Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

More on Critique

A response to comments by Abigail Nussbaum and Matt Cheney on the previous post, brought up-front cause it grew stupidly long.

Abigail: We're coming at the term authority from subtly different angles here, I think. Those are both good points, but...

OK, first point first. Actually, I don't doubt that defensiveness is often the motivation when this charge is leveled. It should probably be the first question asked: are you just throwing a strop because I've insulted your precious whatever? But the motivation of the utterance doesn't affect its truth-value. And that motivation should not be assumed. What if I assert this of a negative review where I essentially agree with the substance of the charges? I might well share the reviewer’s standards myself and therefore find the work not to my taste, but what if I’m capable of seeing its values through the lens of different standards, the standards it sets for itself? If I can see that the features the reviewer and myself find anathema are patently virtues in a work of that genre-form? What if I consider an equally negative review competely valid because I see it as a conscious compatibility assessment? Maybe it’s because I’m coming from nigh-on 20 years of workshopping, but I believe pretty firmly in critiquing a dyed-in-the-wool Epic Fantasy novel as to how well it works on that basis rather than on the basis of what one would really rather be reading; and I’ve seen first-hand the difference between those who struggle to do this and admit the contingency of their judgement even when they can’t get past it, and those who simply assert conclusively that the work has X, Y and Z “problems” that make it a failure. It is, I think, a valid question to ask: is this review’s profound negativity a conclusive judgement born of such prescriptivism?

How often is it a valid question? Is it suspicious that we don’t see the charge levelled against positive reviews. My sense is that prescriptivism is far more often condemnatory than it is celebratory. It comes into effect when the rules it sets are transgressed rather than when they’re being followed. So it might be natural to see this more with negative reviews than positive, I think, but I’m not sure it’s actually even that strong a division in practice.

In challenging a negative review, both standards and competence of analysis will be called into question, but more weight might be placed on standards because the positive reading is assumed to be legitimate by the reader. A negative review does call into question that reader’s own standards and competence of analysis — hence the possibility (even probability) of a defensive reaction — but assuming the advocate of a work is both competent and confident of these, the negativity of the review begs the question: if a positive reading can be achieved by this set of standards, isn’t the negative reading the result of either incompetent analysis or applying standards that are … legitimate but inappropriate?

Fools and boors will, and do, jump to the “you just don’t know what you’re talking about” argument, but you don’t have to be a genius to know where that leads. You can assume incompetent analysis but address it indirectly, by offering an alternative one — lay out your own argument in an attempt to persuade your opponent that a positive review is valid — but the argument will only be, at the end of the day, a tennis match of point-scoring, and what’s the use if the reviewer doesn’t “get it” even when it’s spelled out at the length of a novel? They’ve demonstrated that they can’t follow the complexities you’re going to crudely summarise at best. Still, this is also a regular form of challenge.

Now, if you assume competence of analysis, you have to assume it’s the standards that are the problem. No point in a tennis-match here; any points you make will ring hollow for someone who doesn’t accept the premises they’re based on. They’re playing a different game; they won’t recognise them as points. It’s futile playing by their rules, trying to argue, feature by feature, that Gattaca works as a Hollywood blockbuster, say. When the negative review is that it doesn’t, clearly you have to address the root of the issue. This is a matter of the reviewer refusing to allow for taste, refusing to accept the validity of a work that caters to tastes other than their own. Such personal judgement is, of course, entirely fair in a conscious compatibility assessment, but a blank dismissal on such terms can only look presumptuous without caveats. The more obvious it is to the readership that other standards might be applied to better effect, the more the absence of such caveats, of even the remotest consideration of those standards, imparts an air of prescriptivism — a sense that the dismissal is to be taken as conclusive because no other view is worth considering.

At this point, one has to assert the legitimacy of another set of standards. This is, by definition, a challenge to the authority of the reviewer — not the legitimacy of their standards, but to their inappropriate imposition of their own tastes in lieu of a critical consideration on what makes a book work or fail. The problem is, in a context where equally legitimate standards render a positive reading, not applying such standards implies a rejection of their legitimacy which is an assumption of authority.

