Posts Tagged ‘criticism’

Don’t call me a critic – I’m an analyst!

January 24, 2011

I have a confession. I have never, ever, liked the idea of being a critic. It’s one of those weird, little hang-ups people get over time, they hear a word, they put an image to it, and their nose scrunches up as they say, “ewwwwwwwwwww.” For me, critic has always been synonymous with someone who bleeds everything enjoyable out of whatever they’re critiquing and destroys something rather than adding anything worthwhile to it.

Is this fair? of course it’s not. There are a tremendous number of very good critics who truly do add something to the work they’re looking at, who are a treat to read, and who don’t thoroughly kill the joy from whatever their eyes fall upon.  I’ve read a number of critics that I enjoy, I have friends in the field who I believe do an unbelievably thorough, engaging and, yes, even entertaining job at working through their critiques.

Still…that image remains. Ewwwwwwwwwwww.

Then I ran across a line in the book I’m using in my 7 week short story course this winter. The book is How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster, and it is a book I wish I had came across years ago. If any instructors happen by this page, I fully endorse this book as an entry level reader for getting undergrads into the mode of reading and criticizing literature. It’s not only thorough, but accessible! Also, it’s cheap, so they won’t hate you for making them blow $80 on a book they’ll never use again.

But back to the line I ran across. It’s been a few days, so I can’t pinpoint where it was exactly, but Foster was talking about criticism in general when he makes a reference to deconstruction, a form he clearly isn’t a big fan of, and which he responds to by saying, “I prefer to enjoy what I analyze.”

And there was the golden word. Analyze. Not only does it have pleasant connotations with some entirely forgettable Robert DeNiro-Billy Crystal movies, but it’s also associated with the American all-positive view of business. Stock analysts. News analysts. Business analysts. Analysts, analysts, analysts. We love them. We embrace them. They are all cute and cuddly like Glen Beck at a gun rally.

And so it struck me. I’m not a critic. I don’t criticize. I don’t do quick 900 or so word critiques of novels and short stories, I do short 900 or so word analysis’s of stories. Suddenly, I feel cuter. Cuddlier. I’m okay with the idea of what I do around here -at times, anyway. Also, I feel like a more productive member of society. After all, a critic only criticizes. An analyst is in the trenches, examining trends and making flow charts. They get things done. So universities should be more willing to better fund their literature departments if a move towards re-categorizing ourselves becomes vogue. We’re not longer sitting on the sidelines, criticizing everything, we’re helping out. We’re analyzing.

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Kevin Smith, Critics and the unreliable narrator

March 29, 2010

I like (most of) Kevin Smith’s movies. I download his smodcasts. I follow him on Twitter. But his recent dust-up over critics not reviewing Cop-Out favorably is a highlight of a general misconception about criticism in general.

And it is something that I have also suffered from in the past. It is something that is hard to work out of the system once it has found a home. Above, where I mentioned “not reviewing Cop-Out favorably” I had begun to type “not liking Cop-Out” before realizing how charged that sentence is and how it reflects the same ignorance Smith appears to have, at least momentarily, suffered from. It doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, matter if critics like a work. There’s been more than a few books, movies, music, etc. that I’ve enjoyed on some level while also believing that they are likely quite crappy with little redeeming value or meaning. Sometimes I just like some mental junk food.  So, despite my enjoying something, I would still stand up and say, “Yeah, it’s crap. But I enjoyed it.”

The thing is, if you’re trying to honestly criticize something, that “Yeah, it’s crap” part has to be there. For instance, see my recent post about Laura van den Berg’s collection of short stories. I liked a LOT about the collection. I say I liked a lot about it. In the end, though, when everything gets tallied up and conclusions have to be drawn, though, I also had to say that I thought it had serious shortcomings that it did not overcome.

It’s this duality that I think is lost in the argument between critic and artist. The artist sees someone “not liking” their work when “like” really has very little to do with it. This understanding of the role of a critic is made worse by misunderstanding of terms a critic uses that an artist, frankly, may never need to know even if they employ a technique the critic perceives.

Which appears to be partly what happened on this blog recently over a review of Pekar’s The Quitter. In a comment to a follow up blog, attempting to illuminate the use of “unreliable narrator” there was a mention of The Screwtape Letters. Which struck me as odd.

