Two Quotes About Criticism

L. Timmel Duchamp posts extracts from Brian Attebery’s Pilgrim Award acceptance speech:

My third discovery about writing is that it only works when I force myself to ask the hard questions. That’s especially true when writing about something I care deeply about– passion has to be tempered and tested by critical thought. Otherwise it does become a mere exercise in political or aesthetic orthodoxy (and I think aesthetic correctness is more harmful than the political variety). When I look back at my early papers…the problem is not that they’re badly written or that they misread the material. It is that they don’t probe deeply enough into their own–which is to say, my own–assumptions and reading practices. I didn’t ask hard enough questions.

But what exactly is a hard question?

Well, that one is.

I believe that when we study literature, we are never studying just the literary work itself. Instead, we’re examining our own interaction with the text. That is difficult because it means bringing to consciousness the very structure of consciousness, which is the business of theory. Psychological theory, political theory, feminist theory, semiotic theory: these all have to do with making the invisible patterns of thought and culture more visible, so that they can be challenged.

And (unrelatedly) Andrew Wheeler quotes WH Auden:

“One cannot review a bad book without showing off.”

3 thoughts on “Two Quotes About Criticism

  1. On the second, Auden’s contemporary, Empson, also said you shouldn’t review stuff you don’t like (not quite the same thing I realise). I mention this because The Auden quote made me think of Patrick Ness’s review of Transition in the Guardian of sept 26. I would say Ness is falling foul of Auden’s dictum but I haven’t yet read enough of transition to judge if it is good or bad (although seeing as some of the stuff Ness refers to happens very early in the novel, I’m inclined to think its better than he makes out). I certainly get the impression that Ness has fallen foul of Empson’s position.

  2. “You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist.”

    The first quote put me in mind of this fragment from one of A. P. Chekhov’s letters.

  3. I seriously don’t believe I could ever keep up with managing a place like this! Wonderful piece of work and I absolutely would like to see you keep going.

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