Critical Failure, Redux

September 22, 2010

My post from a couple of weeks ago left a few threads dangling which I hope now to tie up. Last weekend, that post also opened up an unexpected opportunity for me which I’ll explain in a moment. First, though, for those who wish to see for themselves the event I discussed in that post — the ‘Critical Failure’ debate on the current state of Australian literary criticism at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas — a lightly edited video is now online at the Centre’s website. Witness the great Peter Craven in all his grotesque glory.

A couple of other posts discussing the same event have since sprung up online. Here, for example, is Rebecca Starford, one of the four panellists at the event:

I had been looking forward to a nuanced conversation with Peter Craven, Hilary McPhee and Gideon Haigh about the traditional modes of Australian literary criticism, the problems they encounter (shrinking editorial space, dwindling readerships, erosion of critical authorities, among others), how the digital world destabilises/complements this forum, and where Australian literary criticism is — if indeed it is — moving forward.

Unfortunately, I (and I suspect many of the audience) came away from ‘Critical Failure: Books’ frustrated and disappointed (in myself, it must be said). The panel had failed in its intentions: to generate a rigorous, considerate, balanced discussion about Australian book criticism in all its forms and the changing shape of critical thinking.

Meanwhile, Emmett Stinson offers a provocative take on the nature of book reviews in general:

There is a weirdness… in bemoaning the problems with book reviewing, given that reviews, at worst, are simply a form of indirect marketing, and, at best, are a sort of informed consumer recommendation. Of course, reviews may contain incisive analysis as well (indeed, it may appear as if they only contain such analysis), but reviews are absolutely tied to the notion of the book as commodity, and it is for this reason that virtually all book reviews cover new releases. In this sense, the book review is a deeply strange hybrid genre, which combines literary criticism, advertising and news reporting (since the publication of a book is a newsworthy ‘event’).

He also makes a proposal that has long been a favourite of mine:

[Y]ou will rarely see negative reviews on this site (or hear me give negative reviews on Triple R). It’s not that I like everything I read (indeed, the amount of fiction I like would comprise a tiny fraction of what’s published–certainly less than 5%), but rather that I only try to review books that I actually like. Doing this requires selecting carefully and reading a bit of a book before I decide to review it, but I see this as one excellent possible mode for book reviewing: review only the books that you enjoy reading. … [R]ather than spend my time readings books I don’t like, why not discuss only the books that I actually think merit discussion? In this sense, I critique by omission, and praise by inclusion.

I like that approach. After all, any attempt to discuss a book carries within it the implicit judgement that the book in question is worth discussing, which in turn carries the implicit suggestion that if it is worth discussing then it must be worth reading. The substance of a positive book review would therefore make explicit what is implicit in the book review as a form.

Anyway: both of those responses went online in the middle of last week, about a week after the event at the Wheeler Centre. Then, at the end of last week, I and a handful of other local bloggers were invited to participate in a second event at the Centre which was, in a sense, organised as a means of redressing the imbalance caused by the original ‘Critical Failure’ events. Which is a diplomatic way of saying that the original events — lacklustre when they weren’t outright infuriating — kicked up such a shitstorm online that someone thought it would be a good idea to bring together some of those who raised complaints and to also solicit their thoughts on the state of contemporary criticism. So I spent the lion’s share of Sunday at the Wheeler Centre discussing the ins and outs of online criticism in the company of bloggers and online journalists with interests in critical approaches to literature, film, theatre, the visual arts, and video games, as well as a concern for the state of cultural policy in Australia. Here’s the full line-up, running clockwise around the table as I saw it from where I sat: Estelle Tang, Pat Allan, Mel CampbellBen Eltham, Richard Watts, Mark HolsworthAlison Croggon, Angela Meyer, . Lisa Dempster, Paul CallaghanNikita VanderbylW.H. Chong, and George Dunford.

Not too long ago, sometime in early August, I had some harsh words for the Wheeler Centre. My gripe was twofold. First, as compared with the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature initiative, I didn’t like the extent to which the establishment of the Wheeler Centre had come to dominate Melbourne’s City of Literature initiative to the exclusion of almost all other literary endeavours. Second, I didn’t like the way in which the Centre, as a venue for literary events, had become a sort of enclosure — rather than a platform — for literary discussion in Melbourne. “Within a certain set of parameters,” I wrote, “the intellectual life of Melbourne is surely more vigorous for the establishment of the Wheeler Centre. But insofar as the Centre has dominated of the City of Literature initiative, it has also to some extent kept the facilitation of literary discussion cordoned-off from the outside world.” After Sunday’s discussion, I still haven’t seen anything that would lead me to reconsider my first problem with the Centre, but I’m happy to say that the Centre seems to have heard the second problem and taken steps to address it.

