Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Dividing Line Between Competent and Incompetent Critics

One thing that I've become more sure of as time goes on is that most people are incompetent critics of literary works. There are lots of different kinds of incompetent critics. There's the incompetent critic who has his personal tastes and absolutely refuses to recognize anything not conforming to them. There's the incompetent critic who is always complaining about the fact that the story is not the one he would have written -- this one usually makes me want to strangle him. There's the incompetent critic who has some abstract theory or standard in his head, which is then applied mechanically and without regard for circumstances. There's the critic who makes definitive judgments about works that he hasn't read. There are many others.

There's nothing wrong with being an incompetent critic, per se, but it's quite important to recognize that there is incompetence in criticism. It is at least sometimes provable that criticism is incompetent -- the most obvious cases come from the person who clearly is getting facts about the work wrong, but you can often find critics engaging in bizarre kinds of reasoning, or just stubborn repetition without any appropriate and relevant reasons. And it's worth noting that being a 'reader' doesn't make you a competent critic.

The philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment did a lot of work on critical competence -- good taste, as they called it -- and they noted that good taste requires extensive experience, the ability to draw relevant distinctions, and a sympathetic understanding of human beings generally. All of these are things that can be rationally assessed.

Increasingly, however, I have come to think that one of the common characteristics, and perhaps the distinguishing feature, of incompetent criticism is not recognizing that skill is skill, that craft has the structure of craft. All skill or craft has goals in view; the whole point of skill is that it appropriately applies means to achieve goals and does so successfully. Over and over again I see in book reviews, incomments on blogs, in recommendations for people trying to do NaNoWriMo, and in a thousand other venues, a common failure to evaluate a literary work in terms of the only ways it can actually be evaluated as a work at all: the ends sought, the means used to accomplish those ends, and the many and various excellences in the way the author uses the means to accomplish the ends. If we strip away all irrelevancies, all purely arbitrary and irrational criteria, there is nothing about a work itself that can be assessed except these three things:

(1) Are the ends sought genuinely good?
(2) Are the means appropriate to the end?
(3) Are the means used in a way to achieve the end well?

I thus lay it down as a rule: If you cannot identify what the author is trying to do, your opinion about the work is of no importance at all. It does not matter whether you were bored. It does not matter whether you have ideas about how you think it should have been written. It does not matter whether you hated it. It does not matter whether you liked it. If you don't know what the author is doing, or if you've misunderstood what the author is doing, your judgment is about you, and says nothing about the work itself.

Now, of course, there are layers and layers to this. Unless a writer is crafting tiny, standalone poetic gems, he or she will always be doing more than one thing (and perhaps not even then). One of the things that is true of practically all of the great masters is that they are doing lots of things simultaneously. You can read Jane Austen as light fiction, because she is doing light-fiction things like funny characters and romantic plots. You can read Jane Austen as profound social criticism because all her works do engage in social criticism. You can read Jane Austen as moral philosophy because all her works explore questions in moral philosophy. They are all built into the novels, and you can explore any or all of them. But the competence of your judgement about the novels depends entirely on your ability to see some of them, and the significance of your evaluation does not go beyond the ends you've understood.

All of the bad critics mentioned at the beginning of this post obviously fail to treat the craft as a craft, as the effective application of means to achieve productive ends. If you look at famously bad critical reviews, like Edmund Wilson's attack on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, you can see at every turn that they make this error. It even shows some of the problems of subtler failings in criticism, like attacking competent writers for not being authorial geniuses, which shows that you have no respect for the craft. If you attack Alfred Austin simply for not being as great as Tennyson, this does not show your good taste but your stupidity; it shows that you are a poser with no sense of good poetic workmanship, and are not able to give an account of when a poet is using good means in an appropriate way to accomplish poetic ends. That is what it is to assess the craftsmanship of a piece.

Of course, everything said here about literary criticism applies equally to any other critical evaluation of some product of artisanship, whether it be paintings or buildings or food or philosophical arguments.

20 comments:

  1. Enbrethiliel12:53 PM

    +JMJ+

    A few years ago, I read a writing manual for children which said that a good book review must always answer three questions:

    1) "What is the book about?"
    2) "Why do I like this book?"
    3) "What main idea did the author share?"


