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?