Actually I can probably answer your second point here quickly. I don’t think the act of reviewing implies that one’s beliefs are authoritative, only that they’re legitimate. That justification, the “persuasive, well-rounded argument” is necessary precisely because the legitimacy must be established. The reviewer may consider themselves an expert, may be considered an expert by others. Their expertise alone may add no small amount of legitimacy. The reviewer can be assumed to consider their own views completely legitimate. But this is not the same thing as assuming authority — power, jurisdiction, command, control, charge, dominance, rule, sovereignty, supremacy, influence, to quote from the handiest thesaurus entry. Assuming authority is assuming that one’s own convictions have precedence within the discourse, that they are more legitimate than others. The accusation is not simply that the reviewer thinks highly of their own opinion and will hold to it in the face of opposition. The accusation is that they disregard the legitimacy of contrary opinion on the principle that judgement is their prerogative alone, that they are asserting a privileged status, expecting it to be recognised. If the author is dead, the critic has no claim to the throne.

It’s actually quite common to see this rejection of legitimacy articulated in reviews explicitly or implicitly. And in the field of strange fictions where there are so many works of so many different types, each inviting us to read it by sometimes radically different standards, there are a lot of readers of wildly eclectic tastes. Indidivdual readers who appreciate works of utterly different aesthetics, applying the appropriate set(s) of standards to each work as it comes, and expecting the same flexibility of their reviewers. That’s more readers likely to recognise inflexibility when they see it, and more likely to call the reviewer on their prescriptivism. Yes, many such charges will be defensive reactions, but reviewers who are inspiring them would be wise not to dismiss them out of hand. Not if they want to be good critics.

In challenging a positive review, both standards and competence of analysis will be called into question, but more weight is likely to be placed on the latter. A positive review similarly calls into question our own standards and competence of analysis if we disagree with it, but if we assume that positive reading is due to the reader accepting a different set of standards, we have two choices. We either accept those standards as legitimate or we reason that they’re illegitimate.

First case scenario: We accept the reviewer’s standards are a valid approach. We can still assert the legitimacy of our own standards, our own right to not enjoy a work. As long as each accepts the other’s viewpoint as legitimate, there’s simply no argument. Hell, if you are working on that basis, why would you assume the reviewer isn’t? For this to be an issue, the positive review would have to be explicitly rejecting dissent, asserting that there’s no way you can not like the work simply because it’s not to your taste. Even the most hyperbolic claims in reviews generally just assert the impossibility of not liking a book — which is not the same thing. Those hyperbolic positive reviews are most commonly formulated to address competence of analysis explicitly, to assert that you’d have to be crazy not to like this work. Any fool can see it’s a work of genius. Assuming that the reader is applying the same standards, (because they led to a positive reading and are therefore self-evidently appropriate,) what the reviewer is likely to make grand proclamations about is the end result of any contrary analysis. This, then, is the grounds that they will most often be met on, with a contrary analysis aimed at demonstrating how one can reach a different end result. You can’t not think Battlestar Galactica is the best sci fi series ever, they say. Yes, I can, you say. Here’s why.

(The nearest I’ve seen to a truly prescriptive positive review in terms of legitimacy is in the attitude of a few Smiths fans I know — close friends and lovely people in all other respects but insufferable in their refusal to countenance my hatred of the band. Understand, I have Smiths albums on my iTunes, and will happily play multiple tracks in a row if requested at parties, suffering in silence all the way through. I gave up complaining long ago. But this is not good enough for the true Smiths fan. It’s not good enough that I don’t challenge the legitimacy of their appreciation, am happy to accommodate their tastes despite not sharing them. Oh no. How can you not like them? they’ll ask. Morrisey’s voice annoys me, I’ll say. It has a nasal quality I find unbearable, a sort of goose-like honking tone to it. They cannot simply accept the legitimacy of this. No, what they will do is play “This Charming Man” again and again and again, in an attempt to convince me of the wonder that is The Smiths. But listen, they say. How can you not like it? As if on the hundredth play I’m suddenly going to not hear that tone. I can’t think when I’ve ever seen that sort of prescriptivism in a positive book review. Thankfully.)

