoke to my Artist friends about critics and they suggested that they observe many TYPES OF CRITICS…

    1. THE YEAR 10 TEACHER: The critic that reviews your work as if they are marking a Year 10 English Essay.

    2. THE FAILED WRITER: The critic who was a failed writer, or alternatively, who may had some talent, but simply did not have the guts to really work in the industry and put themselves on the line.

    3. THE CAREER-IST: The critic who raves about flagship companys’ work, solely to get invited to the next opening night gala performance, an to secure top seats.

    4. THE SPORTS WRITER: The critic who was once a sport’s writer and who twenty years ago got moved across into the Arts and has been there ever since!

    5. THE BAD TASTE CRITIC: The critic who reviews based on the lowest common denominator.

    6. THE APPLES AND ORANGES CRITIC: The critic who insists on reviewing ORANGES….despite the fact that they have never liked ORANGES, currently still hate ORANGES, and never will like ORANGES…YET they still continue to review ORANGES!!!! The reviewer who reviews ORANGES as if they are APPLES! hehe

    Would love to hear your thoughts of others…..

  11. Hi artisadirtyword – surely there are other types of critics? Critics who are not failed writers, for instance (Charles Baudelaire, Osip Mandelstam, John Ashbery, Octavio Paz, to name a few distinguished examples). Or critics, like many here, who attempt to address the complexities of the work at hand on its own terms, as best they can, and in good faith: in short, the kind of criticism Ben is calling for. I think we can all recognise these caricatures, and even point to examples – Byron Bache’s recent swingeing attack on Patrick White seems to cover pretty much all of them, for example. But there’s more interesting things going on if you care to look beyond the cliches, this discussion being a symptom of that.

  12. of the writers i know, they all write for the one or three critics (readers) they admire most

  13. Hi Alison – Yes, I agree – there are other types of critics as you mentioned. They just seem to be very rare.

    Another point of view is ‘opinion’. As the world becomes more complex, I feel that people are less inclined to go searching to a ‘critic’ for an opinion. People nowadays want to make up their own mind. Perhaps they like information, but not opinion shoved down their throat.

    With my discussions with a broad selection of artists, almost all of them feel disempowered by the gratuitous ramblings of critics. Most of them feel like they would like to respond to the critic, but they are either time-poor (because they are working multiple jobs to pay the rent), or they feel like they will be punished by the critic or other ‘powers that be’ in the future, or they feel that this sort of attention is exactly what the critic is yearning for to validate themselves. Some of them feel that writing is not their greatest skill, and that they will mis-represent themselves or weaken themselves if they present their opinion in the written word. Some of them simply couldn’t be bothered with such nonsense. Some of them are aware that an editor of a newspaper can butcher a critics actual review into something that is one-sided and distorted or sensationalist.

    All food for thought.

    There is truth in cliche.
    There are multiple truths.
    There are contradictions abound.
    And the closer you get to truth the more contradictions there are.

    And beyond that…every single person on this planet has a different truth… many artists find the ‘neediness’ of the critic, and the ‘desperation to be heard’ ego structure of some critics, very distasteful. And quite often the actualisation of this neediness is at the detriment of the artist’s work, personal career, and indeed their personal livelihood.

    I thank you for your thoughts also.

  14. Sure. Critical cultures differ from artform to artform, as well. The culture I know best, theatre, is rather more lively and interesting, I think, and the kind of critic you describe is an exception rather than the rule.

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