It has been years since I last read The Screwtape Letters and, recently, I haven’t had time to go back and entirely re-read it. But I have scanned through it, I’ve scholar.googled it and did a quick glance through some lit journal searches. My immediate recollection was confirmed. The Screwtape Letters is not an example of an unreliable narrator. While why Screwtape isn’t an unreliable narrator is important, it’s not pertinent to this blog. What’s pertinent is that this mistake was made. This isn’t to single out that individual commenter but to use it to illustrate something that is likely fairly common – a genuine language/process gap between the critic, those whose work is the subject of criticism and the audience for whom that work was created and for whom the critic is writing.

The language and backgrounds for becoming a “critic” and becoming an “artist” are inherently different. Many artists have the words “self-taught” somewhere in their biographies. And it’s my opinion that this isn’t just a brave thing, to have struck out to master a craft with little or no fall back plan or option, but a necessary thing for many artists as I’m not sure that all that is necessary to be an artist can be taught or accrued in a classroom. Or maybe that’s just the romantic idealist in me wanting to see the artist, at least in some way, as the woman for whom inspiration must strike to allow them to forge their timeless works. A critic, however, almost certainly has to be in a classroom through necessity. There is simply very few other options for being exposed to the work of other critics, for gaining any sort of understanding of the field, than without the aid of classes and instructors who are already learned of the lay of critical land.

So maybe it shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise when the two sides lock horns over what one writes about the other. It has to be all but inevitable. The training for each can come from wholly different directions, employing language and terms in ways that are wholly different from what the other side employs. Sure, each side can (and do) try to bridge that gap but it’s a gap I’m not sure is always bridgeable. After all, a critic does come off very much as a judge and that’s the sort of eye that no one likes to fall under.

But what role does the audience play in this?

Part of me wants to tie this into our current political climate where intellectualism has become a dirty word.  Language has an inherent political context. Nearly everything said or written can find itself twisted and appropriated for all sorts of purposes. I think it becomes clear that the term “critic” is slipping from our lexicon, too easily associated with “criticize” and all of the negative connotations that word can find itself lugging around. Instead we see this term “reviewer” being bandied about.

And what’s the job of a “reviewer?” Well, it seems their job is to simply review. Now, there are certainly aspects of that word that lends itself to serious critical work. The daily/weekly articles written for movies, plays, books, etc. have long been called “reviews.” In the military the term “review” also has a serious charge to it, a formal retrospection into an event for the purpose to lay a judgment of. Looking into my Webster’s New World College Dictionary, however, and those sort of definitions appear no sooner than fourth under the heading “review.” The first three definitions are far less formal that use phrases such as “a looking back” or a “general survey, report or account.”

Going away from the dictionary, considering personal connotations to the word review, and what I come up with is an expectation for an informal recounting, which is even more relaxed than a “general survey.”

To think of a movie review now, you would almost come to expect a simple recounting of plot with some very basic or rudimentary thoughts about the movie but nothing that would be overly critical (or overly praising). A “review” of Transformers could simply be

It’s a movie about robots fighting other robots,  and some people get involved. It looks pretty on the screen and is, at times, really loud.

I get the impression that is the sort of thing expected of movie reviewers now. Something lacking in actual criticism since it is something that isn’t really implied as part of the process any more. And it’s here where maybe literary criticism is shielded in a way that movie criticism isn’t. While there is certainly a TON of movie criticism, a large number of people who write passionately and knowledgeably  about the movies are burdened with the title of “critic” or “reviewer,” titles that either immediately draw ire or inspire confusion as to role.

Alright, I’ve gone on long enough. Part of the whole Kevin Smith Thing is, I’m sure, just bruised ego. It’s natural. But I think another part of it is the shifting of expectations of society and how language has shifted with those expectations. Maybe we no longer expect a reviewer to be critical and get somewhat put off when they are. When this difference of expectations is met with even greater differences in language, the fire becomes an inferno as one perceives the other as chucking gasoline rather than turning on the hose.

