Thursday, 1 May 2014


A while ago I posed a question on Twitter:

“Should critics send their reviews to their subjects for feedback before publishing?

The resounding answer was a very loud and decisive “no”. I worry that this was simply because I did not explain that I had read an essay on the subject and wanted their opinion, perhaps some were trying to stop me committing professional suicide. The essay in question ‘The only author’ was by Ursula le Guine in her collection of essays ‘Dancing on the edge of the World’. Her arguments were ultimately flawed but the reason I was intrigued was she maintained that this used to be common practice between artists and critics. I find that very difficult to believe, it seems like such a counter-intuitive move. To place an objective, outsider view before someone who could never be objective or more of an insider.

If we look at literature for a little bit, literary theory has long since dismissed the writer. What the writer means does not matter, the reading is the only thing that matters. But of course, you could be an idiot critic with a grudge on a bad day and not be objective, in which case, such a practice of sending your review or opinions to a writer before you hypothesise on them could stop needless slander or hatchet jobs. But if we pretend all critics are level-headed and relatively well educated we could dismiss the rigmarole of bothering a writer.

Hemmingway famously never offered any notes on his own writing, preferring to leave such stuff to the audience. Few writers take that tack today, with most promoting their work with lengthy and in depth interviews, articles and appearances on morning telly. Has the interview done away with the need to send a review then? We have space for a dialogue between critic and artist. I suppose the problem I have with this is that I find the interview far more interesting than the review. The review exists alone in a vacuum, un-naturally, with critics proposing possibilities of meaning, often talking as if the artist is dead “Perhaps this is a reference to…” they pontificate. Send him an email? Even if you disagree with the answer, even if you’re reading is different “He says it means x but actually I see y” is far more interesting than a séance that no one turns up to.

I’m interested in criticism for a lot of reasons, one is because in some form or another I long to teach people about my craft, and teachers are often the worst critics. They point out errors with unnerving accuracy and can usually see through bullshit at a hundred yards. Yet some go too far, rather than pointing out a problem to a student they often offer up suggestions to improve it, and this is where I part ways with most critics as well. Usually when a critic suggest a different approach for an artist I have to fight back the urge to roll my eyes. By all means, tell me why you think the plot doesn’t work, why the sculpture is unappealing or the soundtrack ruins the movie. Don’t enter some sort of make believe world where your choices can be more valid than the artist. And I’m talking to you teachers, for heavens sake don’t tell a student what can improve their work (even is we all know it would). Most art students have issues reguarding their ego and want to have full ownership of their work, you telling them how to improve their work is a sure fire way to ensure they don’t do that, ask them the questions that will get them there on their own.

Le Guine referenced a critic who had started the process of sending their reviews to their subject before publication and her feedback was that it made the whole thing more considered and accurate. While I don’t think reviewers need do this the whole time, I think both of these qualities should always be at the front of a critics mind when they write an article about someone, its their responsibility. Criticism helps everyone, discussing art is the surest way to promote it, and sometimes can help more thoughtful experiences from an audience and on rare occasions even help an artist understand how their work is received.  

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