Image courtesy of Pat Allan

On Sunday the Wheeler Centre extended its Critical Failure week with an unconference looking at bloggers and online writers.

Unconferencers set the agenda on the day of the event so it kicked off with a discussion of the “amateur” status of bloggers. This was inspired in part by Alison Croggon’s article “The Return of the Amateur Critic” asking why bloggers are often thought of as amateurs. This led into a discussion of money and how bloggers can monetise their places on the web.

Games writer Paul Callaghan led a discussion of how criticism could be applied to video games, including concepts such as establishing what makes a “good” game and how appropriate it is to create a canon of games or get non-gamers to review games because they bring ideas from film or arts criticism. Reference was made to a New Yorker article by Nicholson Baker in which he looks through the eyes of a gamer and non-gamer.

Angela Meyer led the discussion on Twitter and how it can be employed as a critical tool. She’s had some success getting followers to write reviews and then retweeting them.

After a lunch break, Richard Watts raised the idea of sustainability of blogs wondering if some blogs have a natural lifecycle and how do you continue a blog when other work calls. Ben Eltham brought some insights into the cultural economics of blogging particularly how the cheap technology of blogging has democratised publishing. There was a discussion of commenting before Estelle Tang led the last session about blogging as an individual or institution with reference to her recent experiences of blogging for the Melbourne Writers Festival.

Many thanks to Pat Allan from Trampoline for facilitating the event.

Other Reports on the Unconference


WH Chong’s sketch of unconferencer Alison Croggon

Mel Campbell

Lisa Dempster

Nikita Vanderbyl

Paul Callaghan

Ben Eltham

Daniel Wood

WH Chong’s sketchbook

Mark Holsworth

Estelle Tang

16 comments so far:

A major theme of the panel on film criticism was how capitalistic imperatives inevitably lead to the dumbing down of film criticism in mainstream media. But I'd like to point out that independent blogs and monetized websites, with their imperative to get as many hits as possible, are not necessarily immune to this kind of pressure.

Brad Nguyen
20 September at 12:44PM

I wrote something long and used a bad character and the computer ate it. Sigh. Might try again later. Sigh.

sad face
20 September at 01:56PM

But suffice to say here are one and two reasons why we should have had a Music Criticism panel too.

sad face
20 September at 01:57PM

I think the various Critical Failure panels all tended to be a bit obsessed with the notion that commercial imperatives are innately deadly to critical rigour and fearlessness.

Whereas what I enjoyed about this unconference was the sense that we, collectively, had moved past this kind of grandstanding. I enjoyed the way the discussions were all very practical, grounded in our everyday experiences, and acknowledging the pressures of time and money on what we can produce as critics.

Also, Paul made the excellent point that creating good, intelligent content can BECOME the engine of commercial success.

Mel Campbell
20 September at 06:59PM

But this is a false dichotomy surely between "grandstanding theory" and "practical discussion". Theory is merely putting a name to what are practical everyday matters.

This idea that we should "move past" theory is thus perhaps a naive one (as if we have no need for Marxism, feminism, queer theory, post-colonial theory etc anymore) and also a suspiciously anti-intellectual one.

So - let's take this idea that "intelligent content can become the engine of commercial success". This is all fine and good until intelligent content is suddenly not able to become the engine of commercial success. The whole premise of the idea - that "commercial success" is indeed the primary machine that must be driven - would indicate that when push comes to shove "intelligent content" will be shoved out. This is what we are seeing for example with The Age. One really needs the (critical/theoretical) tools to intellectually separate "good criticism" from "commercial success", identify when they are antagonistic to one another and fall on the side of good.

But maybe you don't see a need for theory because you don't think there is a "failure of criticism". Maybe you think that Defamer, The Enthusiast, Crikey and Twitter more than adequately live up to the legacy of Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, Serge Daney and so forth. This is surely a debate for which the Critical Failure event was created!

Brad Nguyen
20 September at 10:27PM

Also, I agree with sad face!

