The Critic’s Curse
Australian Author, ???? 2002, pp.
Reprinted in The Art of Persuasion, Australian Art Criticism 1950-2001, (ed.) Benjamin Genocchio, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002, pp. 135-37.

“Critic!” is the vilest insult that the protagonists can dredge up in Waiting for Godot. In the past fifteen years, the impulses behind criticism have been complicated by a surge of spin-doctoring and the Post-modernists’ allegation that, because criticism sets standards, it is even more despicable than Samuel Beckett inferred.

Divas once paid claques to encore their efforts and hiss their rivals. Today that process is institutionalised by public relations firms and marketing managers. The promoters expect features, not reviews – personality profiles, never criticism.

After the “cash-for-comment” scandals, media companies tightened their house rules about complimentary tickets for staff. Only the reviewer could accept a freebie, rarely worth more than $400 the pair. These scruples were not extended to the effect of the promoters’ spending a thousand times more on advertisements. The Sydney Morning Herald stood James Waites aside when he found musical blockbusters to e meretricious by nature.

Similar pressures have infected publishing. Should Fay Weldon’s sponsored novel, The Bulgari Connection, have been reviewed by a literary critic or a marketing analyst? The multimillion-dollar advance to Tom Wolfe for A Man in Full (1998), along with PR release about the printing of one million copies, was part of the marketing budget, not editorial expenses. One-third of that print run was never intended for sale but to occupy shelf space to attract attention and block out rival tomes. This tactic has resulted in shelves becoming the world’s priciest real estate. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David A Vise helped his book about a Soviet mole in the FBI on to the bestseller lists by ordering 20,000 copies form a dotcom before returning 17,000.

Australia’s book trade is not in that league but the warning signs are present. More money is spent on publicity than on editing. Penguin commissioned Ita Buttrose to produce her first novel, confident that her media contacts would secure the exposure needed to move volumes out of department stores. Gangland has nothing on Adland.

Literary prizes are promotional schemes in which being short-listed (that is, failing to win) becomes a selling point. Writers weeks are not publicists weeks. It is not surprising that two of Australia’s best selling novelists, Peter Carey and Bryce Courtenay, began their professional writing in advertising agencies.

Corporate sponsorship of art exhibitions means that the cultural commissar in the old Soviet bloc has found his parallel in the marketing agencies that arrange these blockbusters. That academic celebrant of the triumph of greed in the US, James Twitchell, acknowledges that under capitalism, “the minister of cultural affairs is not in Washington or at Yale, but on the 25th floor of the Philip Morris Building in Manhattan, trying to figure out if a Matisse show will outdraw Magritte”.

Nowhere is the marketer as artistic controller more potent than in the screen industry, where 25 per cent of the budget for feature films, goes on their promotion; $US 250 million went on influencing votes for the Oscars alone. Concepts and characters are pre-sampled. Story-lines are tested and refried to match the statistically averaged taste that landed The Little Shop of Horrors with a happy ending.  

The 1930s Hayes code for family values no longer stalks Hollywood, yet censorship prevails. Whereas Mae West subverted the code, writers now collaborate in the subversion of their inventiveness. Indeed, they give away their originality by submitting the synopsis to street polls before drafting their script. Their defence is that they are giving us what we want. But since we hear about what the studios say we want only through multi-million dollar marketing budgets, who is elitist: the critic who complains or the PR consultant?

While reviewing was driven to the margins by the marketers, criticism as evaluation came under attack from those whose professional responsibility it had been to defend imagination against lucre.

The fear that scholars now have of uttering any judgment was epitomized by the comment of the American co-curator of a 1998 exhibition of Australian and US paintings: “I don’t use the word quality but I do use the word strength.” Her distinction was without a difference because she then added that the Australian works were “very strong, culturally rich and invite the viewer to come back again and again”. If that sentence is not a judgment of quality, what is?

The case for qualitative assessments depends on a clarification of the criteria employed. Criticism suffers when the points in dispute are muddled. Rodney Hall can be called a superior stylist to Tom Keneally because Hall weighs every word. But if you are rating their ability as yarn-spinners, a different order may result. A third measure operates if you are calibrating their appeal to airport audiences.

Similar refinements should apply in judging poetry. Before the doyenne of US critics, Helen Vendler, categorised Les Murray as a “minor” poet whose “unmusical lumpy choppiness, turgid and unbouyant” pages had been a pain to read, she had set down her criteria for evaluation. Her readers were thus able to decide for ourselves whether we accepted her standards, and if so, whether Murray had failed them. One could disagree with her conclusion but not dissent from her manner.

To say that Christina Stead’s Seven Poor Men of Sydney is better than her For Love Alone remains mere assertion until rating is substantiated by comparing elements in each – that is, by answering a series of quotations about “better at what?” For instance, we can discuss the aptness of the landscape descriptions. Critics need to debate the worth of our criteria, refining our measures until we bring the results together to propose why one fiction is better than the other.

Although the specification of the standards being applied will limit the realm for personal taste, such conclusions can never be matters of fact. Some degree of individual preference is unavoidable. Critics are always saying, “I think”, even when we eschew the first person singular. Baudelaire felt “I” to be the most constricting place from which to make judgments because its presence bestows a responsibility avoided by speaking in the third person.

What is elitist in the worst sense is to claim that one’s judgment is better than someone else’s because one occupies a position of authority. That US professor of art history who valued strength above quality nonetheless deserves our attention because of her authorship, not her place in an academic hierarchy, though one hopes that they are connected. Leonie Kramer proclaims her commitment to standards, but has yet to demonstrate her won by publishing at book length. It speaks well of her literary taste that she not anthologized her essays.

The case for criticism is the case for making art. Every creative act is a criticism of all previous works, which the artist follows, rejects or comments upon. Above all, creation is always self-criticism. The poet’s choice of a word, the composer’s change of key and the painter’s addition of a spot of colour are all critical judgments. T. S. Eliot revised The Waste Land. Beethoven wrote three Leonora overtures before settling on a fourth one for Fidelio. The pentimento that conservators discover in many an old master reminds us that the most accomplished painters had to edge their way to greatness.

Hence, criticism is elitist only because the process of creation of itself evaluative in deciding that one punctuation mark, key change or brushstroke is preferable to another. The totality of such choices is what makes the published version more or less successful.

Irrespective of the pressures from spin doctors and postmodernists, the critic has competing responsibilities. The prime responsibility is to the work under consideration. Reviewers must be allowed to distinguish flaw from falsity, the failed effort from the phony triumph. After that, we must attend to our likely readership. We should not fashion our prose at the expense of the piece under review, yet must make our comments entertaining enough to hold the attention of people who may never encounter the work being discussed.

That latter precept prevailed in the first literary criticism published in Australia when the editor of the Sydney Gazette rejected a poem because its “circumlocution drags out a disinteresting subject to the rotundity of a hoop”. Ninety years later, The Bulletin printed a theatre review in verse, which appears to have been more entertaining than the play.

Where, today, is the editor to commission reviewers to voice their disdain in rhyming couplets? Even more, where is the critic who could beat a deadline for a column of iambic pentameters?