Given the validation of their own positive response the reviewer has little reason to consider the legitimacy of other sets of standards. Applying this set of standards led to a positive reading, so it’s self-evident that they’re appropriate to the work, the standards the work wants to be held to. Unless there’s some misrepresentation circulating, it seems a fair assumption that a reader will similarly approach the work on its own terms — rather than, say, expecting Gattaca to have the spectaculism of an SFX blockbuster. The reviewer isn’t expected to take account of the possibility that readers will apply any one of an infinite number of arbitrary standards, every possibe set of expectations, however bizzare. Where you do see an injunction that one must not approach a work with the “wrong” standards, this is usually pragmatic, a warning or corrective to a real possibility of misapprehension. The directive won’t take the form “you’re not allowed to dislike this book as a matter of taste” but rather “don’t go expecting Total Recall,” which is not going to be seen as assuming authority; it’s going to be seen as communicating what the work or its author requires of the reader.

There are times when that sort of injunction is dubious, when “don’t go expecting War and Peace” translates as “don’t apply all those fancy-schmancy, hoity-toity, literary values, smarty-pants; just enjoy it”, and many of us may be inclined to baulk at the rampant anti-intellectualism, the bullshit excusing of what is Just Plain Bad. Here you do see people taking issue with the assumption of authority. But since the philistine reviewer situates their authority in the fact that the work will function at the basest level for those who are willing to take it that way, and is asserting that this is the way it’s “meant” to be taken, the complainant’s rejection of those will likely take the form of a rebuttal of this Populist directly. That sort of reviewer invariably appeals to the authority of the mob, of the dollar, so it’s that bogus authority the complainant will reject.

This brings us to the second case scenario though, where the reader reasons that the reviewer’s standards are illegitimate. It’s almost impossible, when faced with philistine anti-intellectualism, not to adopt the opposite extreme, insisting that there are basic standards of quality that are just… objective measures. That no matter how enjoyable something is in a “brain out, sponge in” sort of way, it is still Just Plain Bad. This is Just Plain Bad prose. This is Just Plain Bad characterisation. This is Just Plain Bad plotting. This is Just Plain Bad worldbuilding. It is being excused by some readers who are happy to be told a “good story”. Hell, even a Just Plain Bad story may be, as far as we’re concerned, being excused for the sake of eyeball-kicks. Thing is, if this is our position, we’re hardly entitled to gripe about the reviewer assuming authority. We are ourselves rejecting the legitimacy of their standards. If anyone is assuming authority, it’s us.

With all that in mind, I think it makes sense that you’d see more accusations of assumption of authority in response to negative reviews that you do to positive ones. Even aside from the obvious possibility that many of those accusations are motivated by defensiveness, I think it’s likely to pan out like that.

And while I’m on the question of basic standards of quality, this sort of segues into an answer to Matt, because I know there’s a degree to which I can’t help but see certain basic standards as technical rather than aesthetic issues, matters of craft rather than art, qualities which can be judged objectively… mostly… sort of. Matt has a good point about my critique of Battlestar Galactica, about the possibility that my aesthetics is inappropriate. Maybe it is too exacting. Maybe I was expecting too much. In the same way that I’d argue I Am Legend doesn’t automatically fail as a Hollywood blockbuster because of the “Hand of God” ending, couldn’t the case be made that the deus ex machina ending Battlestar Galactica is acceptable in the basic CTVSeries class, that all the cop-outs I hated were not actually Just Plain Bad. If the positive reviewer loved it because they applied standards in which Moore’s distraction tactics (quick! chuck a grenade at Adama!) are acceptable, where do I get off saying that’s not legitimate? Surely, I’m not being sympathetic, so I’m just pontificating about How Art Should Be. All I need is to make that gear shift.