Brad Nguyen
20 September at 10:29PM

Brad, how have you suddenly made this about theory? Please note that I have not mentioned it hitherto, let alone argued that we should move past it. However, your comment is an excellent example of the kind of grandstanding I was relieved to have moved past on Sunday.

Again, what I found really refreshing about the unconference was that the participants already believed strongly in online criticism's ability to be rigorous in ways that are sensitive to the medium's unique formal qualities and the industrial realities of our jobs. It wasn't a defensive atmosphere in which we felt compelled to meet critical criteria imported from other contexts.

Another topic discussed in the unconference was whether we should 'feed the trolls'. At this stage, Brad, I think you're trolling. It's not just your straw-man comparison of several canonical film critics with several websites of differing content and usage. It's my distinct suspicion that you will never be satisfied with a response that doesn't reinforce your personal preoccupations.

This is all I have to say on the matter, except to thank the Wheeler Centre and my fellow participants for an excellent, collegial day.

Mel Campbell
21 September at 02:07AM

Mel, we enjoyed comments about feeding the trolls though we don't think Brad is trolling. More just trying to bring a theory discussion into the event.

The point about critical and box office success was made during the film session, but we're interested in hearing more about the kinds of critical tools that can be employed. Sales seem like a fairly primitive guage.

Mel also talked in the film session about films that her readers would enjoy and at the unconference Daniel Wood made the point that a review should suggest the ideal in an artform - what makes a good game/film/book/artwork - and compare the subject of the review with this ideal.

In many of the Critical Failure sessions, print and TV critics made the point that this required a longer form review, which they had no room for (see comments on the 'capsule review'). This shouldn't be the case online where word limits are replaced by attention spans which can be surprisingly generous if the writing shines.

Wheeler Centre
21 September at 09:15AM

I'm not so sure about reviewing being about the "ideal" - although I guess we all do it. I feel more and more that reviewing should first of all concern itself with what it is looking at. The danger of the "ideal" is that one looks past the actual work, and might miss it altogether. (Also, although I know it's hoary, what is "good"?) Me, I want to know first of all about the sensual material properties of a work of art, I want to know what ideas are quickened in its being, I am interested in how it critically relates to other works, to the society in which it is made, and so on and so forth. Most of all, I want to know why it might be exciting. Or not.

As Wheeler Centre points out (is that you, George?), one of the liberating things about the net is the removal of word limits, permitting a more contemplative kind of written response.

(And, moving sideways slightly, is there any way of getting the site to remember my name and email address, so I don't have to enter it every time I comment? Or did I miss something?)

Wheeler Centre replies: Alison, the easiest way to avoid the constant re-log-in kerfuffle is to become a member of the site and get your browser to remember you password. The Member link in the top right of the navigation should get you started.

Alison Croggon
21 September at 09:31AM

One of the aspects I took away from the unconference was the importance of theory - especially coming at it from someone exploring the boundaries of what it means to be a critic in an emerging art-form.

I can't speak for Mel's take home from my comment, but to clarify perhaps my position, I believe that at the end of the day the only thing we have control over as writers is the quality of the work - because we can't control how an audience will react or the commercial opportunities, either in the short or long-term. As writers, we decide what quality is, based on our own tastes or based on what we know of (for want of a better term) the canon of work in our chosen field.

Paul Callaghan
21 September at 09:39AM

Interesting conversation, thanks everyone. & interesting that the WC's Critical Failure series has garnered mention all the way over on the Guardian site: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2010/sep/17/netizens-unite-theatre-blogs?showallcomments=true#end-of-comments
(and apologies if this is old news, I'm sure WC has tweeted it already but interesting stuff...)

21 September at 01:01PM

Oh, reading this makes me wish we could do the Unconference all over again. One of the best things about Sunday was the heartening lack of grandstanding, to borrow Mel's useful term. People spoke whereof they knew, and that made the ungoing (sorry, ongoing) discussions vivid and engaging. At any conference I would expect to be unawake.

