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On criticism: a response to salon.com’s article on Alice Munro

ALICE

Pictured: Alice Munro

I was alerted to an article published last Tuesday in salon.com by a Facebook friend: it transpires that Christian Lorentzen, an editor at the London Review of Books recently published a scathing critique of the work of the great short story writer and novelist, Alice Munro. In return, author Kyle Minor leapt to Munro’s defence by critiquing Lorentzen himself, arguing that a writer of Munro’s stature deserves no such “takedowns”. Both articles have provoked lively responses on social media. You can read Minor’s article here: http://www.salon.com/2013/06/10/in_defense_of_alice_munro/

I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and  therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.
― Mark Twain

Such quid pro quos are not new. What I found fascinating were the comments left on my Facebook page. One devotee said Munro was “above criticism”. This really got me thinking. Is anyone “above criticism”? If literary works went uncriticised, most academics and reviewers would be out of a job. As a practising journalist for over 20 years, I passionately defend the right of free speech. But I believe three issues arise. (1) Has Lorentzen the right to criticise Munro? (2) Has Minor the right to criticise Lorentzen? (3) To what extent can a critique be viewed as reasonable if it strays into the personal?

Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post what it feels about dogs.
― Christopher Hampton

What, then, is the role of the media critic? (I stress media as opposed to academic, because they fulfil different functions. The first represents popular culture, the second appeals to a more discrete coterie.) Surely it is to present a holistic overview of a work of art and to do so using a compelling rationale for those opinions, in language that is persuasive, independent, obviously non-defamatory and as objective as possible.  I italicise these words because, of course, all criticism is inherently subjective. However fair-minded a critic tries to be, he or she will ultimately surrender to personal bias. A critique is simply one opinion and as a reader, your affiliation to what a reviewer writes will depend on your own personal views about that critic and your own opinions about the work in question.

Post World War II, and arguably till about 10 years ago, the critic ruled supreme.  The great British critic Kenneth Tynan, for example, elevated theatre criticism into a true artform, combining incisive brilliance with literary excellence. Others preferred a more sensational approach and used skewering put-downs to build their reputations. The Daily Mail’s Milton Shulman was notorious for the cruelty of his reviews, once describing a JM Barrie play as “moving at the pace of cold porridge going uphill”. (And that was the positive part).

In Australia, our critics do not have the clout of those in the UK or the USA, who can damn a book or a show within days, resulting in lost sales or the cancellation of a season. But even there, the power of critics is diminishing. Firstly, when critiques in so many newspapers are written by authors who are friends with the writers they are reviewing,  it is hard to consider their reports anything more than an “I’ll scratch my back and you’ll scratch mine” exercise.

The second reason is the internet, whose democratising force has spawned thousands of critics, reviewers, bloggers, thought provokers and commentators, who have widened the forums of discussion. One of the greatest advantages is that it allows more opinions to be expressed but it also highlights the power of individual choice: no-one is forced to listen to, read or believe the traditional guardians of the Fourth Estate.

People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.
― W. Somerset Maugham

As consumers of internet material, we will take what we want from the reviewers we enjoy and disregard the rest. For example, I was very sad when critic Alison Croggan abandoned her excellent blog, Theatre Notes, an overview of Australia’s theatre scene, to concentrate on her own writing. I frequently found myself disagreeing with Alison’s views but there was no denying her erudition, her brilliant writing, and even when I took issue with her, I enjoyed her posts.

Having worked as a theatre critic for The Age newspaper for four years and as a playwright myself, I’ve experienced the critical landscape from both sides. And what bruised me most when I was the target of criticism was not that a reviewer may have disliked my play – that was their prerogative – but that they had not understood it or misread my goals and objectives. Yet however much I was tempted to reply, I’d still defend their right to voice their opinion. And what I found was that word of mouth was a more powerful persuader than a review: people would come, like the play, tell their friends, and before I knew it, my seasons had sold out.

I would argue that both Christian Lorentzen and Kyle Minor have every right to their personal  views on  Alice Munro. Should Minor have attacked Lorentzen? Certainly not for his beliefs. Besides, Munro is a formidable and established enough literary figure to weather the storm, nor is anyone denying her a right of reply. Those who love her will dismiss Lorentzen’s views as laughable. Where things get tricky is the very personal tone Lorentzen adopts in his article on Munro.  Here, I do believe, are grounds for recrimination.  As to whether this could yield grounds for legal dispute, that is another question entirely. However, when criticism strays into the partisan, it is no longer fulfilling its role as objective assessor and moves too close to agit prop for comfort.

Critics sometimes appear to be addressing themselves to works other than those I remember writing.
―Joyce Carol Oats

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