What makes good criticism?

Sorry it’s been so long! I was trying to write a lot of words, which was I doing until about two weeks ago. Then we went on vacation and we moved into a new house. We’re still very much in unpacking mode and at the end of every day I fall into bed exhausted. I haven’t been reading or writing–and this somehow makes me more tired.

Also, while I’ve been happy with the words I’m writing, I’ve been experiencing professional disappointment that has me thinking about my voice and the market. I don’t have conclusions about this yet, but I’ll let you know.

Anyhow, the real point of this point: what is good criticism? Natalie of Pretty Terrible posted this question on Twitter. For reasons related to my academic training and my area of study, it is something I have very strong opinions about. I was going to respond there, but it would be too long. I’ll keep the abbreviated bullet point format of Twitter, though:

  • Good criticism is an intellectual, and not primarily emotional, response to a text. I’m not saying there’s no emotion in criticism—indeed, really good criticism often comes from explaining one’s emotions—but isn’t primarily about “the text made me feel X.” Criticism is what comes after that stage.
  • Good criticism is not primarily evaluative. It’s NOT about saying whether the text is good or bad. When I teach this idea, I often show students a Siskel and Ebert film review (say this one). Then I show them Matthias Stork’s amazing series on Chaos Cinema (here’s part one). What’s the difference? Siskel and Ebert are trying to tell you whether you should go to a movie—is it worth the price of admission? Stork is trying to tell you what this new style of film is. He has an opinion about whether it’s a good or bad development, but he’s mostly trying to define it and tell us how it works. Stork is critical; Siskel and Ebert evaluative.
  • Good criticism has a clear idea about what it’s doing. So any individual entrant is joining a larger conversation. This conversation (or method) can be formal. For example, there’s a set of writing that lays out Marxist critical discourse, or formalism, or New Historicism. But the critical approach can be more squidgy. Either way, people over time develop critical schools of thought and any given critical gesture is in the style of (or in response to) one or more of these.
  • For example, in romance (and I’m sure this is true in other fan communities), popular feminist discourse is important. We talk about whether heroes are alpha or beta (or caretaking alpha or alphaholes), which is another way of talking about how the texts construct masculinity. Also important: genre studies. What tropes does the text use? And does it just replicate the trope, does it make it fresh, or does it subvert it?
  • Good criticism, then, tells me how the text works (and to do this, it must substantively engage with the text) and then puts this into a genre context and a large critical conversation.
  • Here are a couple of critical responses that I think are good: Olivia Waite on Jenn Bennett’s Bitter Spirits and Natalie Jo Storey in the Los Angeles Review of Books on sheikh romance. These make good comparisons because they both use gender studies to talk about how the texts “do” gender and post or neo-colonialism to talk about how the texts “do” race. They do make some evaluative judgements, but mostly they’re talking how the texts work. They’re explicit about the critical moves their making (good criteria) and they engage substantively with specific works. Waite focuses on one text while Storey takes in an entire genre–but she’s still citing lots of specific examples.

I’ve used academic language for this definition, but I have serious concerns about how this goes down in the academy. I don’t think academics are always good at explaining their critical criteria and group-think leads them to only ask certain questions and only of certain texts. Part of what I love about romance is that there are really cool critical conversations happening that I never heard in the academy.

Finally, to be clear, I don’t think criticism is the only valid approach to texts. GIF/squee reviews do important work, I read things all the time that I never move past the “digestion” stage with, etc. Criticism isn’t higher or more valid or anything. It is its own flavor and pursuit and sometimes it’s what you want and sometimes it’s not.

So, what do I have wrong?

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8 thoughts on “What makes good criticism?

  1. I’m not sure I agree entirely with this.

    I think, for one, it’s much too easy for these supposedly analytical evaluations to function mostly like smokescreens to hide an emotional response, or some other form of motivation (financial stakes, personal connections, etc.–I’m thinking of art, where there have been pretty well known examples of critics who operated as dealers or took kickbacks; Bernard Berenson is the most well known example of the latter).

    In those cases, even if there’s some useful evaluation going on, I’d rather have it all up front and obvious–I want the critic to state his opinions, admit what’s at stake. And a neutral analytical format allows for a lot of dodging.

    But second of all, you point to Siskel & Ebert as examples of how an emotional response seems commercial–to consume or not to consume, here’s a suggestion. But Ebert was an incredibly incisive and well-informed movie critic and I think that his breadth of knowledge combined with his ability to articulate his passion in a way that really made him, I dunno, one of the best we’ve ever seen? I’m not in a position to make that statement, I don’t read enough film criticism, but certainly Ebert at his best both helps you understand the construction, the context, and–whether he’s praising or savaging a movie–makes you love and appreciate cinema more, makes you feel invested and passionate yourself.

    And certainly, when it comes to art, the earliest great critics never pretended to be dispassionate or purely analytical. I’m thinking of Baudelaire’s art criticism and also of John Ruskin. They were both very much in the trenches, picking favorites and fighting hard for them. And their work has been remembered, is still read… because they were articulating the zeitgeist, because they were honestly brilliant thinkers who had ideas worth mulling, but also because they remain accessible. You can read Baudelaire on Delacroix and STILL feel super excited about Delacroix, Ruskin on gothic architecture and STILL want to go drool over a cathedral.

    I think if you lose the love, if you stop expressing the love–or the rage–the result, especially if it’s happening en masse, is either dishonesty or dull work or both.