Taking Alison's note (first names, very nice) as a lead through from Daniel's pointing to an ideal -- this was an issue raised about the Critical Failure panels. I heard it expressed forcefully about how the Art critics did not discuss the basis of their necessary "judgement." I'm inclined to agree with Alison about first attending to one's own response -- against intepretation, a bit, but against siding with an "ideal," a matter, as Paul, among others, pointed out was problematic in our time of rusting canons. (Hey, did I just coin that?)

The best thing to me -- and what I think I secretly hoped for -- was that the discussions didn't go on so much about criticism as just about blogging. We might call it:

The BOB Sessions. (Bloggers on Blogging)

I heard lots and learnt a lot, and it wasn't painful at all. It was, as I said to Estelle, fun to put mugs to blogs, to see the faces fronting the brains behind the fingers that transmit all that wonderful stuff into a careless world. Cars for people, tech for feelings.

22 September at 11:24AM

Hi Mel - I'm sorry if I put words in your mouth. I took your term "grandstanding" to be a synonym for "theory". The great grandstander (as you put it) of the film criticism panel would have been the esteemed critic Adrian Martin, who talked about the pressures he faced as a writer for The Age. He was at pains not to frame his anecdotes as a merely particular and individual experience of the day-to-day practicalities of reviewing (i.e. a personal disagreement with his editor) but connected his experience to something greater: movements of capital and the structure of media establishments. This gesture, for me, is the act of applying theory to interpret reality. For you, it is grandstanding. The argument I would put forward is that if we refuse to take into account the economic imperatives of critics' work, we are missing out on something vital in discussing the state of online criticism. I personally think there was a great deal of truth to Adrian's words.

I would also like to make clear that Adrian Martin's words were not mere "grandstanding". He quite actively quit The Age, moved into academia, has started his own online film journal and has been writing uncompromised film criticism ever since.

As someone who runs a film criticism website myself, questions between my co-editor and myself of how we expand our readership while remaining true to what we want the website to achieve (in a critical and cultural sense) come up again and again. And we have had in-depth conversations about what we consider "good" criticism to be and what the commercial traps might be. How we approach these questions is unavoidably guided by our particular theoretical backgrounds.

So, theory is not just lofty ideas with no standing in "practical reality". Theory sharpens our ethical thinking and shapes our practice as writers and editors.

Brad Nguyen
22 September at 03:00PM

I just want to jump in on this discussion of an aesthetic "ideal" and clarify what I meant when I brought it up...

Mel also talked in the film session about films that her readers would enjoy and at the unconference Daniel Wood made the point that a review should suggest the ideal in an artform - what makes a good game/film/book/artwork - and compare the subject of the review with this ideal.

Not that this is a major issue straight off the bat, but I'm pretty sure I didn't use the word "ideal." But, if I did use it, I certainly didn't mean for anyone to think that I was using it in the sense that (for instance) Peter Craven might use it to describe Ulysses as an "ideal" book. I don't have any idea in my head of what an "ideal" book would look like -- in other words, a book that is clearly the best of its kind -- so I don't want anyone to think that I would make my judgements of all other books by comparing them to this supposed "ideal." That'd just be crazy.

The reason I don't think I used the word "ideal" is because, when I do talk about things like standards of judgement, the word I tend to use is "exemplar," in its most radically literal sense: so that an "exemplary" work of literature is not necessarily a fantastic and fulfilling piece of writing, but does at least provide a very clear example of what literature is capable of as an artform comprised of a set of aesthetic particularities that distinguish is from all other alternative artforms. I know that sounds like a rhetorical wank, so let me unravel it a bit...

A lot of people -- especially in the broadsheet media and thus amongst the reading public thanks to the broadsheet dominance of public literary discourse -- tend to think that literature is really just a sort of big bucket waiting to be filled up with story, characters, themes, "lyrical" prose, etc., etc.; and that, in order to assess the quality of a work of literature, you need only assess the quality of the story, characters, themes, prose, etc. If there isn't much of a story, it's not much of a work of literature. If the characters aren't fully developed -- "rounded" or "flawed" or whatever -- then, once again, it's not much of a work of literature. But I don't think this is the case. Because other artforms, particularly film and theatre, also rely heavily on things like story, characters, etc., those things are not particularly literary, so that those who judge a work of literature solely on the basis of those things are not judging it as a work of literature, as an example of an artform that has aesthetic qualities quite distinct from alternative artforms like film and theatre. Obviously story, character, etc. are crucial to the quality of a work of literature and we should pay great attention to them in forming our assessments of literary quality, but because they are not particular or exclusive to literature as an artform I don't think we should use them to form the basis of our assessment. To do so is to quite literally privilege the most superficial aspects of literature as an artform over its more "substantial" aspects, by which I mean the substance of what literature actually is.