I could make an argument that I’m applying technical standards of quality that are actually about creating a functional narrative, probably with some sort of reference to a Todorovian equilibrium model. I could argue that Moore flouts these with his cop-outs, the deus ex machina, the expediently inconsistent behaviour of characters like Starbuck and Tigh, that the result may be serviceable but it is still Just Plain Bad in terms of craft, like bad code that runs but is ridden with bugs. Like a program that only doesn’t crash if the user doesn’t do any number of things — things that any user would expect to be able to do. My instinct is that narrative dynamics can be evaluated on those terms, that it may be too complex a system to be as objective about as program code, but that a work can be deemed technically dysfunctional, badly crafted. It is an empirical claim; it’s just that the judgement is highly subjective, based on informal testing. It’s not conclusive, not authoritative, but it is a legitimate contention. This is, however, as I say, my instinct. Without a well-formed theory of narrative dynamics to back it up (hell, even with that theory,) all such judgements require to have their contingency recognised. To me this could be a sympathetic aesthetics that would lead to a different evaluation. If recognised as theoretical, you could say the danger is you’ve got pontificating blather even then — on How Narrative Works (I Think).

This is actually why I say in that post that my critique may well drop down to the lower levels because of “other features”. Those elements of the critique could easily be considered mere conventional standards. If the deus ex machina worked for Euripedes, why shouldn’t Ron Moore be entitled to pull the same rabbit out of the hat? On that basis, I can at best be said to be applying conventional standards that are relevant — writing a conventional review. By buying into those conventional standards am I guilty of pontificating blather on How Art Should Be? Sure. I’m judging a work by an aesthetics of assumed functionality, standards of operational integrity. They seem pretty relevant though. We’re not in Ancient Greece. In the context of the here and now, the context of the medium, the form, the genre, such basic standards are pertinent. Doesn’t mean they’re right, just that this sort of reading is legitimate and practical. I think what I’d aiming for here

In an evaluative critique, I might make a case that Moore consistently signals that we are indeed meant to apply such parameters, to view it not just as narrative but as a well-made story by the contemporary standards of televisual drama structured into episodes and story-arcs. I might argue that he sets his own standards as “telling a traditional story” and then fails to meet them with the deus ex machina. You can never “tell”, but I think the craft is sufficiently open to informal description that one can make that sort of case. The problem would not be that the deus ex machina is Just Plain Bad, but that it doesn’t carry out the structural function it’s intended to. I would have to consider the option that the narrative structure was intentionally ruptured though, that he was actually being boldly experimental. We’re inheriting the pontificating blather on How Narrative Works (I Think) so we have to allow for the possibility of being wrong. We could be mistaking raw narrative for polished story. Narrative is, I think, a much wilder creature than the domesticated story.

And ultimately I would probably note that Moore utilises compensatory strategies, patches that make it all hang together if you watch it on a non-critical level. I would have to recognise that as legitimate, this ad hoc construction of narrative that we can view as a bad story, a good story or as an artifact that just is. I’d want to, in fact, for what it tells us about how low-level narrative dynamics works in relation to the epiphenomenon of plot, how much it’s the dynamics we want. At the end of the day, in a quality judgement I’d be more likely to focus on the thematic prevarications and sleight-of-hand, since “asking the hard questions” is a clearly-stated aim that was, I think, demonstrably not followed through on. I’d be more likely to ground it in ethical critique of the subtext, to address the mixed signals of liberalism and conservatism throughout, the reactionary undercurrent that culminated in the “God did it” ending rather than criticise it as broken narrative in and of itself — i.e. applying values of story that assume architectural integrity. It would be less about whether it works and more about how it works.

As it is, enough of the points I make are based on relevant conventions that I’d make no claim for it as anything higher than a critical review. In so far as my spidey-sense kicks in as a writer, in fact, in places that maybe the majority of viewers would have no problem, you could well argue I’m just carrying out a compatibility assessment. There’s certainly a fair amount of grumbling in that critique about How It Could Have Been… which carries more than a hint of “Should”.


Blogger Abigail Nussbaum said...

If I take your meaning, then the authority you're talking about here isn't the authority to decide what is good and bad, but the authority to claim that one's own standards of good and bad are universal, or simply better than others'. I have to say, I don't think this is the sense in which most of the people who lob the authority grenade at reviewers use it.