On one level, what I saw on Sunday was a group of people drawn together to discuss the shortcomings of the ‘Critical Failure’ events and to thresh out some possible strategies for avoiding those shortcomings in future publications and at future festivals and so on. On a deeper level, though, what I saw was an organisation first hosting a series of public events and gauging the public response to them, and then turning its attention to those voices that were largely excluded from the original events, listening to what they had to say, and sending them back out into public to share what they had said and heard. In other words, the Centre has finally found a way of not only fostering a discourse within its four walls but also encouraging that discourse to break out of those confines and enter the broader public arena. It’s a great thing to see. In the words of one of Australia’s greatest public intellectuals: “Ten out of ten and a koala stamp.” And, of course, I’d say exactly the same thing even if I hadn’t been there. I hope it represents the beginning of a pattern of behaviour for the Wheeler Centre.

I won’t recount the discussion point for point. At present, Mel and Lisa both have brief summaries up on their respective blogs, while Paul has written a more in-depth response to some of the points raised by the group and Nikita has published the first of two posts outlining the course of the conversation. I will say that both Paul and Nikita have a few notes on my favourite part of the discussion: “the art of criticism.” Before heading to the Centre, I was a little worried that the discussion might too easily become a conversation about the technical side of blogging or perhaps even a self-congratulatory celebration of the imminent death of print criticism — I was worried, in short, that the discussion would take the activity of criticism for granted rather than making an issue of it and questioning its associated motives, purposes, and aesthetics. I needn’t have worried at all. The group covered these topics thoroughly.

Here, though, I do want to elaborate on some remarks I made during the discussion which have since popped up, paraphrased, on Nikita’s blog:

Daniel Wood from Infinite Patience pointed out that a blogger’s archives are another feather in their cap. They are in effect far more permanent than the print critic’s weekly column on paper, or the newspaper’s online archive (which, I don’t know if you’ve tried, are impossible to navigate). If ease of access is valuable to readers then blogs have long fulfilled this niche.

I think that’s obviously true, but there’s a bit more to it than that. At the heart of the point I sought to make was not the issue of the accessibility of blog archives versus the accessibility of newspaper archives per se, but the much more slippery issue of the critical legitimacy of a book reviewer and the extent to which that legitimacy is inextricably bound up with the accessibility of the reviewer’s archives. In effect, a book reviewer writing for a newspaper obtains an aura of critical legitimacy because the newspaper’s financiers have agreed to pay the reviewer for his or her judgements. In making that payment, the newspaper effectively announces to its readers that it is familiar with the reviewer’s previous writings and it expresses confidence in the reviewer’s critical judgements on the basis of those previous writings. The reader of the newspaper, however, can only take the newspaper’s expression of confidence in good faith, since he or she does not enjoy access to the reviewer’s previous writings which, after all, simply can’t fit on the newspaper’s pages.

In this institutional context, then, a book reviewer obtains two different sorts of critical legitimacy from two different sources: the institution — that is, the newspaper — acknowledges the critical legitimacy of the reviewer on the basis of his or her previous writings, whereas the reader of the newspaper acknowledges such legitimacy on the basis of the pay cheque that the reviewer receives from the institution that maintains exclusive access to those writings. In the individual context, however, wherein a book reviewer runs an independent blog, he or she obtains critical legitimacy directly from the aggregate of the posts in his or her archives. Without the newspaper as middle-man — without the media as mediator — the reader has a direct connection to the reviewer’s previous writings and thus a direct means of discerning the reviewer’s critical legitimacy. On the one hand, this makes the online reviewer more familiar to the reader, allowing the reader to better gauge the reviewer’s tastes, inclinations, and standards of judgement. On the other hand, it makes the reviewer more accountable for his or her past judgements as well as future judgements make on the basis of past criteria. In the long run, whatever these developments may mean for particular critics, I can’t see how they could possibly do anything other than advance the quality of literary criticism overall.

ADDENDUM: A few more reports from those who attended Sunday’s event have appeared in the two days since I published this post: Ben Eltham and Mark Holsworth have both chimed in, W.H. Chong has uploaded his sketchbook featuring drawings of most of the participants including myself, and Estelle Tang offers a brief round-up that concludes with a nice reflection on the more down-to-earth aspects of blog-based literary criticism:

What impressed me was how mindful many of the attendees were of their writing practice, their aims, their ethics and the new terrain they were writing in and forging, whether in their blogging or print work. I have to admit I’ve never given my blog much thought. … But the one very constant and pressing thought I’ve had since the Critical Failure panel series is that, despite the throwaway nature of this blog’s genesis (Golly! Let’s start a blog!) and despite the fact that sometimes all I do is talk about foodstuffs, what this blog enables me to do is write regularly. There you have it: modest, yes, prosaic … but true. And that weekly process of attempting to honour a reading experience by fixing it in my own words has been valuable. You only need to go back and read my first few posts to see that. Not just because what I write these days is more coherent or readable, but because I feel more steady-footed when approaching a book; I feel like reading is much more reciprocal now.

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3 Responses to “Critical Failure, Redux”

  1. Thanks for adding your thoughts, Daniel. We thought the unconference format was useful here because it allowed us to open the debate up to include whatever participants wanted to talk about.
    We agree on concerns about the technical aspects of blogging and thought that would have tended more towards being a practical workshop. Hopefully the unconference struck a good balance.

  2. genevieve said

    Not quite accurate, Daniel, to suggest that the unconference was organised in response to online discussion of the Critical Failure lectures. The first invites actually went out well before that.
    Good to hear you found it useful, though.

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