A kerfuffle in fiction! Christopher Priest declares the Clarke Award short list dreadful. Priest is a very admirable writer. So are the people he criticizes. Favorite of criticisms is calling Charlie Stross an internet puppy. I like the internet, and I love my puppy,
But I confess I appreciate the provocation. It’s interesting to watch the prods of a critic, if she or he is thoughtful. It makes you consider about the craft a bit more carefully. And, published criticism of any kind of my own work is sometimes helpful to me.
But here’s the rub: most critics are presumably writing not for the producers but rather for the consumers (or, if you prefer, the ingesters) of art. And I suspect, as a consumer of art, a negative criticism has never done me any good.
It helps me not at all to to be told a book is terrible or a film is inane or a play is a wreck. I would not have read the book or seen the movie or play anyway. Our problem as consumers of art is not to filter out the bad, as if there were so few options we could benefit from excluding one or two. It is not the case that we have so few options that shaking out a few will leave us with only good works as remnants. Our problem is to find the good in a forest of options. We don’t need filters. We need pointers.
If you ask a guide for directions and she points one way or another and says, “don’t go that way,” she has done you no good. She’s wasted your time. There are boundless directions you can take. Ruling out one is nearly worthless. If instead your guide points the way to some specific and beneficent location, she has done you a service.
The great service, and I suspect the only service, critics have done me, as a consumer of art, is to point out something good that I otherwise would have missed. When someone directs me to a body of work I did not know and which I come to love, they have added value. I’m greatly indebted. What a great gift to have first been pointed to Tarkovsky, the Strugatsky brothers, Conor McPherson, Anselm Keifer…. The best criticism in the world would be a list of good things I’ve not discovered. But when the critic tells me something is not good, she is just howling in the noise — indeed, she is just adding to the noise. She has wasted my time (again, I mean my time as a consumer, as an appreciator, of art).
This is why criticism can seem self-indulgent. Who are those snide comments meant to help? Are they really just self-assertion? One wonders if they compete with art — if these critical works all say, don’t look at that, don’t read that, look at me, read me.
In his book Real Presences, George Steiner imagines a polity without criticism, where the artwork is experienced always directly. He recognizes that — at least in the Twentieth Century — criticism (he may mean academic criticism) had become the envy-driven enemy of art. He concludes, however, by recognizing that the polity without criticism is an ideal we shall never have. Fair enough, but why not strive for a polity of positive criticism?
Still, as a writer, I appreciate the negative criticisms. Even if, as I said, I doubt they are meant for the likes of me.