But that point aside, I'm still not clear on how an authoritative review would differ from a non-authoritative one (this is the point where I'd benefit from specific examples, I think). Every review starts with underlying assumptions about what constitutes a good or bad work, and to my mind a reviewer best serves their readers by stating those assumptions as explicitly as possible. I'm not sure how one would go about doing that without implicitly claiming legitimacy, or even universal legitimacy, for those assumptions, unless what you're calling for is a sort of Your Mileage May Vary boilerplate. But that strikes me as a question of niceness and civility, and not that I don't consider either one important, but they don't seem to justify distinguishing, as you did in your previous post, between different types of reviewing according to whether they claim authority.

Which is not to say that I haven't encountered reviews in which the claim of legitimacy for the reviewers' standards and assumptions has struck me as ridiculous. I'm thinking, in particular, of the Guardian's review of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, whose author claimed that the book failed as alternate history because, as everybody knows, an alternate history must deviate from real history in one and only one point, whereas TYPU deviated in several. But by making that determination, aren't I simply claiming authority for my own standards? And if so, is that a bad thing? If I write a review of an epic fantasy novel as someone who doesn't really care for epic fantasy and is looking to see whether this particular novel is significantly better and/or different from most epic fantasy novels, and thus worth reading even by those who don't care for epic fantasy, am I not serving the community of like-minded readers? So long as I state my assumptions clearly, what is the harm in claiming authority for them (besides, obviously, making myself look silly a la the above-mentioned Guardian reviewer)? Isn't it up to the reader to grant or refuse that authority?

9:40 am  
Blogger neil williamson said...

>The Smiths.


Usually my response to Smiths fans is that I grew to appreciate Marr's guitar work. And to be truthful I actually quite enjoyed Morrisey's solo stuff because his voiced had mellowed somewhat with age. But I hated them when they first came on the scene.

Oddly enough though people seem to have a similar reaction to Tom Waits' voice.

But to make an actual pertinent comment, I've always found music reviewing to be much more guilty of this than the literary variety. In fact to be honest in some venues the (shouty, name-cally) disagreement over standards is all part of the game.

10:42 am  
Blogger S Johnson said...

Trying to assess a work's success in fulfilling its aims sounds perfect, but there are a number of problems.

First, barring the reviews of manuscripts passed to you by the author, there is always the commercial intent of selling the fiction. That boils down to to whether the fiction in question is entertaining. Given the variety of what's entertaining, from prostitutes to roller coasters to a humdinger of a church revival service, that doesn't give much guidance.

Second, the question of intent is difficult to discern. Even in something as formal as poetry, it can be difficult to decide whether this imperfection in the scansion is deliberate variety meant to relieve rigidity? Or is it a failure in poetic technique?

Third, any criticism worthy of the name must assess the value of the project. Most criticisms tacitly assume the value of the mystery or the horror novel or whatever. Social or political aspects are usually not discussed, which means they default to the norm. In something like science fiction, which is not a genre (in any usefully limited meaning of the term, at least) both the value of science fiction as such and the social/political values of such fiction are at issue. Anything other than the default is contentious in itself, and will be widely rejected.

In other words, this bitching about criticism is a lot like a critic who despises science fiction as such reviewing a science fiction work.

4:59 pm  
Blogger Karen Burnham said...

This may be the shallowest of all possible readings, but does this post boil down to: "reviewers shouldn't be arrogant bastards"? If so, amen!

More seriously, is the problem here one of tone instead of content?

10:50 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Karen: Heh, assumption of authority probably *implies* arrogance at least. But ultimately it's about a prescriptivism that's neither tone nor content, I think, but... to do with social dynamics. Not just an imperious tone. Not just absolute contentions. But a sort of strategy of acquiring privilege. It looks like I have another post coming on this shortly.

S Johnson: First point: I don't know. Are the prostitutes sexy? Is the rollercoaster thrilling? Is the church revival service uplifting? If you look at a work and ask what the *mechanisms* of entertainment are in it, I think that's a pretty good start point.

Second point: I absolutely agree. I think intent is largely (maybe totally?) projection, assumption. The author is dead, as Bartes said. I don't think it's entirely impossible, but I don't think it's that important either. You can look at aims in terms of expectations that the text creates as it goes along, objectives it implicitly sets up in the narrative dynamics. There is no certainty though.

