This statement is not intended to stand for all time, which is to say that in my year as CIR, I hope that my understanding of criticism and its role will continue to evolve. Nor is it intended to reflect anything more than my own approach to the work of the critic. It’s a starting point for the year: a reminder to myself and a chance for CWILA members and others to learn a little about who is representing them in this capacity and why.
I find it helpful to think about criticism in terms of the writing it addresses. Most writing seeks to communicate in one way or another, whatever else it may do. I might not share my work, keeping it truly “for myself,” but even then it is a “communing” with myself—and with the world that the writing addresses. In any case, when it comes to criticism, we have in mind published work, which is work that puts itself into view of others.
To say that writing seeks to communicate is obviously not to say that there are specific messages it bundles up and delivers to readers in word-packages. As communication, it may be an invitation to stand in a strange place alongside the writer. And/or to perceive the world in some way. And/or to perceive language in some way. And/or to imagine something. But in each case, an invitation is part of the writing.
At root, the critic is someone who takes up that invitation, i.e. she is a reader. What does the critic do that other readers may not? She extends the invitation on to others. She asks others to consider the work, to notice certain things about how it works, to see what kind(s) of stance it takes, to take a moment to investigate it with her.
Does even a review that sees weaknesses in the writing extend this invitation? I hope that it can, at very least for the length of time that it takes to read the review. That’s why quoting is so important: it’s a chance for other readers to see if they hear what I hear in the quoted work, a chance for them to take up the invitation. And that’s part of why longer format reviews are necessary: among other things, critics serve readers best when they can quote enough passages to allow their readers to engage rather than just sit ringside at the critic’s performance.
This brings me to the question of whom exactly the critic serves—and that verb “serves” is important. To work as a critic is to be in service. I am not laying down the law but bringing a particular perspective to bear as I describe my engagement with the work in question. That perspective, even when evaluative, is an offering, not a decree. It’s partly because of the tradition of critic as authoritarian tastemaker or as literary enforcer that I’ve had ambivalent feelings about taking on the role of critic. But of course there’s no reason why criticism has to have that character, and I’m setting my sights elsewhere. So once again: who does the critic serve?
I see the critic as someone who serves both past readers of the work and its possible future readers, as well as the writer. In a sense the critic also serves the artwork in that she takes up its invitation, engages with it. But it’s the writer I’d like to focus on for a moment. Some people think that the critic is not there to serve the writer in any capacity. But given that the writer, if he reads a review of his work, will likely be more affected by it than anyone else, I think it behooves the reviewer to consider the effect she may have on him. Some think that the writer is best served in just the way that the reader is: by the critic’s truthful response. I agree. But there are different ways of telling the truth: it can be done indifferently, it can be done as a slap in the face, or it can be done kindly and with a—perhaps implicit—acknowledgement of the effort that every writer brings to their work. My experience is that the first two approaches can hamper or harm the writer and that the last one can help the writer to rise to the difficult occasion of public criticism. Not everyone thinks that truthfulness and kindness can coexist. Creating the space in which they can coexist is difficult, but I’ve seen it done. And I’m up for the challenge. It’s worth taking on.
That being said, I’m on board with Jan Zwicky when she says that given the tiny amount of cultural space devoted to criticism of poetry (which is my main focus), it makes more sense to fill it with reviews of books that one hopes to encourage readers to seek out rather than to present readers with the dead-ends that negative reviews generally are—‘dead-ends’ in the sense that the reader’s relationship with the book usually ends there, at the end of the review, rather than extending past the critic’s last word. As a reader, it’s what I’d ask of other critics if I could: if you don’t have enough room to tell me much, tell me what to seek out, not what to avoid.
I’m looking forward to my year as CIR for CWILA. Thanks to everyone who helped to create the position; I’m in your service as much as anyone’s.