Critical Failure, Indeed

Last night, I spent some time at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas to listen to a panel discussion about the current state of literary criticism in Australia. The discussion was part of the Centre’s ‘Critical Failure’ series of events, and, of course, the series name clearly gives away the drift of the conversation: the panellists unanimously concluded that the state of literary criticism in Australia is currently pretty dire. On the panel were the publishers Hilary McPhee and Rebecca Starford as well as the critics Peter Craven and Gideon Haigh. To some extent, the need for such a discussion was identified by Haigh earlier this year, when he published a brief but powerful opinion piece on the failure of Australian literary criticism in the upstart journal Kill Your DarlingsAfter briefly outlining the abysmal pay and conditions that literary critics can expect to receive from editors around the country, Haigh concluded:

[T]here’s little incentive for sticking one’s neck out, for actually taking a position, for arguing that a book is bad, or sloppy, or stupid, or two or three iterations short of finished — an affliction staggeringly common among Australian books. Who needs the aggravation? [It is] far easier to summarise the contents, recapitulate the blurb, describe the author’s reputation, or examine the author’s politics in a thinly veiled op-ed — is he or she ‘one of us’?

For Haigh, then, responsibility for the parlous state of Australian literary criticism lies partly with critics too risk-averse to actually make a judgement of a book and partly with editors who decline to adequately remunerate both the formulation and the painstaking articulation of such judgements. The result of this situation that most infuriates Haigh is the rise and rise of the capsule review, “one hundred words or less, executed for beer money, and [published only] to convey the illusion of comprehensiveness by breaking up the page, one superficial but reverberating assertion at a time.” To my mind, though, the worse result of this situation is the current predominance of criticism in which the critic does not articulate his or her standards of judgement — either because the critic simply fails to articulate his or her assumptions or because his or her editor has not allowed the critic the space for any such articulation — which, in any event, operates on and thus perpetuates the simplistic assumption that all readers share the very same standards of judgement. Still, what irritates Haigh the most about the capsule review could just as easily apply to what irritates me about criticism without clear standards:

[A] competent book review should be a form of inquiry into what makes good books good — an inquiry with, as unfashionable as it sounds, the courage of its elitism. Without a benchmark of what constitutes excellent writing, scrupulous research and intelligent discussion, a reviewer is locked into a world in which ‘liking’ and ‘not liking’ are the only options — the Beavis and Butthead world, as the American literary critic Curtis White has put it, in which ‘this sucks, that rocks, this is awesome, and everything is just finally a lot stupid.’

Then, in advance and perhaps in anticipation of last night’s discussion, Geordie Williamson, chief literary critic for The Australian, published a critic’s “manifesto” as the cover story in this month’s Australian Literary Review and used Haigh’s screed as his starting point:

Journalist, author and critic Gideon Haigh has recently written and spoken of book reviewing in Australia as a discipline in decline, whose “besetting sin is its sheer dullness and inexpertise.”

Author and academic John Dale, writing on Page 14 of this issue [of the Australian Literary Review], doubts there ever was a golden age of literary criticism in Australia for us to decline from.

Unfortunately for everyone, despite Williamson’s efforts to establish a sense of antagonism between the two men, Haigh and Dale are both right. As Dale suggests, Australian literary criticism has not declined from some golden age because there never was a golden age from which it could decline — but that doesn’t mean that Australian literary criticism has always been consistently mediocre and remains so today. And, as Haigh contends, Australian literary criticism has indeed declined in quality — but it has declined from a zenith of mediocrity into the depths of abject uselessness. Worse than falling from grace, it has fallen from blandness.