    There were additional guide questions for these main ones. Those for #3 were: "What did you learn in this book?" and "Why do you think the author wrote this book?"

    After I read that, it occurred to me that most of the reviews in the book blogosphere focus on #1 and #2, and never get around to #3.



    I tweeted as much only a few months ago, using the phrase "higher meaning" instead of "main idea," and one of my Twitter friends argued, "Sometimes there is no higher meaning." =P I think that if I had referred to the idea of an end, we would have had a more fruitful exchange.

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  2. branemrys6:27 PM

    Yes, I think you're right that it's the same kind of idea: what a book is about and why one likes it don't, on their own, tell anyone anything about how the book is crafted, or even how one thinks it might be crafted. On their own, they don't get any more of the book itself than letting us know it has a particular topic or storyline. It reminds me of Aristotle's summary of the plot of the Odyssey, which is more or less:

    A man has been kept away from home by a god. At home, his wife’s suitors are destroying his property and plotting against his son. He has trials at sea, finally arrives home, and, revealing himself, fights off his rivals, coming through it all safely.

    Part of Arisotle's point is that there is a lot more to the Odyssey than its plot. But all the rest easily just gets replaced by 'I liked it' or 'I thought it was boring' or 'I thought the first part dragged but the last half was interesting'. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it doesn't necessarily say much about the book.

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  3. branemrys6:27 PM

    Thanks. It needs a little work, but I think the basic idea is sound.

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  4. Enbrethiliel2:49 AM

    +JMJ+

    Aristotle's summary reminds me of the #ExplainAFilmPlotBadly hashtag on Twitter. LOL!

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  5. Itinérante3:48 AM

    Brandon, you always open my eyes to things!!
    I know it is not the point here but I was thinking about the way I sometimes pass myself as Human critic and I was reminded that many times I have used the wrong questions to begin with and then how incompetent I was as a critic. (I am maybe your silliest-out-of-context follower/commentator)

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  6. pcantrell1:09 PM

    You’re on solid ground with the basic idea that confusion is a lousy basis for criticism. Even accomplished critics make this mistake. (See, for example, Rogert Ebert’s infamously bone-headed essay on video games.)


    But your line of reasoning — and I speak here as an artist — makes two related mistakes about the nature of art that lead to bad criticism, and to bad reading / listening / viewing in general:


    (1) the privileging of authorial intent as a final arbiter of meaning, instead of as one participant among many others in the delicate dance of the creation and re-creation of meaning we artists strive to create; and


    (2) the presumption that meaning and intent exist apart from the sensuous surface of the work itself, and that art can thus be separated into “means” and “ends.”


    I recommend Susan Sontag’s _Against Interpretation_ as a counterpoint to this view of meaning. (See also George Lakoff on the “conduit metaphor.”)

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  7. branemrys2:00 PM

    Authorial intent is not in any way privileged as the "final arbiter of meaning". You are making the mistake of treating the account of the work as the complete account of interaction with a work, which it manifestly is not. (Even if it were, it's also the case that your argument is flawed, because you are appealing to authorial intent: "the delicate dance of the creation and re-creation of meaning we artists strive to create". Your experience as an artist is irrelevant to the question unless authorial intent is essential to the understanding the work.)


    I have no idea, on the other hand, what the second criticism is. I do not know what it means to say that meaning and intent exist on a "sensuous surface", and nobody thinks means and ends are separable. I do know Lakoff's comments on the 'conduit metaphor', as well as some of Reddy's work on it; I am not impressed by it. It is a ham-handed account of a rather subtle body of figurative language.

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  8. branemrys2:02 PM

    I think we all have to work on it constantly. And I think usually our failures are not a problem -- it's thinking we don't have to improve that usually is.

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  9. branemrys2:35 PM

    (Thanks, by the way, for the heads up on Ebert's essay on video games!)

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  10. pcantrell9:36 PM

    “You are making the mistake of treating the account of the work as the complete account of interaction with a work, which it manifestly is not.”