The flipside of all this, in short, is that a work of literature that deliberately takes advantage of the aesthetic qualities that distinguish literature from other artforms is "literature" in the purest possible sense of the word. It is inextricably literary; it cannot possibly be translated into -- or adapted in order to accommodate -- any alternative artform. Its characters may be co-opted by a film adaptation and its story may be adapted for the theatre, but the literariness that makes it what it is doesn't migrate so easily from one artform to another. In other words, what such a work of literature provides as it unfolds is a demonstration of the capabilities of the artform: it is, again in the most radically literal sense of the term, an "exemplary" work of literature.

Personally, I adore such literature because, as and when I am reading it, I am conscious of undergoing an experience that I am utterly unable to draw from any other artform. Again, I wouldn't use that criteria as the sole determinant of whether or not to praise a work of literature. I binged on Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code just like everybody else and I'm still aghast when I encounter people who inexplicably refuse to read them. But when I recommend those sorts of books to others, I recommend them for their story or for their characters -- in any event, for some superficial quality -- rather than as literature, because they don't take advantage of their essential literariness. What sorts of books do take advantage of it? On my blog now, I have a post about Gerald Murnane's The Plains, which is one such book; I'm currently re-reading Tom McCarthy's Remainder, which is another; and off the top of my head I'd point you to Herman Melville's "Bartleby," Samuel Beckett's "Trilogy," and the short stories of Lydia Davis -- for starters. They all realise -- and in some cases extend -- the capabilities of the artform. They are literature -- they are irreducibly literary -- which is what makes them "exemplary." They aren't just works of literature that you pick up and read; they teach you what literature is and how it should be read.

Anyway: that's what I meant when I "made the point that a review should suggest the ideal in an artform - what makes a good game/film/book/artwork - and compare the subject of the review with this ideal." Looking over those words, I'd re-phrase "what makes a good game/film/book/artwork" to read: "what makes games, films, books, performance, visual arts, etc. distinct from one another." In my opinion, then, a review should -- in the first instance, but by no means exclusively -- understand the capabilities of the artform of the work under consideration and assess the work with an eye towards the particular ways in which it takes advantage of those capabilities. If a review doesn't do that, then it's not really reviewing the work as a holistic entity; it's reviewing only aspects of the work: story, character, and on and on.

Hmmm... Probably still convoluted. But that is as succinct a way of articulating my personal standards of judgement as I can piece together right now!

Daniel Wood
23 September at 11:26AM

Interesting comment Daniel. Not succinct, though, and probably not true, if you think about it. Can poetry be "exemplary" literature? Or the plays of Aesychlus? Or only if they're read, rather than performed? Theatre tends to suffer for being excluded from "literature" as a category: look at the grotesque omission of much Australian drama from PEN/Macquarie's Anthology of Australian Lit or the refusal of the judges to even come up with a short-list for the NSW Premiers Prize for drama.

The reverse is also true. I think reading is actually an act of imaginative performance, for what it's worth.

Although one strand of books I adore - from Tristram Shandy through Joyce's Ulysses to Infinite Jest - might be "irreducibly literary", in the way you suggest, I'd hesitate to draw from that the conclusion that things like "character" or "narrative" are in some way superficial to those books' achievement. Sure, they expand the idea of what the artform can achieve, that's why they are, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot's conception of literature - part of a timeless order changed by each new work that is written.

Yet they expand the artform's potential, I'd suggest, precisely by interrogating and playing with our notions of what "character" and "narrative" - as an integral part of literary style - what those ideas might mean to us, how they might change with us, opening new worlds for the human imagination to explore.

