Websnark’s Eric Burns-White on criticism

This was too good of a picture NOT to use.

This was too good of a picture NOT to use.

Over at Websnark, Eric Burns-White posts a lengthy essay on criticism. I’m still not sure what to think of it. It’s the sort of piece that you have to read several times to let the points soak in.

Here’s an excerpt:

I’ve beaten this drum before, but there are really three definitions of criticism in use today, which have had the unfortunate effect of muddying the waters for everyone involved. In no particular order:

1. Criticism is the interpretation or analysis of creative work, attempting to discern both technique and meaning within one of many potential contexts. This is the one Kris Straub will make fun of me over — criticism in this definition refers to working out what an artist has done and how he has done it. While the analysis is necessarily subjective, this definition is less about judgement and more about interpretation. There are lots of “critical theories” that critics of this stripe subscribe to, ranging from traditional analysis through political filters like Marxism or Feminism (or any other -isms you care to apply) up to modern and post-modern theories like the (quite old) “New criticism” through the esoterica of Deconstructionism. When you read literary journals, this is ostensibly the kind of criticism you’ll find.

2. Criticism is the judgement rendered by (theoretically) qualified, (hopefully) impartial analyst over the effectiveness of given creative work at meeting its intentions and the suitability of the work to popular enjoyment. This is an overly highfalutin’ way of saying “Critics review shit.” This is the Roger Ebert side of Criticism — it may touch on aesthetics or artistic merit or the like, but generally it says “this work is good and you should consume it” or “this work sucks and you should shun it,” or some value in between the extremes. When we make references to film critics, book critics, theater critics, the old television cartoon The Critic or the like, almost always we’re referring to Reviewers like this. Any time you’ve seen stars or thumbs as part of a criticial essay, you’re reading a review.

3. Criticism means pointing out the flaws in someone or someone’s work. This is unquestionably the most popular day-to-day usage. “Do you mind some constructive criticism?” “To be critical for a moment….” “If you can’t take criticism maybe you shouldn’t ask my opinion.” And so on and so forth. Criticism is innately negative, in this definition — it isn’t about what people do right, or how well a given work (or given person) accomplishes its goals, it’s about they’ve done it wrong. Criticism is innately negative under this definition, and the only good that can come from it is reform.

You can see the problem, I trust. Someone can work diligently under the first definition of criticism and be conflated with the third by virtue of terminology. Reviewers and analysts becomes one thing, and the people who read their essays will expect elements of both somewhere in the work. It’s not enough to describe how something is done — the majority of the audience wants to hear whether or not the work’s any damn good.

Eric goes on to discuss whether or not a criticism can be criticized.

I mention the artists above essentially to dispose of them. The question at the top of the essay remains. Can criticism be criticized?

I was unequivocal in saying ‘yes.’ Of course criticism can be criticized. More to the point, all criticism is subject to all three definitions of criticism given above, just like any other produced work, regardless if the criticism itself falls under the first, second or third definition.

Incidentally, that guy named “Rook” from the Tad Williams message board mentioned at the beginning of the article?

That’s me.


About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on August 28, 2008, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Well then, thank you for the impetus. That was a fun one to write.

  2. I took a couple stabs at this on the Burns site and another here, and ultimately I’ll be letting it lay. It lacks polish. I get miffed when people suck up my time with murky writing, no matter how noble the message.

    Too many people write straight-to-blog these days. I happened to count the other night and noted that the number of pieces I write that either never see daylight or get chopped up for use elsewhere is approaching 50%.

    It’s the writer’s job to make it clear, not the reader’s job to sort it out.

    Of course, we all have off days, and I admire a lot of Eric’s work, so no one should over-weight this remark.

  3. Well, I just wrote straight to blog, and the blog is yours, so I can’t edit. The post is too harsh. Diluting by a third should do it.

    This blogging business is hard enough without giving one another a hard time over a single post. Nothing personal, Eric.

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