Thoughts on criticism

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.

Good 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.


  1. This post is interesting, insightful, well written, and humble. I like your distinct definitions of reviews and criticism.

    But I disagree with your tenet that positive criticism is always more desirable than negative criticism. I think negative criticism is a necessary part of humanism and progress. We build our societies from stories, and these stories tend to reinforce each other, gelling into a stagnant culture.

    Positive criticism may certainly serve the critic well. As the old adage goes, if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all. Follow this path, and you will be perceived as nice and agreeable, and win friends and influence. If the Church says the sun spins around the Earth, shine your spotlight on the beauty of the theory, the symmetry, and its symbolic significance. If your neighbour waxes lyrical over the fine quality the silk that went into the Emperor's new clothes, let the story shatter you with its aesthetic magnificence, and add your own creative twist to reinforce it. Don't get hung up on accuracy.

    Meanwhile, someone else will take the role of Galileo or the child in H. C. Andersen's story, and offer a fresh perspective that, although perceived as negative, is necessary for progress. But that person will not be nearly as popular as you.

    As defined in this post, criticism (positive and negative) is something that, at the level of an individual work, "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 a wider perspective, "teaches us to read" and "increases our sophistication and our sensitivity". These are cumulative effects. When we observe a work from a new viewpoint, we end up with a more complete picture of it, and gain a deeper understanding. The more viewpoints the better. And that would seem to include negative viewpoints.

    If a work has undercurrents of racism or misogyny, doesn't that help us to see the work, its author, the author's culture and zeitgeist, in a new light? It may not be a favourable light, but that is irrelevant. And if we didn't notice the undercurrents ourselves, learning about them would add to our understanding of the work, and increase our sensitivity for similar patterns in other works.

    "Negative criticism undermines and diminishes the work it discusses; it tears down the pleasing façade and shows us the shallowness and rot underneath." Thereby, we learn something new about the work in question, about reading in general, and about ourselves. Negative criticism, like positive criticism, allows the work to enrich us more than it initially did.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Linus. I'd like to start by stressing that what I wrote is supposed to apply to literary criticism, not to criticism in general. In particular, in fields where people discuss the truth of theories -- philosophy, science, and so on -- an entirely different kind of criticism takes place and none of what I said applies to it. So when we're talking about geocentric astronomy or a weird conspiracy theory peddled by the president of the USA, I do not council taking up a positive stance! So I agree with the first half of your post, but don't think it really relates to what I was trying to say.

      (To be sure, the geocentric / heliocentric controversy was a subtle affair that cannot be reduced to a fight between those who loved the truth and those who wanted to ingratiate themselves to the powers that were. Contemporary conspiracy theories... not so much.)

      In the second half of your post, you do talk about the kind of negative criticism I too was discussing. And nothing you say is wrong, per se. But I'm becoming more and more convinced that if you want to illuminate, say, racism, it is more useful to perform positive criticism à propos a work that gives an enlightening picture of racism, than the perform negative criticism à propos a work that is itself racist.

      Perhaps I am wrong. I certainly can't prove my point!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Keeping the narrative pressure on

Thoughts on a Trollbabe session