At the National Writers’ Conference at this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival, four of Australia’s best emerging arts critics appeared on a panel, ostensibly representing the critical analysis of four major art forms: film, theatre, literature, and television (though in fact all four critics have each written about multiple forms). Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Jane Howard, James Tierney and Chad Parkhill were brought together on a panel to discuss “Why do we like what we like, and should we even care? Why do we dissect things, and what value is there in examining the merits of the latest band, book, or show?”. The conversation was wide-ranging and showcased just why the Emerging Writers’ Festival is leading the way.
For the panel, each of these four critics was asked to prepare a five minute introductory provocation. Such is the quality of these short pieces—and their overlappingness is also excellent—that The Lifted Brow asked if we could publish them all, one a day, this week.
First up is Rebecca Harkins-Cross’s provocation.
The Critic’s Heart Will Go On
by Rebecca Harkins-Cross
When asked about the current state of book reviewing in an interview for The Paris Review in 1985, the American writer Elizabeth Hardwick gave one of my favourite justifications for the critic’s ongoing importance: “Let me say that criticism, analysis, reflection is a natural response to the existence in the world of works of art. It is an honorable and even an exalted endeavor. Without it, works of art would appear in a vacuum, as if they had no relation to the minds experiencing them. It would be a dismal, unthinkable world with these shooting stars arousing no comment, leaving no trace.”
If you listen to many critics today, we’re apparently moving toward such a “dismal, unthinkable world” – a firmament of shooting stars upon which we struggle to gain purchase. Criticism has been in its death throes for a long time now, felled by the knife of shrinking word counts, shrinking arts pages and shrinking publications or, worse, the great scourges of the internet and the digital dilettantes it has the impudence to champion.
Of course, criticism has been dying since it was born. Think of George Orwell’s underpaid and overworked hack in his 1946 essay ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’, or Hardwick’s own 1959 critique ‘The Decline of Book Reviewing’ that challenged the “unaccountable sluggishness” of the New York Times and Herald Tribune’s books pages. Closer to home, the cultural generationalism and turf wars that Mark Davis wrote about nearly 20 years ago in Gangland remain remarkably and depressingly relevant today.
That said, there’s no denying that the role of the critic has shifted in this current landscape. Once the Australian critic was epitomised by figures like Robert Hughes, the heavyweight public intellectual who ironically had to flee Antipodean shores to be legitimated. Hughes is inimitable, but there’s a certain brand of knowledge that he encapsulates: Hughes is the critic as judge of this elusive thing called aesthetic merit, as the maker of canons. And as we well know by now, the critic as the man apart has often created a canon of artists who look much like himself: white, male, elite.
When reviews pages increasingly look like consumer guides – I spend most of my time reducing films and plays that artists have slaved over to capsule reviews and star ratings – it’s understandable that narratives of loss and decline dominate discussions around criticism. But lately I’ve been wondering if there’s anything we gain when criticism moves outside of the mainstream media and is forced to shapeshift. Beyond the confines of the newspaper’s masthead, where the critic is required to at least feign the journalist’s objectivity, what does criticism look like? And if a critic is no longer solely an arbiter of artistic value, what role do they then play?
Sydney music critic Anwen Crawford’s recent piece for The New Yorker online, ‘The World Needs Female Rock Critics’, discusses the way the rebellion and freedom that rock music proffered was not necessarily available to women who were writing about it. She says, “Perhaps fiction and memoir, more than criticism, provide space for female writers to dissect all that is maddening and wonderful about popular music: the spectacle, the chicanery, the beautiful lies it tells us. But there is plenty of need for female music critics yet.”
It’s writers who ask whether an act of criticism may also be one of memoir, or of travel writing, or even one of fiction.
This struck me as a sentiment that could easily be extended beyond music to encompass all the arts. The criticism I’m currently most stirred and inspired by is often work that occupies the borderlands of the form – it’s writers who ask whether an act of criticism may also be one of memoir, or of travel writing, or even one of fiction? And I wonder whether this kind of cross-genre criticism is also an attempt to create a space where who the critic is and the role the critic plays is more malleable?
I’m thinking about Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk (2014), a strange and beguiling book that combines a memoir of grief and falconry with biography of the writer T.H. White, best known as the author of The Sword in the Stone (1938), but also a book called The Goshawk (1951) that McDonald unearths from the shadows of literature. By contrasting her own retreat into mourning with her hawk Mabel with the relationship between man and bird described in White’s book, she illuminates this forgotten text in startling ways.
I’m thinking about music critic Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey (2007) , which attempts to understand bad taste through interrogating his own innate aversion to Celine Dion and her bestselling album. After analysing the way class and ethnicity and cultural capital play into Dion’s music, it’s only when Wilson’s wife leaves him as he’s writing the book that he begins to grasp why Dion’s schmaltzy balladry appeals to so many.
I’m thinking about Hilton Als’ essay collection White Girls (2013), which blindsided me and forced me reconsider what criticism could be. In a 2010 talk Als said, “I come from the Stanislavski school of writing. You become the subject.” As a theatre critic it’s not surprising he’s so drawn to performance metaphors, but the notion of the critic embodying their subject as an actor would is radical – to write not with the journalist’s objective distance, but the actor’s holistic immersion. The most audacious example is ‘You and Whose Army?’, an essay written from the perspective of Richard Pryor’s sister, a figment invented by Als to help him try to understand this figure of black masculinity who’s long troubled him.
Much of the local criticism that excites me isn’t necessarily happening on the arts pages, either. It’s things like Jana Perkovic’s theatre column in The Lifted Brow that acknowledges the confluence of art and life, Jane Howard’s impassioned and evocative reviews on the Kill Your Darlings blog that never evade questions of politics, pieces like Fiona Wright’s ‘For Love and Hunger’ in the Sydney Review of Books which is part memoir on her own illness and part study of Christina Stead’s For Love Alone (1945), which she couldn’t help but read through the prism of her own starving mind.
The critic is a person with a body and a politics.
In all these works the critic remains an expert and a teacher, offering context, analysis, interpretation. They are still a cultural sifter, bringing out texts from the margins or illuminating the things we think we know in new ways. But they also acknowledge that the artworks they write about exist in a tangible world, and that the critics themselves reside there too. The critic is a person with a body and a politics, as well as predilections and, importantly, limitations. The critic is a person with a heart that can break enough to finally understand Celine Dion.
Rebecca Harkins-Cross is a Melbourne-based writer and critic. She is the film editor for The Big Issue and theatre reviewer for The Age, and her award-winning film column appears in every issue of The Lifted Brow.