Third: Assessing the value of the project in socio-political terms seems to me to be what I'm talking about at the ethical critique level. There's no reason for features of high-level critique not to inform the lower-levels, I'd say, for sf criticism to address "both the value of science fiction as such and the social/political values of such fiction".

Neil: I sometimes wonder if there's a tone in his voice that only some of us can hear, a strange frequency perhaps. Maybe those who can't hear Morrisey's tone can hear the Tom Waits fequency instead.

Abigail: I've got another post coming shortly as a response. Tis a meaty comment to respond to.

6:02 am  
Blogger S Johnson said...

Expanding on my first point about the wide variety in what's regarded as entertainment, that raises two difficulties in particular for critical writing. The reviewer can't answer the simple question of what's entertaining for the reader of the review, yet that's what he or she is supposed to do. In depth analysis may be appreciated by some review readers or even by the author, but criticism for the sake of understanding is rarely published in mass media or stocked in public libraries. Try finding a copy of Cawelti's Structural Fiction! The critic's practical function is to guess the popular judgment.

The other difficulty, which bears directly on Ms Burnham's generous thoughts, is that a review should itself be entertaining. Which means that snark and flattering the reader (is that redundant?) and special pleading to political prejudices and conventional thinking are a necessary part of the critical enterprise.

Expecting criticism to operate on a higher level is to assume a privileged position, just as the critic sometimes assumes a privileged position. The substantive the criticism, the greater the arrogance.

The "value of science fiction" means, "Why all this weird stuff?" by the way.

2:03 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

The critic's practical function is to guess the popular judgment.

Or you could say that the critical reviewer "applies conventional or personal standards of quality where relevant, but with the approximate objectivity of acknowledged subjectivity." No?

And if "a review should itself be entertaining", given the "wide variety in what's regarded as entertainment", can we really be sure that "snark and flattering the reader (is that redundant?) and special pleading to political prejudices and conventional thinking are a necessary part of the critical enterprise"? A necessary part?

I’m simply asserting that these features are optional, offering a theoretical model of modes of critique based on that optionality. I don't deny they can be entertaining. In fact, I explicitly state that they can be: "Confidence is all well and good, and the cockiness of a reviewer who can leaven their absolutism with wit can be entertaining". I do think "the saturation of a review with obdurate conviction often renders it simply obnoxious and obtuse", but the distinction of the conclusive review is based on assumed objectivity — not snark but prescriptivism. Snark may mask prescriptivism but a conventional review may be deliciously snarky and still be working "with the subjectivity unacknowledged, an unspoken assumption".

Do I reject this as valid? No: "While it could be seen as a “lesser” form of critique in one respect, the shift from abstraction to pragmatism at this level is a repurposing that makes this valid in an entirely different way. Even the humble capsule review serves an honest function."

Am I “expecting criticism to operate on a higher level”? Nope. I'm expecting higher level criticism to operate on a higher level. For values of "higher level" defined by the absence of optional features. You can apply different criteria, as I explicitly state: "In the hierarchic arrangement of levels it should be noted however, I’m making no allowances for depth of critique. Pure critique may be glib and superficial. A conclusive review may go into substantial detail and therefore achieve a “higher” level in a different sense entirely. These “levels” could in fact be refigurated as concentric zones, one as the outermost zone, six as the innermost."

Hand’s review of the Twilight book is offered as an example of a work that achieves a “higher” level in my schema because of the zone it’s situated in — as a critical review. It’s short and sweet, doesn’t go into much substantive detail. Without having read Breaking Dawn, I get the impression it wouldn’t be hard to tear it apart in a detailed dissection of precisely how the plotting is “leaden”, the prose rarely more than “serviceable”. I’m just pointing to the value I see in what Hand does instead.

Granted, if one is proud of one’s substantive conventional/conclusive reviews, one might want to claim that label “critical review” for work that’s more in-depth. By all means do so. I’ll happily rename that mode to something like “contextual review” or “contingent review”. I just don’t consider “critical review” an apt name for that approach; it seems like claiming a poem is a “prose poem” just because it’s book length. I mean, my definition is far less formal and rigid than the sort of academic “critical review” defined here:

But I’d map the idea that this sort of critique “requires an understanding of not just the content of the text, but also an understanding of a text’s purpose, the intended audience and why it is structured the way it is” to my criteria that an evaluation whch disregards such matters to assess the work’s compatibility with a set purpose, a set audience and/or a set structure is a different type of creature entirely — a conventional review.