Can it possibly be rescued and reinvigorated? With Haigh having issued his plea for its reinvigoration, Williamson has now taken a stab at thinking through the logistics of how best to go about the task. As he sees it, the most adept literary critics are those who have spent their lives training themselves to become literary critics, which is to say those involved in academic literary studies. Williamson is quick to add, however, that the very nature of the academy too often corrupts the ability of such critics to successfully communicate with a general audience:

Many of the best readers of my generation ended up teaching in universities. There, as a result of the zealously quantitative approach demanded of academic career building, they are obliged to produce mountains of words for peer-reviewed journals which few people read. Until recently, writing criticism for newspapers or magazines was not given any weight at all in hierarchies of valued publications. Imagine the insights and enthusiasms that have been lost to the general public as a result.

For Williamson, academic literary critics are shackled by both the bureaucracy of the academy and a blind fidelity to critical theory. He suggests that the first set of shackles are currently, if slowly, being cast off — the academy, as he says, undervalued criticism for the general public “until recently” — and so he has taken it upon himself to attempt to cast off the second set of shackles by producing this list of what to keep and what to discard from critical theory:

What to keep:

 

  • A healthy suspicion of fixed literary canons.
  • An appreciation of the socially mediated nature of literature.
  • The quasi-scientific rigour of theory’s approach to textual analysis.
  • Greater circumspection in making broad or universalist claims.
  • An awareness of and respect for marginal, repressed, underground and countercultural traditions and communities, and the texts and voices that emerge from them.
  • A taste for the positive, spark-striking aspects of interdisciplinary research.

What to discard:

  • A lack of interest in the substance and real-world content of texts under discussion, unless it is to critique their ideological biases.
  • A disregard for literature’s special status, lumping it with every other form of writing, from bus tickets to bumper stickers.
  • A refusal to permit communication of enthusiasm or value judgments about a text.
  • The outlawing of literary canons and historical traditions as a guide to merit.
  • Displacement of the author from a position of authority over the texts they create.
  • Extreme scepticism and relativism with regard to Western concepts, categories and metaphysics.

I agree with most of that, and what I disagree with does not aggravate me enough to challenge it at any length. What does aggravate me, however, is what Williamson writes next:

Much has been written about the revolutionary potential of the internet for criticism. It is ridiculously cheap, blisteringly fast and the online community it engenders is one that thrives on argument and constant to-and-fro. Most significantly, the web breaks the monopoly on criticism once held by analog-era organs and allows everyone to have their say.

Just because the medium allows argument to thrive, however, does not mean that it is ideal for criticism.

For every brilliant new blogger that has emerged, 100 pallid yes-men (and women) have sprung up. And while these bloggers often define themselves against in-house elitists who impose their tastes from above, they have a tendency to move in digital packs, to think as hive minds.

But there is nothing lonelier than a true critical response. Whether calling out a dud novel by a writer of reputation or trying to drag an overlooked work of merit from the swamp of mediocrity, the critic is doing their job to the degree that they achieve separation from massed opinion.

However marvellous it may be, the web is no more than a medium: its content is not more virtuous, intelligent or correct for appearing in a novel space.

How completely and disastrously wrong. That last sentence, in particular, is shockingly obtuse, from the capital ‘H’ in ‘However’ and onward through to the full stop at the end of the paragraph — not so much in view of what it says as in view of what it misses in so saying.

We want to avoid what Williamson calls the ‘yes-men’ in literary criticism, the sort of ‘yes-men’ who write the capsule reviews that irritate Gideon Haigh. We also presumably want to avoid what Williamson calls the ‘hive mind’ aspect of literary criticism, the sort of ‘hive mind’ that is perpetuated when literary critics fail to articulate their individual standards of judgement or are otherwise prohibited from doing so by their editors. In other words, those aspects of literary criticism in blog format that Geordie Williamson finds most objectionable — the supposedly disproportionate number of facile readers and the supposed tendency to not allow group assumptions to be challenged — are precisely those aspects of print criticism that have brought it to the very parlous state in which we now find it. Pot, kettle, black.

