Monday, April 06, 2009

What should we teach our young critics?

Andrew Haydon raises the question, referring to young theatre critics in Britain, and what they should or should not write as criticism; what form it should take, what style. Haydon raises valid questions about the tyranny of habitual format and approach.

This was brought to my attention by Frank Wilson, who comments: How about nothing. . . . Shaw, Beerbohm, Agate—fine theater critics all—never went to any workshops. It is workshops—and journalism schools—that account for the mediocrity of so much that makes it into print these days. I tend to agree.

I wouldn't "teach" our young critics anything.

Rather, I would insist that they read the best published criticism they can find, and learn how to do it by example. That's the best way to learn how to write poetry, and it's also the best way to learn how to write poetry criticism. I would require young critics read a list of great critical writers, poet/critics, journalists, and authors.

A lot of criticism is rationalized justification of gut reactions; I would have these young critics read criticism by writers that do not try to conceal this in their own essays and reviews. I would require our young critics to write down their first responses to a given work of art, as well as the opinions they arrived at after some contemplation and reading. Enthusiasm is not a sin; neither is contemplation.

I would steer young critics away from ideological criticism, which tends to promote both bad writing (even if the ideology itself is sound) and lock-step (Us vs. Them) critical attitudes. Sometimes these can be fruitful discussions, but they are rarely great models for young critics to learn how to write, stuffed as they are with prescriptive criticism rather than descriptive. Ideological criticism can be very tempting to young critics, precisely because it seems to provide a complete set of answers and instructions for evaluating art. This is a brittle approach, however, that will inevitably fail when it encounters exceptional works that can't be explained under its rules. Deviations aren't really tolerated, and must be explained away. (Which shows how much ideological criticism shares the same psychology as religious fundamentalism.) Ideological criticism can, of course, provide an example of what not to do, so long as the young critic reads it from that perspective.

I went over to my own bookcases and pulled some examples, at semi-random, of what I feel is great critical writing, on numerous topics. I'm sure others can add to this list, or improve upon it. Students are not required to agree with every opinion they discover herein, but they can learn a great deal from reading these critics about how to write criticism.

Please note how diverse in style and approach many of these critics were and are to their subjects; there's an answer to be found therein to Andrew Haydon's concerns about the tyranny of the familiar format.

So, young critics, here's your reading list, in no particular order, to make of it what you will.

Conrad Aiken, Collected Criticism
Alistair Cooke, Six Men
Terry Teachout
Edwin Denby, the dance criticism
Robert Bly, American Poetry: Wildness & Domesticity (which really takes poetry MFA workshops to task, BTW) and Leaping Poetry
Jonathon Williams, The Magpie's Bagpipe
Hayden Carruth, Selected Essays and Reviews and Sitting In
Jim Harrison, Just Before Dark, notably the section titled "Literary Matters"
Clayton Eshleman, Companion Spider (essays)
Robert Peters, Hunting the Snark (a hilarious and nasty book of classifications and commentaries of American poetry at century's end)
Philip Larkin, Required Writing
Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows
William Stafford, You Must Revise Your Life
Thomas M. Disch, The Castle of Indolence
Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates (essays)
Richard Kostelanetz, John Cage (ex)plain(ed)
Marshall McLuhan & Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage (present on this list as media-savvy meta-criticism)
John Berger, Ways of Seeing (present for the same reasons as McLuhan & Fiore)
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Cezanne
Sam Hamill, A Poet's Work and Basho's Ghost
Noel Perrin, A Reader's Delight
William Maxwell, Outermost Dream
Eliot Weinberger, Outside Stories
Octavio Paz, one of the greatest critical essayists of the 20th C. on 20th C. art, poetry, and history; I recommend starting with The Other Voice or On Poets and Others

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