The primary aim of a review is to tell us whether a particular piece of fiction is worthy of our attention. The primary aim of criticism is to teach us to read. There is of course no sharp line between the two genres, and a single article can have both aims. But it is nonetheless a useful distinction to make.
criticism teaches us to read. How? By showing us good reading in action.
In the ideal case, we and the critic have both read the piece to be
discussed; but the critic has seen things we have not seen, has thought
about the piece in ways we have not thought, and has related the piece
to contexts that may not even have crossed our minds.
The point of this is not
that the critic has arrived at the correct interpretation of the work and will explain it to us. If the work is rich in meaning, many interpretations are possible, making it senseless to seek the correct one. If it is not, then the question of interpretation does not carry much weight.
The point is also not that the critic is able to give the correct judgement about the work's
value: whether it is good, and how good it is. No critic commands that much authority; and, what is more, such value judgments are ultimately of limited interest.
The point of criticism is that it increases our sophistication and our sensitivity. It shows us how to get much more out of this particular piece than we were able to get out of it by ourselves; and in doing so, it trains us to approach the next piece we read with just a little more understanding, a little more feeling, a little more openness to what is new and what defies easy categorisation.
One is tempted to say: it teaches us to be better people.
We may further distinguish between negative and positive criticism. Positive criticism enriches and strengthens the work it discusses; it make us admire and enjoy that work more than we formerly did. Negative criticism undermines and diminishes the work it discusses; it tears down the pleasing façade and shows us the shallowness and rot underneath.
Negative criticism may seem to serve vital political purposes. Perhaps it does; perhaps we really need to point out, again and again, the shallowness and rot in much popular culture. But I wonder. I wonder if the same purpose cannot be achieved, in a better and higher way, by the positive criticism of work that is good. One learns to hate coarseness not by being berated, but by tasting of tenderness.
An objection. It is important to identify and call out racist dog whistling in the discourse of real-life politicians; so how could it not be important to identify and call out hidden racism in, let us say, Shakespeare's The Tempest? But this is not important at all. If The Tempest has nothing interesting to say about racism, then we are wasting our time reading it with that particular topic in mind. Better approach the play from a direction that will allow it to shatter us with its aesthetic magnificence. And if it does have something interesting to say about racism, then we need to amplify and illuminate this message, thus turning to positive criticism.
I want to write positive criticism. If I write about a piece of interactive fiction, I want you to end up enjoying it more. I want to enrich you by letting the work enrich you more than it initially did. I want you to fall in love with what was new in it, and unexpected, and subtle, and true. I want you to want to go back and reread it immediately.
Rarely, if ever, do I live up to this exalted ideal.
But I'll keep striving.