    No, that’s precisely the mistake I’m criticizing, and the mistake I think you're on the verge of making in your essay! Perhaps I misunderstand you. Your list of three criteria assert that there’s nothing for a critic to “assess” except the author’s goals, and the art viewed as an execution of those goals. I take your argument in a nutshell to be “understand authorial intent or shut up.” Unfair?

    A critic’s job is to say something illuminating about a work that helps us experience it better, more deeply, in new ways, with new eyes. Examining the account of the work’s creation and the author’s thinking is one fertile avenue — but it seems to me there's plenty of room for good critical writing to come from a place of mystification about the author’s thinking, but deep engagement with the work. (As an extreme example, consider beautiful critical writing about the aesthetics of cave paintings whose original author — and entire cultural context — are not only lost, but unknowable. The total impossibility of understanding authorial intent does not preclude all critical writing about them.)

    “…it's also the case that your argument is flawed, because you are appealing to authorial intent.”

    Here, you misunderstand me. Why did I mention what artists “strive to create?” To point out that we artists ourselves do not always privilege intent in the way that you do. If we don’t, then to so privilege it is to misunderstand (or contradict) our intent — and thus to fail as a critic under your own rubric. This notion that all criticism must be based on intent leads to a paradox.

    (I wouldn’t actually go so far as to say my intent is irrelevant, but I would say that understanding it is neither necessary nor sufficient to understand my work, or any artist’s. A valid lens for criticism? To be sure. The only valid lens for criticism? Certainly not!)

    The “sensuous surface” is a phrase explained in the Susan Sontag essay I mentioned — an essay which, given your response to my comment, I imagine you’d just find bollixing and irritating. I retract the recommendation.

    “I have no idea, on the other hand, what the second criticism is.”



    Doesn’t that preclude you from saying anything about it under your own guidelines? /rimshot/ But in seriousness, I apologize if I explain myself poorly. These discussions are better had in person than in internet forums. I fear we’re mostly talking past each other here.

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  11. pcantrell9:38 PM

    Yes, it’s one that will haunt the poor fellow for a long time. “I don’t understand these newfangled things but they’re stupid and worthless” is a form of argument that rarely stands the test of time.

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  12. branemrys11:29 PM

    I take your argument in a nutshell to be “understand authorial intent or shut up.” Unfair?

    You were the one who brought up authorial intent. I talked specifically about craftsmanship or productive skill. There is no coherent way to talk about this without regard for means and ends.

    As an extreme example, consider beautiful critical writing about the aesthetics of cave paintings whose original author — and entire cultural context — are not only lost, but unknowable. The total impossibility of
    understanding authorial intent does not preclude all critical writing about them.



    As noted, my argument is about the craftsmanship, which is not exhausted by artistic intent. But this is not a good example even if we are talking solely about intent. We obviously do know something about the intent, because intent is not something that has no connection with the work. If we have a cave painting of lots and lots of buffalo, we have a pretty good idea that the artist intended to paint buffalo; and we can celebrate the artist's success in brilliantly capturing buffalo because we have an idea, however limited and incomplete, that that was the intent. This would contrast with, say, critical discussion of anonymous smudges we genuinely don't know anything about; we might say a lot of interesting things about us in that context, but we have no basis for any critical judgment about the work itself.

    An analogy may help. An orator may strive to persuade. But in reality no orator makes persuasion; persuasion is not a product of the orator's productive art. Orators make speeches, which are an entirely different thing from persuasion. Now, I come along and say that no critic of an orator's speech is actually talking about the speech unless they do so in light of what the orator is trying to do with it and the means used for doing it -- i.e., unless they do so as treating the speech as something crafted.

    Indeed, I think there's a great danger in saying that artists are striving to create what they have neither the ability nor, if they had the ability, the right, to create, namely, what other people do with their work. This is exactly what it is to conflate the work with interaction with the work. It is the stonecutter claiming to be striving to create fine statuary when what he actually provides are appropriate blocks of marble for sculptors -- a significant contribution, but not the creation of statuary. Or it's the sculptor saying that he strives to create religious devotion through his statues of saints; in reality he only produces materials for devotion -- any actual religious devotion is done by others who, so to speak, work the materials with a completely different set of skills. It's taking credit for something that another's thought and work creates.

