April 3rd, 2012

On robust criticism

A phrase I use keeps coming back to haunt me. That phrase is 'robust criticism.'

Given I dreamed of it last night (why can't I dream the dreams I was taught I would dream? last night was all about saving the world, one critique at a time - SF critics were all superheroes, defeating a world-encompassing plague through superior analytical technique and fancy raincoats) I thought a simple explanation might not be amiss. It will help the people who have asked (although I've mostly explained privately) and it will help the people who take the phrase and assume I mean the same as they do (which I sometimes do) and, above all, it will mean that migraine dreams next time will be about something quite different. When I finish this post, I shall have earned my breakfast.

When I say 'robust criticism' I'm talking about the structure of the critique, and the argument, and whether that argument is properly backed up. The robustness refers to the strength of the critique and its ability to be a useful part of an ongoing discussion on a work or author. I do not mean the strength of the diatribe aspects and especially I don't mean the number of ad hominem/feminam attacks contained in the criticism, for they're likely to drag the critical discourse somewhere nasty - in doing so, they undermine robust criticism.

If I said that Ink-Blotter's work lacked charm, that is my personal response and it might read delightfully (for, of course, I would say it with much wit), but it's not critically robust. It doesn't help others understand the work, nor how I reached my conclusions.

If I said that Ink-Blotter's work on papercuts lacked charm because the sentences were all of a length, the adjectives chosen were all placed in the same pattern around the verb and were vapid, standard choices (and gave examples) and that use of the work by Ink-Well would have helped because Ink-Well's work was full of the precise type of rather amusing anecdote that would have lightened Ink-Blotter's dry style, that's more robust.

If I said that Ink-Blotter should give up on Indian Ink and never write again for I don't like his shoe size, it is not only not robust criticism, it doesn't help in the critical understanding of Ink-Blotter at all. It makes what I'm writing more about me than about Ink-Blotter's magnum opus. I question whether it helps anyone except the biographer of the person who says it, because it takes the game right away from considered criticism in a way that can be hurtful. But, for the purposes of my definition - I don't consider it robust criticism and it's not the sort of thing I was waxing passionate about when I said Australian spec fic needed more robust criticism nor when I mentioned the Clarke controversy.

If I gave a full scholarly analysis of Ink-Blotter's work, covering style, content, structure, contexts - that's very robust.

If I said "Pfft - didn't finish it" or "One day I ought to get round to reading it" then that's not only not robust, it isn't criticism.

Have I earned breakfast?

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I so want to argue that Fernand Braudel should have been writing time travel novels to solve his dilemma of the small life, the institutional history and the longue duree. It's a natural mechanism for bringing these aspects of history together.

Now I shall spend my day wondering what a science fiction novel would be like, if written by Fernand Braudel. Baxterian, I suspect.

(no subject)

I'm slowly catching up with all the things that I've had to do since life went funky. If I promised you anything and you don't hear from me by, say, Friday, please feel free to gently remind me!

(no subject)

My new class found out about Evil Teacher tonight. I was teaching them about tension levels on novels and we had some practical examples...

You know, that sounds much more dramatic than it actually was. I might leave you to think the very worst.

Although I also fed them one of my baked inventions and lost the code for the tearoom (so no hot drinks). And now I ought to prepare for tomorrow morning's class. I ought to. After I finish dealing with a mystery allergy attack. I do not enjoy mystery allergy attacks.