More importantly, though, these shortcomings of print criticism are direct consequences of the publication of literary criticism in a print format. They are the result of the physical constraints and demands of the printed page: the need, as Gideon Haigh writes, to “convey the illusion of comprehensiveness by breaking up the page,” as well as the reticence and perhaps even the inability of literary editors to provide book reviewers with adequate space in which to articulate their standards of judgement. Does it not then follow that a medium free of those physical constraints and demands is better suited than the printed page to avoid those shortcomings?

Unfortunately, not one of the four panellists at last night’s discussion seemed to think so, or even to have considered the question. Gideon Haigh and Hilary McPhee paid lip service to just one local litblog, Angela Meyer’s LiteraryMinded, while Rebecca Starford spruiked Killings — the blog associated with Kill Your Darlings, of which she is a founding editor — and the pompous and frequently condescending Peter Craven altogether dismissed the suggestion that a blog could provide a suitable venue for sophisticated but non-academic literary criticism. Worse, when a questioner in the audience asked the four panellists what they believed constituted a successful work of literary criticism, not one of them gave a direct answer. Hilary McPhee and Rebecca Starford didn’t answer the question at all, while Peter Craven laughed it off. Only Gideon Haigh offered a response to it, but he didn’t go any further than to reissue one of the less intelligent claims in his essay: that a successful work of literary criticism is “a lively and engaging piece of writing [that] informs and invigorates” and “a sparky, spunky, memorable bit of prose” — a definition of successful literary criticism that doesn’t exactly suggest an understanding of the specific aims and qualities of literary criticism that would differentiate a successful work in that genre from any other successful piece of writing. Across the board, the panellists — whose task was ostensibly to examine what has gone wrong with Australian literary criticism and to consider the ways in which we might set it right again — not only could not specify exactly what makes a work of literary criticism successful, but also would not take seriously a medium for literary criticism that is physically better suited to the production of successful criticism than is the medium that has brought it to its knees. Critical failure, indeed.

I don’t mean to suggest that the blog format will necessarily produce more sophisticated literary criticism than the print format; I mean only that it is more conducive to producing such criticism than is the print format because it allows critics to do what print does not. There are three key elements to a successful work of literary criticism. First, it must articulate a vision of what literature is and what it is for, based on the critic’s understanding of the particularities of the literary artform as distinct from alternative artforms. Second, it must show some understanding of the particular ways in which different works of literature can possibly, and have previously, made themselves “literature” in the sense just articulated. Finally, it must assess the ways in which, and the extent to which, a given work of literature either successfully or unsuccessfully makes itself “literature” in the same sense. In other words, a successful work of literary criticism must answer three questions: what is literature supposed to do, how has that best been done in the past, and how well or how poorly does the work under consideration do it?

The print format simply does not have the luxury of allowing literary critics enough space to include the first two of these three elements of a successful work of criticism. That is why, rather than articulating their own individual understandings of what literature is supposed to do, we find print critics almost unanimously assessing and pronouncing judgement on a work of literature by drawing on an assumption of a shared belief that the purpose of literature is to “move the reader” by placing “fully rounded characters” in a “carefully drawn narrative” and detailing their exploits in “finely wrought prose” — as if any work of literature that doesn’t tick all the boxes in that checklist simply isn’t worthy of an attentive readership. The blog format, on the other hand, allows for exactly what the print format does not — firstly in the essentially unlimited length of the individual blog post, and then in the comments spaces at the end of posts and in the aggregation of posts in blog archives which together allow for the perpetual elaboration on and refinement of standards already articulated.

I hope my own blog provides an example of what I mean: cumulatively, a number of posts over the last nine months (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) should give some idea of what I think literature is and is for, while the three on narrative voice (1, 2, 3) should give some idea of how I think certain works have been able to become what I think literature is. None of these has been specifically addressed to the question of how successfully a given work of literature makes itself “literature” as I conceive of it, but the pieces are there for later reference and assemblage — which is more than can be said for much of what appears in print in newspapers and magazines today. There may or may not be a cure for the current state of critical failure, but there is a medium that can soothe the symptoms. When will our otherwise attentive critics give it the attention it deserves?