    Doesn’t that preclude you from saying anything about it under your own guidelines?

    Yes, which is why I didn't say anything about it beyond saying I didn't understand it and why. Although it does make a good joke. We probably are talking past each other at several points.

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  13. pcantrell11:26 AM

    You brought up authorial intent in the original post, thought perhaps without meaning to. Your central thesis is: “I see in … a common failure to evaluate a literary work in terms of the only ways it can actually be evaluated as a work at all: the ends sought, the means used to accomplish those ends, and the many and various excellences in the way the author uses the means to accomplish the ends.”

    Those “ends sought” — by whom are they sought if not the author?

    I agree entirely with your paragraph about artists not being able to control other people’s interaction with their work. It’s the orator paragraph where we diverge. Yes, some work has a very specific communicative purpose — like an orator trying to persuade. Other work, however, does not. Critical writing that tries to divine the “ends sought” where the work’s “intent” is open-ended ends up being a highbrow version of people trying to divine the hidden messages in songs by playing them backwards.

    On the cave paintings: if “they were trying to paint a buffalo” is the best we can do, it’s not much. Certainly I don’t think you’d consider that level of comprehension — “Jane Austen is writing about humans” — sufficient for critiquing a novel? In many cases, we don’t know whether these paintings are narrative, and if they are, whether the narrative is history or fiction. This is the most basic kind of comprehension of the “ends sought,” and it’s missing — but we can still talk about the work.

    Again, I agree very much with the central sentiment of your essay, that incomprehension makes for lousy criticism. A critic should never say “It’s stupid and I don’t get it;” you have to pick one.

    My quibble is with the claim that “the ends sought” are the •only• way a critic can write about a work. You used the word “evaluate;” perhaps you are thinking specifically of criticism that seeks to pass judgement?

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  14. branemrys1:36 PM

    The post is about craftsmanship or skill. Authorial intent is undeniably a part of this, since it would be nonsense to hold that one can understand a work of skill, itself, without understanding at all what the artisan was attempting, but it is you who keep isolating out authorial intent as if it exhausted craftsmanship and skill. In addition, it is a mistake to think that all ends of a work are set solely by the author. It's manifest, for instance, that genre by its nature sets default ends and means, which can be adjusted by the author, to be sure, but are not themselves derived from or reducible to authorial intent.

    On the cave paintings: if “they were trying to paint a buffalo” is the best we can do, it’s not much.

    On the contrary, it is an extraordinary amount. By means of it we can talk about successes of skill. We can recognize the brilliance of the use of wall texture to mimic the three-dimensional presence of the real animal, and the way in which natural shadows in the cave in firelight are used to mimic the motion of the living beast, and the way the techniques of painting are applied to take advantage of these. Knowing that the artist was trying to paint a buffalo, you can write books of solid inquiry about it -- not about our subjective reactions to it, not about our cultural assumptions about it, but about what the work itself is and does. It is certainly not an exhaustive account -- the artist inevitably had ends we will never have the means to recover. But it is an immense amount. Likewise Jane Austen writing about humans, although it would be much lower-level criticism than we can in fact write, knowing far more about her ends than that, would still be enough for a lot. And the reason is that we have the actual works in question; knowing even one minor end of the author potentially sheds light on everything in the work, which is rich with means. I defy anyone to try to understand anything in an Austen novel without assuming that things in the novel are marshaled, organized, ordered, to show human beings; and I am absolutely certain that on that one ground alone of writing human beings, going no farther, you can show Austen to be a literary genius and her novels to be masterpieces. And add even one small, secondary, vaguely understood end that we can attribute to Austen with reasonable certainty -- to make some kind of analogy between the aesthetic and moral, for example -- and you have the stuff to write dissertations and monographs of good, solid critical discussion about the work itself. A single discovered end in the productive realm is like a single discovered logical or mathematical principle in the speculative -- it is a massive thing, with innumerable implications.