10:02 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

Struggling to figure exactly why your views seems so close to right (which means, as we all know, similar to mine,) yet not quite right (as we all also know, not identical to mine,) it occurs to me that the word criticism carries meanings for me that it may not have for you. I have some background in history. Criticism of sources is the first step in scientific history. Please forget bugaboos about how scientific history must be like ballistics or it's not scientific.

You have a very interesting taxonomy of criticism which upon reflection seems to mean something very different. For example, you abstract from what you call depth of criticism. Given my history-conditioned understanding, that basically abstracting the criticism (and prescriptivism, but more of that anon.)

It appears what you mean by "criticism" is analysis. As near as I can tell a statistical study of word usage or a psychology lab experiment in pupil dilation upon seeing four letter words would hit your concentric levels of criticism square in the bullseye. That strikes me as nonsense and may you, too, but I don't see how you would rule such out.

On the other hand, it seems understanding, which to me is the criticizing, has no role in criticism! Someone might think that Wells' Invisible Man is a fantasy when you find out that Wells knew perfectly well that the invisible man could not see with invisible eyes, misses the thematic point that, besides being an adventure story about the threat of a supervillain, there are no real magic powers, that everything is still part of the natural world, most decidedly not a theme of fantasy. Or a BattleStar Galactica reviewer might deny that the series began as a reaction to 9/11 and that the Cylons are analogue to Muslims. You might agree that such ideas are completely uncritical, or not. But I don't see how by your criteria they couldn't qualify as criticism.

The other thing that I'm not getting is the dread of prescriptivism, which really comes across as a determination to declare someone who has the temerity to think they have some objective standards or knowledge is offensive. Since the bulk of criticism are reviews, which presuppose "vox populi, vox dei" (with Jesuitical mental reservations who the "populi" really are!) you will inevitably get flattery of the reader, snark and default to prejudices.

Your caveat as to calling it "necessary" instead of inevitable hits home. But the only way to get rid of such is to prescribe certain kinds of discourse as proper criticism, while the other kinds are not. But since prescriptivism is not for whatever reason acceptable, how can you do that?

The whole controversy seems to have arisen because authors want to take themselves as the audience but are outraged that they are not being flattered (all the time.)

6:29 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

The omitted portion of the last sentence of the second paragraph is "means inadvertently changing the subject.

Obviously, I am typing over my head!

6:32 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

As near as I can tell a statistical study of word usage or a psychology lab experiment in pupil dilation upon seeing four letter words would hit your concentric levels of criticism square in the bullseye.

You’ve got my concentric zones inside-out, I think. I characterised them with pure critique as the outermost, conclusive review as the innermost. The reason for that — perhaps not articulated fully — was that the circles that demarcate them should be understood as limits of inclusion.

Anyway, pure critique — a theoretical study of a genre or literary modes, Todorov’s The Fantastic or Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy — is more than just measurement, of course. That sort of analysis is absent… something that would probably make me class it as outside even the zone of pure critique. But “understanding” is too fuzzy a term for it. Critique is speculative, creative, philosophy rather than science, I’d say.

(It’s theory, abstraction. It’s also, of course, subjective because of this and so could, strictly speaking, be considered to be inevitably failing to be what it sets out to be, always filterd by prejudices and presumptions. I think we can suspend the (post)Modernist surrenderism long enough to at least treat it as an enterprise.)

So the levels can be seen as additive:

0. Analysis
1. Pure critique: Analysis + Abstraction
2. Ethical critique: Analysis + Abstraction + Ethical interrogation of aims
3. Evaluative critique: Analysis + Abstraction + Ethical interrogation of aims + Evaluation of achievement
4. Critical review: Analysis + Abstraction + Ethical interrogation of aims + Evaluation of achievement + Application of relevant standards
5. Conventional review: Analysis + Abstraction + Ethical interrogation of aims + Evaluation of achievement + Application of relevant standards + Application of set standards
6. Conclusive review: Analysis + Abstraction + Ethical interrogation of aims + Evaluation of achievement + Application of relevant standards + Application of set standards + Prescriptivism

All of the above, except the last, can be done with an awareness that the enterprise is subjective.