10 thoughts on “Critical Failure, Indeed

  1. Dear Daniel:

    A very interesting post, indeed (although I will note that I think Rebecca is, in fact, a very good book reviewer). I think you’re particularly correct in noting the interactive element of blog criticism. In this sense, blogging creates discourse (even if 90% of it is banal), which is also a step toward building literary communities (however small). I’m not trying to get all Habermasian, but I think this is one of its biggest advantages.

    Moreover, the best online sites have already clearly surpassed the best print Australian criticism; can you think of one print Aussie publication better than (for example) The Complete Review (which is U.S., I know)? I can’t…The real question is when someone here will get the energy (and money) to create a comprehensive online site that actually competes with things like the ABR and ALR.

    • I’m not familiar with Rebecca’s critical work, but I’m inclined to chase it up because she clearly came across as the most promising of the four panellists last night — the most constructive and the least accusatory — although she didn’t speak up as often as any of the others, so her presence was diminished by comparison.

      When will someone “get the energy (and money) to create a comprehensive online site that actually competes with things like the ABR and ALR”? My guess is that the energy to compete will only rise when the money starts to flow, and that won’t happen until one or both of ABR and ALR die off in print form and thus give an upstart digital publication a better shot at (necessary) government subsidisation. My hunch is that ABR is already on the way out — more and more content is being made available for free online — but obviously it’ll take a lot longer for ALR to make the move, its financial losses being underwritten as they are (along with the remainder of The Australia) by the News Ltd. tabloids. (What a morally precarious situation: support the ALR as a venue for long-form literary criticism by taking out a daily subscription to the Herald Sun.)

      I have to say, though, that there’s definitely a market out there for literary discussion that departs from the “conventional wisdom”-style coverage that litters the broadsheets. If nothing else, my own site statistics — since June, much higher than I ever anticipated when I started this blog in January — suggest to me that people out there have as much a hunger for it as I do.

  2. Did you go to the film session, on Monday? I missed the book panel (out of being ill, not out of premonition), but all reports have been dire and disappointing. The film panel, however, very frankly and quickly concluded that serious film criticism will never appear in the newspapers. Adrian Martin said, almost verbatim: “Mass media have always been the province of the staunchly mediocre. Good criticism has always appeared elsewhere.” Coming from the theatre angle, I could only wish there were more voices in the theatre ready to say the same.

    With respect to your respect for Geordie Williamson, didn’t he, in that same recent article, claim that 9 book reviews a month is a great amount of book reviewing for a nation of 20 million?

    Otherwise, lovely to meet you, and I will be coming back to your blog,

    Jana

    • I didn’t go the film session (a prior commitment: a film, funnily enough) but if Adrian Martin said what he said anywhere near the start of the discussion, it must have been far better than the literary session. The first audience question at the literary session wasn’t a question at all: the questioner simply grabbed the microphone and said, “This is incredibly boring,” and the audience clapped. (Crikey’s Culture Mulcher blog has a selection of other choice quotes from the discussion at http://blogs.crikey.com.au/culture-mulcher/2010/09/08/book-people-face-audience-verdict-boring.) The panellists just took an incredibly long time to get absolutely nowhere.

      One thing to bear in mind, though, is that the absence of serious film criticism from the broadsheets is different from the absence of serious literary criticism in that the broadsheets have never been a venue for serious film criticism whereas they were once one of the most dependable venues for serious literary criticism. Literary critics have palpably lost something with the decline of broadsheet literary criticism, but film critics never had it to begin with — and, to my mind, the inability of certain literary critics to come to terms with that loss is the reason why last night’s discussion was so tedious and accusatory rather than constructive. I won’t be at the theatre discussion, but my gut tells me that the sentiment will be closer to that of the literary discussion than the film discussion. The space available for theatre criticism in the broadsheets has declined along with that available literary criticism, rather than remaining consistently paltry as is the case with film criticism.