    • Ah, but there’s the rub: I was trying to define “good” (aka the best of all possible worlds) criticism. ; )

      I agree that what goes on in the academy isn’t often good. In literature (which is the field I know the best), newer criticism is often so jargon heavy and so driven by joining the critical conversation that it forgets to engage the text in question. I remember reading something about Mulholland Drive that spent no joke 80% of the words talking about Lacan and only 20% on the film itself. That balance is off. I do think joining an existing conversation is important; you have to know what people have said in the field and see how your argument compliments/complicates/extends/etc. those conversations. But what’s paramount should be saying something new about a given text.

      I do think that conflicts of interest must be disclosed up front–and in interesting ways, academics as a field always has conflicts of interest. Even the choice of a dissertation topic (for example) is fraught with monetary concerns. As the number of professor gigs falls, I think we’ll see a reemergence of dissertations on classic works because people doing canonical work are doing better on the market. The more “weird” one’s topic–in terms of substance or approach–the hard it is to explain to hiring committees.

      But I’m getting far afield!

      re: Ebert, I agree that he’s particularly good at explaining WHY he liked or disliked a film and (related to this) that he was good at explaining his evaluative criteria. He’d like one superhero movie and dislike another and he could clearly articulate why that was. But I still think he wasn’t doing criticism–in part because of the brevity of his pieces. And related to their shortness, a lot of what he was writing was summary. So while I agree that he helped his audience articulate their responses to film, I maintain those were primarily evaluative responses (is the film good or bad? how many thumbs?) not critical (how does the film work?). Compare one of Tom and Lorenzo’s Mad Style posts to an Ebert review. T&L are doing criticism; Ebert evaluation.

      I do agree that there’s a gap between what I’ve defined and how things shake down in the academy. I also agree that one must disclose one’s emotional reactions to the text (and how those square or digress from the intellectual argument one is making), as well as other conflicts of interest.

      I don’t think criticism is or should be dispassionate–I’m not certain that’s either possible or desirable. But I think critics must cultivate some distance or perspective that sets them apart from non-critical readers–and I mean those categories in a totally descriptive and not evaluative way. To emphasize what I said in the first post, I don’t think criticism is better than other textual responses and I don’t think it’s always what we (I) strive for. It’s just one tool in the tool box, but I think it’s a misunderstood one, at least in rom-land conversations.

  2. Thanks for this interesting discussion (both of you). I wonder if the passion necessary is a passion for criticism–for the work it requires, that particular kind of thinking, that careful engagement with a text/artwork. I totally agree that the professional demands of the academy, including the publish or perish system, often distort this passion. But who would start a PhD without some passion? How would you get through it without that passion (even if the PhD kills most of it, for some people)?

    One thing I love about online book conversations is that I have found so many thoughtful, engaged critical conversations outside of the academy. And the more of those we get, the better.

    (Totally random hot day post-beer thoughts).

    • Yes to all of this! When I discovered online book conversations–and specifically those around romance–I was about halfway through my PhD and exhausted with it. My work had come to feel like not just not seeing the forest for the trees but not seeing the tree for describing one individual leaf.

      In online book culture, I found people having these fresh, passionate, not cynical (or at least not as cynical as in the academy) conversations about books and their cultural context. It was–and still sometimes is–so invigorating.

      I like what you’ve articulated about how one needs to have a passion for criticism. Criticism is its own pursuit, different from the writing of a novel (say) and different from the consumption of art. Part of why I feel strongly about teaching criticism–and part of why I was trying to convince some reviewers on Twitter that yes, they are critics–is because I think that pursuit has a bad reputation. Criticism sounds pretentious, elitist, and inherently negative. So with the rather enormous caveat that it doesn’t always (often?) live up to its promise, I wish it could be rehabilitated. Outside of reviewing, outside of experiencing texts, outside of writing them, critical conversations about book culture matter a lot. To me, anyway. ; )

  3. I don’t have anything valuable to add to this discussion, but I wish we lived near each other because I would love to get together for coffee and hear your thoughts about your career and voice. I’ve been having thoughts too, and I wonder if they run in a parallel track to yours.

    • I wish we lived closer too! I don’t know that I have thoughts yet, more pre-thoughts about what kinds of voices/narratives seem to be succeeding in the market, about trying to think of things as a marathon and not a sprint (to take a long view) and wondering whether I should try to reinvent myself as a women’s fiction writer (vs. romance).

      • I have to confess I’m not sure I even understand what women’s fiction is. (“Books men won’t touch” is as precise – and cynical – as I can get in defining it.) But while I was reading Party Lines, I started thinking maybe you should go into film or tv writing. It was one of the few romances I’ve read that I thought would translate into a good, modern-feeling movie. I mean, I know screenwriting is a whole different skill that you might not have, but maybe you could start writing treatments or something.

        Unsolicited career advice, free of charge. I’ll stop now. But I’m a fan of your writing, and of your thinking on writing, and I do hope you figure out something that’s a good fit for you.

      • I am accepting any and all writing advice–from you most of all. ; )

        I think of women’s fiction as having a central narrative arc of the female protagonist triumphing over some kind of adversity. Obviously, some of it is marketing. (Did you listen to the SBDA podcast with Julie James? Her publisher is going to reissue her books in trade paperback and market them as women’s/general fiction.) But it also strikes me that novels with romantic elements–which have been forced out of the genre–fit there too.

        I’d love to write a screenplay. Maybe that’ll be my next project! I can’t imagine not writing at this point, but my voice is what it is. And maybe it’s not romance.

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