icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


On Criticism

I am no stranger to published criticism, either as the author or subject of it. (I wrote art reviews for many years, and my books have been widely reviewed.) Hardly a day goes by when I'm not reading reviews in the New York Review of Books, the TLS, the London Review of Books, and other publications. My remarks in this blog post are the result of a lifetime of thinking about criticism—how it is generally practiced, what causes it to read the way it does, and why fair-mindedness is on the side of the angels.


Faced with a work of art or a book, a critic's impulse is generally to compare it—perhaps to the creator's previous work or to the works of others, or more dubiously, to a notion in the critic's mind. (I was often guilty of this in my youthful art reviews.)


Whether as a result of editorial pressure, the critic's personality, or both, the tone of reviews is often aggressive. Rather than addressing the value of the creator's actual work, the critic begins by complaining that it doesn't adhere to the critic's notion of the correct way of proceeding. Why did the sculptor work on such a small scale? Why didn't the biographer employ a thematic format?


Sadly, reviewing is widely regarded as a form of competitive sport. You don't get points for evenhandedness or effusiveness, or even for clarity. All too often it seems that the goal is to become a prosecuting attorney, to find the holes in the witness's testimony and demonstrate your superior wisdom. As you "prove" the weakness of the creator's "case," you pounce on the smallest error as proof that it indicates wholesale sloppiness.


The glory of this approach is that is allows the critic to propound a new theory, ever so much cleverer than the creator's, and thereby to demonstrate the critic's standing as a public intellectual. The creator's work thus becomes merely an elevator, a device that boosts the critic's own career. I find this approach highly objectionable.


A fair-minded critic begins by finding an aspect of the work to praise. Surely there is some quality that honestly can be said to be worthy, or at least valid. This critic also attempts to understand what the creator was trying to do, whether or not it appears successful, and grants that there are many ways to achieve significant results—not necessarily the one the critic might have chosen.


The fair-minded book critic devotes ample space to discussing the contents of the actual work and does not appear to present information gleaned from the text as if it were prior knowledge on the critic's part. Rather than pursuing a "gotcha" vendetta against the author for any factual or interpretive errors, the critic aims to enlarge the knowledge base of readers of the review. By taking the high ground, a critic can write even a largely negative review in such a way that she neither glorifies her own acuity nor disparages the intelligence of the author, while providing readers with information that enlarges their view of the world.


© Cathy Curtis 2024

Be the first to comment