What it means to be a critic

March 24, 2010

Got this wonderful link from Ebert’s twitter. It’s about a man named Steve Almond lamenting how useless critics are…and critics response to it. In short, it highlights what I have been trying to move toward here, a critical response to whatever I’m reading at the time. The subject might be different (literature vs music) but the basic tenets are the same. The idea of criticism is to try to find a different way of looking at a work and finding greater themes/ideas within it beyond the basic story/lyrics/beat/image/whatever. It’s something I’m still a massive work in progress on but I hope to get better and the responses to Almond’s article, laid out by other critics, are where I hope to one day end up.

Front Right. Back Left.

August 5, 2009
Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert

I don’t read a lot of blogs.  Maybe this makes me like one of those people who uses P2P filesharing apps but doesn’t share themselves. It’s a one way street with me. I either give or take and how much pleasure I derive from it usually determines which I do. Maybe not reading a lot of  different blogs makes me like that. But I do read Roger Ebert’s blog.

It amazes me. I always enjoyed watching him review movies on television, first with Gene Siskel and then with a cadre of other reviewers before settling on Richard Roeper. He was informed, articulate and funny. He is the Image of what I have also found to be every good professor I’ve ever had.
I do not write my blog half as well as he writes his. I’m not yet knowledgeable enough about literature in general, nor aware enough about my own writing process, to do it. But I’m getting there. And Roger Ebert is helping me lately.
I read one of Mr. Ebert’s blogs about how to “read” a movie. In it he talks a bit about his own learning curve when he first became a movie reviewer and he mentions a  few other critics/reviewers/books along with some methods he has picked from those books that he has found useful and right. One of these methods is how to read the physical position of characters on screen and how it helps shape how we, consciously or unconsciously, percieve them.  Roger Ebert eloquently defines it in part as:
In simplistic terms: Right is more positive, left more negative. Movement to the right seems more favorable; to the left, less so. The future seems to live on the right, the past on the left. The top is dominant over the bottom. The foreground is stronger than the background. Symmetrical compositions seem at rest. Diagonals in a composition seem to “move” in the direction of the sharpest angle they form, even though of course they may not move at all.
Thinking about this, I wonder if this couldn’t be applied to fiction as well – in the analyzing of it but also in the writing of it. From action/dialogue to the physical construction of the work, I have been wondering if there is a way to incorporate this “intrinsic weighting” into the construction of a work to lend it the same effect as it lends film.
This is something I’ve only begun thinking about recently, but it is something I think I will start looking for in the works that I read and begin experimenting with in my own writing. If it leads somewhere, I’m curious what it will lend to my work and how it may help in reading the work of others.

Thinking of Going Back

February 13, 2009

I’m thinking of going back to school.

Maybe it’s the eight months of being out of school that have seen the economy crash, cash dwindle and the job market flooded with workers of every stripe, color and experience that has me considering this. Or maybe I really want to go back and pursue either an MFA or a PhD (though not in English Lit), I don’t know.  I do know that I am trying to piece together a paper or two on consumerism, the rise of a disposable society and the affect it has on media (and how media has in turn fed into it).  I also know that reading and writing are really the only two things that I do consistently any more and consistently enjoy.

So I am considering heading back. I am in a relationship with a woman who, as I think I mentioned in a previous blog, is also fresh out of grad school and is looking at MFA programs right now (Creative Writing). We have a five year old (well, she does, but legalities aside it is “we”) and we want to get our life going. So grad school, in any form, also looks sort of foolish and misdirected, at least for me.  But it’s getting to the point where I just don’t know what else to do.

I’m trying to decide, though, if I want to put the time and energy into it. If I want to dedicate the next several years of my living likely living hand to mouth in cramped quarters with my family while not providing much of a life for them. And if the payout down the road will be worth it.

A fair part of my decision likely rests on how well I put these papers together that I’m trying to get off the ground.  They look to be test flights in a way. If I can’t bring myself to do this bit of work on my own now, when for all intents and purposes I don’t have much of anything else to do, then I have to think that pursuing a career in this would be close to insane.

I think I could be good at it. And I think I could get good at the teaching part (especially if it wasn’t comp). But just not sure I’m up for the long haul. As it is, I think my mind is made up that I will not pursue any more degrees in literature. It’s either creative writing or some form of culture studies.  They seem more interesting to me. They seem to be more aligned with my interests.  I have some thinking to do on this. And some work.