      As for Geordie Williamson: I wouldn’t exactly say that I respect him wholeheartedly, much less the entirety of that essay. In fact, I think that the remainder of that essay was pretty inane, not least the comment you cite and especially the David Shields-style hodgepodge arguing the need for a distinctly Australian literary criticism (whatever that might be). Still, of all the literary critics writing in the broadsheets today, I think he’s the best we’ve got: he at least attempts in each review to articulate some standards of judgement, and, to his credit, he tends to review books that don’t get much coverage elsewhere and so would otherwise sail under the popular radar.

      Thanks for dropping by 🙂 I look forward to your thoughts on the theatre discussion…

      • The theatre panel turned out to be a great one: it touched conceptual heights, and name-calling lows, providing both thoughtfulness and entertainment (although we could have done with less entertainment and more thoughtfulness). Report here: http://blogs.crikey.com.au/curtaincall/2010/09/10/histrionica-critical-failure-on-theatre/.

        It seems to me that both theatre and film benefit (both as artforms and as panels, in this case) from having prominent, respected and senior-ish critics who genuinely love the form, and approach their work not as confirmation of status, but as continuous work of love. Alison Croggon and Adrian Martin are both internationally respected critics who write, read, translate and, most importantly, see obscure films and obscure performances, champion work, think about it thoroghly, etc. I don’t think one could say the same for Peter Craven.

        It seems to me, from last week’s exercise, that literature, more than any of the artforms on show, is bound up in class, status and corresponding anxieties. Questions of ‘high’ lit versus ‘low’ lit (which no-one even attempted to make in either film or theatre; although they distinguished between big money and shoestring budget), and the eternal question of whether bloggers are allowed to have a say. Contrastingly, while Croggon and Martin are the most prominent Australian critics in their respective fields, both publish more and better work online, than in the newspapers. They are recognised for the quality of their work, rather than as newspaper personalities.

        I find it strange that, on the one hand, prominent book reviewers seem to depend on worldly status so much more than their theatre or film equivalents, and yet justify their position by such strong recourse to very traditional values (high vs low, literary vs pulp, expert vs amateur). What seems to be missing (as it did in Williamson’s article) is the simple love of the art, which allowed those in both theatre and film to state very plainly that criticism doesn’t pay, that no one is doing it for the money, that it’s a work of love.

        I’m not sure if parallels can be drawn any further. As Ben points out below, it takes a complete absence of criticism to realise its benefits. For example, graphic novels/comics have inspired very little criticism of any value, and it makes the field barely navigable.

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  4. I came to this post via an acquaintance on twitter who pointed it out to me. I spent a while ranting at the original “Bugger the Bloggers” piece at The Oz when I first read it, so I’m incredibly grateful that someone has taken the time to articulate why it was so far off base – and so patently ridiculous.

    As a blogging “critic” myself (for a few years now) writing about videogames (yes, there’s a field of game critics!) I couldn’t help but compare the state of literary criticism as lamented above to the (almost nonexistent) condition of game criticism. Those of us interested in reading writing about videogames as critical objects have never really had outlets that spent any money on it, being stuck with consumer-report style reviewing of games. Instead, blogs were where the earliest games criticism communities took off and, with few exceptions, remain the most consistent sources of good games criticism.

    Perhaps most interestingly for you and your readers, Daniel, a small scattering of independently produced magazines devoted to actual attempts at games criticism have sprung up OUT FROM the critical blogosphere of late. If the literary critics need proof the blogosphere can and does write good criticism, look no further than the excellent Killscreen Magazine (http://www.killscreenmagazine.com) and its efforts at transitioning criticism from blogs to print.

  5. A great summary of the Books panel. I don’t have the time right now to respond in any length, but I’m glad you pointed out some of the serious shortcomings that I too observed in that discussion. In fact, I felt the same frustration present through almost all of the other Critical Failure panels.

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