On feeling criticism

Truism number one: ideas and their expression only improve with critique. Truism number two: critique is always subjective.

I’ve noticed that criticism today is both offered and received in increasingly emotional terms. Descartes, that mean old robot guy, may have proven his existence using thought, but these days it seems toothless to stake intellectual claims by saying ‘I think’ or even ‘I believe’. Instead, it reveals much about the current state of criticism that we might begin a critique with ‘I feel …’

‘The phrase cripples our range of expression and flattens the complex role that emotions do play in our reasoning,’ writes history academic Molly Worthen in the New York Times. ‘It turns emotion into a cudgel that smashes the distinction – and even in our relativistic age, there remains a distinction – between evidence out in the world and internal sentiments known only to each of us.’

Perhaps inexperienced critics do this because they lack the tools to substantiate their judgments – their feelings are all they can be sure of. But this trend extends well beyond the inexperienced.

This form of critique – sometimes known as ‘affective criticism’ – reflects the sovereignty of the self in contemporary literary culture. When writers locate authenticity, political agency, intellectual legitimacy and commercial viability in the expression of their interior lives, feelings come to seem like the most persuasive basis for critique.

Affective criticism contains a careful, pop-psychological civility, as anyone who has undergone conflict-resolution training will instantly recognise. It also expresses modesty, an acknowledgment that no individual has ‘all the answers’. And it makes space for ambivalence and the possibility of changing one’s mind.

We can also adopt a rhetoric of feeling as a defensive move, anticipating our views will be received and rebutted harshly. Affective responses are more ambiguous than rational arguments, which can be easily refuted with countervailing facts. Questioning someone’s feelings implies a personal insult, making it difficult to challenge an affective reading of a text. Still, critics must shoulder intellectual responsibility. Sloppy criticism focuses only on a text’s ability to produce feelings – but we can and should rigorously interrogate the feelings themselves, and what they say about us.

Affective criticism allows the socially, culturally and economically disempowered to stand their ground in their lived experience. Conversely, it can also be used as a weapon to shut down debate. It can feel disingenuous, as if the act of criticism is motivated by a desire to dominate, ridicule and abuse, rather than to engage with writing and ideas. After all, feeling is embedded in social power relations; good critics need to ask whose feelings are listened to and deemed more authoritative.

Today’s emotionally fraught social power landscape enables us to dismiss legitimate criticism just because it makes us feel bad. We discredit our critics as ‘jealous’ or ‘haters’. More dangerously, we reject criticism altogether in favour of a protective consensus, retreating to mental or social spaces that offer comfort and support – such as literary cliques, about which I’ve previously written here. Indeed, the resurgence of identity politics has led to the creation of ‘safe spaces’ where critique is an act of violence.

Affective critique reminds us that writers don’t just dwell in an abstract world of ideas – they also exist in a social world in which criticism is an interpersonal encounter between a reader and an idea, or among a collegial audience of critics. We can dive even deeper into the language of feeling – ‘Your feeling makes me feel uncomfortable’; ‘I’m disquieted by this feeling’; ‘It makes me uneasy’ – to signal disagreement while keeping the debate respectful.

I’m filling with tenderness as I recognise our shared vulnerability to criticism – even those of us who earn a living from it. We’re like warriors shaking on a truce with our shield arms. What if acknowledging feelings allows us to reject an adversarial mode of debate for something more collaborative? Something that acknowledges that truths are consensually negotiated and constantly in flux?

Some writers hope to protect themselves from criticism by insulating themselves from feeling. Instead, they treat writing as a completely rational and logical process that can produce some perfect text that will truly offer the last word on the subject.

But writing is never really ‘finished’, even when an article is uploaded or a book printed. Words can never absolutely express the experience of being alive. That is why writers strive to capture progressively more fragments of their humanity. Good writing turns feeling into a process: curious, empathetic and intuitive, open to tangents and lacunae rather than being dogmatically sequential or teleological. After all, ‘essay’ means ‘to attempt’. Sometimes our thoughts are tangled and obscure, and we hack our way through with pens and keyboards.

Often I don’t know what I’m trying to write until I realise, suddenly, that I’ve found the words for it. Even as I type this now, I’m not sure how it will come together. But for me, the miracle of writing is that, despite all the mental suffering, all my self-loathing, the sense it’ll never be over … somehow the feelings coalesce into words.


Image: US National Archives/Flickr.



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Mel Campbell

Mel Campbell is a journalist, cultural critic and media studies lecturer. She’s the author of nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (Affirm Press, 2013), and co-author of the rom-com novels Nailed It! and The Hot Guy.

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