The Basic Unit of All Criticism

Today I was going to write about Daniyal Mueenuddin’s short story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, but then I left the house without the book in my bag. So I’m going to air my private views about critical writing instead. All the discussion in the comments on the Starting Magazines post got me to thinking about critical writing and what I hope from it at its best.

I think the basic unit of all criticism is description-reflection: that is, a movement from describing something about an artifact to expressing a thought inspired by that something. Unless I find at least one instance of this movement, I have trouble considering a text critical writing. The best criticism is woven from multiple instances of the movement, combined and arranged to entertain, instruct, and edify.

Here’s a very basic example:

One of my favorite paintings, held in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, is Oskar Kokoschka’s “Two Nudes (Lovers)” (1913). It shows a naked man and woman standing together, holding each other, looking anxious, in the midst of what appears to be a twilit jungle. I can’t contemplate it without being reminded of paintings of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But unlike most of those paintings, the garden around these two figures is poisonous and terrible, not a paradise they are cursed to leave. Mostly this is because it’s painted in Kokoschka’s favorite palette, purple and green, the rainbow of a bruise spread across the face of a whole landscape. Looking at this painting, I see a world where the anxiety in the faces of the couple is not the result of punishment for a misdeed—there’s no snake here, no apple, no angel with a flaming sword—but a natural consequence of the wild and terrible universe in which they have found each other, and against which they cling together. The source of anxiety here is not divine judgment, but human isolation.

This isn’t very profound or anything, but it is the kind of critical writing I like, because it traces a movement from description—of the painting’s resemblance to paintings of Adam and Eve, of the painting’s colors, and of the anxious expressions on the faces of the figures in the painting—to reflection—on the sources and blameworthiness of anxiety.

The great thing about critical writing is that it should be very easy. All you need is patient, honest noticing, and imaginative thinking about what you’ve noticed. Yet people find a remarkable number of ways to fuck it up. For instance, if we just restrict ourselves to book reviews of narrative fiction, most of what we find is either (1) pure summary, or (2) summary plus thumbs up or down judgments about whether the book is good or not, or (3) reductions of plot to moral theses and judgments about whether the moral point of view is correct (and therefore worth reading) or incorrect (and therefore not worth reading and possibly deserving of suppression). None of these strike me as critical writing. The first two are consumer guidance and the last is applied ethics or, at its worst, an inquisitorial show trial. Maybe there’s a place for them all. Personally, I crave critical writing and much prefer it to any of these modes.

There’s an ubiquitous genre of contemporary journalism which appears to use the basic unit of all criticism but actually perverts it. I mean the “take,” or, when it’s particularly reactive or contrary, the “hot take.” The hot take is a very simple form: it starts by recounting some notable event from the consensus reality of the daily news cycle. It moves from this event to make an assertion about how this event should be considered evidence in favor of a generality which usually expresses an ideological commitment. This appears to be a movement from description to reflection, right? But in fact neither noticing nor reflecting is involved. The take’s starting point is given by the news cycle—and this is why takes always come in herds—and its conclusion is predetermined by the take-haver’s political positioning. The only creativity involved in writing a take is figuring out how to get from a predetermined starting point to a predetermined end point. I would argue that takes are even anti-critical because they promote a kind of unthinking automaticity in both their writers and readers, and ultimately they displace interest in the world into a mini-game, the daily prize fight among takes, where the primary terms of assessment are “good take” or “bad take,” attention diverted from the object or idea to the technique exhibited in moving from one to the other.

Good critical writing, not unlike good writing of all stripes, actually grows out of personal capacities in the writer which precede the act of writing. In the case of criticism these are attention, patience, thoughtfulness, and connective or synthesizing imagination. Expertise and wide familiarity with the type of artifact under consideration is also useful, in that it provides the critic with more to attend to, think about, and imagine; but there’s nothing preventing the non-expert from writing tremendously interesting and valuable criticism, so long as they hew closely to the basic unit of all criticism.

5 thoughts on “The Basic Unit of All Criticism

  1. It seems to me what you’re describing is a move from description to *interpretation.* A perfectly good thing to do, but there’s also value in moving from description to evaluation–as long as the description is there and the evaluation goes beyond the simple “thumbs up/thumbs down” you rightly reject. Describe-evaluate is appropriate for reviews; describe-interpret is appropriate for later critical writing, after the reviewing stage of a work’s reception has passed. (Or at least that’s the way I look at it.)

  2. I agree with Daniel. As someone who edits both critical reviews and critical essays, there is a vast difference. One of the major ones for me is that in reviews the writer should endeavour to keep his own personal experiences (and ego) out of the way. That allows for assessment of the work (not a a rating or thumbs up/down evaluation). Yes you may draw on experience but you should be careful to avoid idiosyncratic readings and concentrate on the text—what does it do that is interesting? Effective? Etc. A critical review is not a piece of creative nonfiction/personal essay. Sometimes they can be a hybrid of the two but it is rarely effective, often to great compromise to both (very valid) exercises.

  3. Hi Daniel and Joe! Thanks for the comments.

    I don’t think I am, in fact, describing interpretation here. For me, the category of critical writing includes both reviews and essays and even other kinds of things. In all these cases, the basic unit is description-reflection, whether the reflection is interpretive or evaluative or philosophical or aesthetically responsive or even memoiristic!

    You are both certainly right that there is a difference between interpretation and evaluation.

  4. I was just basing my comment on your discussion of the Kokoschka painting, which pretty clearly seems to be an interpretation (what the painting means, how it should be seen, etc.) I agree with Joe that evaluative literary criticism to be convincing needs “to avoid idiosyncratic readings and concentrate on the text.” In that sense, too much “imagination” can diminish the credibility of the critic’s conclusions.

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