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  15. pcantrell4:45 PM

    “It would be nonsense to hold that one can understand a work of skill, itself, without understanding at all what the artisan was attempting.”

    That one can engage in •useful critical thought• about a work of skill without understanding at all what the artisan was attempting is •precisely• what I’m arguing.

    I think you're still confused about what precisely I object to in your original post. One more attempt here:

    I agree completely that an understanding of “the ends sought” and “the means used” •can• inform good critical writing.

    I disagree that it •must• inform good critical writing.

    Objection clear?

    Your long last paragraph in the previous comment is all about the ways in which even a small amount of information about the “ends sought” •can• be critically useful. My response to all that is, “well, obviously!”

    But that it •can• be useful is not what your original blog post argues. In your post, you claim that it's •necessary• — that critics who have a limited understanding of “the ends sought” cannot possibly write good criticism. In your words:

    “If you cannot identify what the author is trying to do, your opinion about the work is of no importance at all.”


    I don't agree with that. And curiously, well, you don't seem to agree with yourself either. To wit:

    Would knowing nothing whatsoever about Jane Austen’s intent except that “she is writing about humans” be sufficient to meet your criterion of being able to “identify what the author is trying to do?”



    I can't imagine it would, at least not in the mindset of your original blog post. But your previous comment makes that case that this paltry information would still be sufficient for valid, albeit “low-level,” criticism.


    So…confusion! I'm not even sure whether we disagree, or what your original post meant given your subsequent comments. It seems to me this discussion has exhausted whatever usefulness it had, so I'll bow out. If you're even in Minneapolis, though, drop me a note and maybe we'll have better luck understanding one another in person.

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  16. branemrys10:02 PM

    I am aware of what you are arguing; I simply don't see anything that you've done that actually establishes it -- all the cases you've mentioned are cases that are more plausibly seen in terms of assessing ends and means.

    Would knowing nothing whatsoever about Jane Austen’s intent except that “she is writing about humans” be sufficient to meet your criterion of being able to “identify what the author is trying to do?”

    Very, very obviously yes. As I explicitly pointed out it, is not a complete account, and as I explicitly pointed out, as such it sharply limits what kind of critical judgment one can reasonably have. It is simply a mistake to assume that an author can only be trying to do one thing, and what is more, I explicitly devoted an entire paragraph of the original post to that point. So I'm not sure why you're thinking that I can't allow many ends.

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  17. pcantrell12:14 AM

    I … it … wha?!

    Laying it out:

    • You set a criterion: “If you cannot identify what the author is trying to do, your opinion about the work is of no importance at all.”

    • You believe that “she is writing about humans” is sufficient understanding of intent to satisfy that criterion.


    • You believe that there are scads of people writing criticism that's useless because it fails your criterion.


    • This implies that all these people understand _less_ about the art they're discussion than the equivalent of “it’s about humans.”

    Really?!?

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  18. branemrys5:30 PM

    None of your argument makes any sense whatsoever. I was very clear and explicit that I was talking about the craftsmanship of the work itself and that an author can have many ends in a work. I explicitly said, after explicitly noting that one can ground one's judgment on any or all of them (and I explicitly used that phrase), "But the competence of your judgement about the novels depends entirely on your ability to see some of them, and the significance of your evaluation does not go beyond the ends you've understood."

    You are also mischaracterizing the rule by cutting out the entire rest of the paragraph as if it were irrelevant to understanding the point, when it was very definitely not. I also explicitly gave contrasts to what I was talking about, and thus specific examples of what is actually in view. I also explicitly stated what is going on in these examples: "If you don't know what the author is doing, or if you've misunderstood what the author is doing, your judgment is about you, and says nothing about the work itself."

    Your argument would only make sense if either authors only ever had one end in view, which is obviously false, or people's critical evaluations of authors were always and everywhere only modest and kept closely within the bounds of precisely those ends of the work they understood, which is also obviously false.

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  19. pcantrell2:24 PM

    “None of your argument makes any sense to me whatsoever.”


    Likewise. That’s the one point upon which we agree.


    Uncle.


    If you’re even in Minneapolis, drop me a line, and maybe we can understand each other better in person!

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