2:35 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

But the only way to get rid of such is to prescribe certain kinds of discourse as proper criticism, while the other kinds are not.

I just disagree. We distinguish between prescription and description for a reason: they’re different things. You can describe grammar without being prescriptive. You can describe the theoretical narrative grammars of genres without being prescriptive.

Apply this down the levels. You can describe the potential purposes and imports of specific articulations, again without being prescriptive. You can describe the relationship between those purposes and the imports of a specific articulation, with a particular view towards how well they seem compatible with each other, with specific reference to the substance of the articulation, again with prescriptivism. You can describe all that and how well it might or might not match conventional standards that are relevant for consideration for this specific articulation, again without prescriptivism. You can describe all that and how well it might or might not match personal or conventional standards that you consider generally relevant, again without prescriptivism. You can describe all that and how well it does or does not match personal or conventional standards that you refuse to even consider might not be applicable, because you hold them to be laws by which all articulations must abide in order to be good.

The last of these is prescriptivism.

Can you read a sentence fragment, at the end of a long paragraph of grammatically correct sentences — a clause that’s been orphaned from the sentence it should be in, because the writer wants it to hit home — and judge that paragraph to be good prose, good writing, regardless of its breach of the “rules” of grammar? Can you judge it to be good prose, good writing, in fact, precisely because it puposely breaches the “rules” of grammar in an effective way, with an appreciable import? Assuming it is actually effective, that is? Can you describe that, how the writing slowly built up its description, or its action, or its suspense, or its sensuality, or whatever, and then concisely, perfectly, rammed the point home, or pulled the rug out from under you, or cut you to the quick, with that little broken shard of sense? Can you do that rather than saying, “This doesn’t work as a sentence; this prose is bad”? I’d be willing to bet you can.

All I’m talking about is that scaled up.

2:36 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

The other thing that I'm not getting is the dread of prescriptivism, which really comes across as a determination to declare someone who has the temerity to think they have some objective standards or knowledge is offensive.

No, I'm just challenging the quality of their critique on a scale orthogonal to level of argumentation.

Think of it this way: a good copy-editor working on a novel written in Scots dialect can apply prescriptivism and correct it into Standard English. They can be utterly thorough, go through the text with a fine-tooth comb, changing every "Gonnae naw dae that!" to "Going to not do that?" And so on.

Or they can do a good job.

The critic's relationship to a text is quite different, (different even according to what level they're approaching the text on,) but the ability to do a "good job" of critique is often comparably hampered by comparable prescriptivism.

3:17 am  
Blogger S Johnson said...

A doctor's prescription may be not just to take this medicine but to not do certain things. Forbidding the critic to prescribe is itself a prescription. Such a paradox suggests some confusion.

It seems to have something to do with the critic refusing to consider exceptions to universal laws. On the one hand, it is hard to see how an author knows the critic has failed to do his or her prescribed critical duty to make this considerations any more clearly than a critic knows that an author has failed to achieved his intention.

On the other hand, it is hard to see that such prescriptivism is "often" a problem. The copy editor and even Dr. Johnson are doing something besides criticism and have a genuine power to prescribe. Even the shallowest reviewers has no such power. And even the shallowest reader is easily able to read the critique/review critically, i.e., reject it.

Trying to conceive analysis as the most inclusive, as opposed to the narrowness of that nasty prescriptivism, means that analysis has to be the outermost circle. Unfortunately, the outermost circle includes the inner circles, including the awful prescriptivist review.

Perhaps some criticism is objectively worse than other criticism, because it exhibits a genuinely uncritical treatment of its material, i.e., not correctly assessing the value. Perhaps if the concept of correctness is excluded as prescriptivist is excluded, it is not possible to say anything coherent about criticism?

4:18 am  

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