Just my two cents.

Cameron Woodhead
23 September at 05:16PM

"I think reading is actually an act of imaginative performance, for what it's worth." Well, of course. Don't we all learn that -- and accept it as true -- in the first hour of Literary Studies 101? I'll take it as given and I'll begin from there...

"Can poetry be "exemplary" literature?"

It's true that when I use the word "literature," I tend to mean prose -- without distinction between fiction and non-fiction; the "literariness" of a piece of prose being largely dependent upon the degree to which it exploits the rhetorical possibilities available to it. So a purely expository piece of non-fiction prose from, say, the BMJ would be less literary than an ostensibly expository piece of "non-fiction" from the Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Obviously. Emerson draws on a greater array of the literary techniques available to him -- and leaves space for his readers to do likewise, and thus to imaginatively engage with his work -- than do the authors of BMJ articles (in accordance with the purposes of their writing).

That clarification aside, can poetry be exemplary literature? Of course. Why not? Yes, it's a different sort of literature to prose -- most of the time -- and so it faces formal capabilities that are variants on the formal capabilities of prose. A poem that recognises those capabilities and takes advantage of them would be an exemplary poem. Insofar as it is a work of literature (that is, literature in the strict sense of the word -- a document of letters -- not "literature" as synonymous with prose) it can stand as an exemplary work. If there is confusion on this point, I think it's semantic, not logical, stemming from my use of the word "literature" to refer to prose.

Can the plays of Aeschylus be exemplary literature? Of course. "Or only if they're read, rather than performed?" I'd say: only if they are read. Reading words from the page is essential to the literary experience. Once you turn the written word into a performance, you have translated it into another artform and therefore turned it into something other than literature. You must surely agree with this, Cameron. "Reading," as you say, "is actually an act of imaginative performance." It is an essential property of literature that the reader engages imaginatively with the words on the page so that there is no interpreter between the reader and the read; the reader himself or herself is the primary interpreter. But when an actor brings to life the words on the page, the actor becomes the primary interpreter and the reader (the audience member) is left to engage imaginatively with the actor who engages imaginatively with the words. Performance takes the essential literariness out of literature. As a theatre critic, you know this: in evaluating a performance, you must pay careful attention to the play as written and the play as performed -- that is, to the question of whether or not the performers do justice to the material -- which is to implicitly acknowledge the role of actor as interpreter, and to presuppose a distinction between the written play (literature) and the performed play (not literature).

That doesn't mean I'd agree with excluding theatre from "literature" as a category. Just the opposite. But it does mean that any inclusion of theatre in that category should be based solely on the text as written rather than the text as performed. As for the anthologisation and award recognition of drama? No concern of mine.

Although one strand of books I adore - from Tristram Shandy through Joyce's Ulysses to Infinite Jest - might be "irreducibly literary", in the way you suggest, I'd hesitate to draw from that the conclusion that things like "character" or "narrative" are in some way superficial to those books' achievement. Sure, they expand the idea of what the artform can achieve, that's why they are, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot's conception of literature - part of a timeless order changed by each new work that is written.

Be careful. When I say that things like narrative and character are superficial to a work of literature, I mean exactly that: they are part of the surface of the work rather than part of its depth: they are what is explicit as soon as we open the covers rather than what is implicit in, say, the choice of artform. Unfortunately I suspect that you have inferred from my use of the word "superficial" that what I really mean is "superfluous," which is absolutely not so. Narrative and character are integral to most works of literature -- including the three you name -- but they are, so so speak, "superficially integral": they are right there on the surface: they are the first thing we notice, and the first thing we are accustomed to look for, when we open a work of literature, as soon as our eyes fall upon the first noun and verb. They may well be crucial to the overall "purpose" of such a work, but -- at least in those three novels -- they become crucial to that purpose only when the deeper, more substantial elements of the work, namely the implicit capabilities of the artform, seize them as playthings and make an issue of their inherent superficiality.

Funnily enough, you've actually stated essentially the same thing in your comment, Cameron. As you write, those novels "expand the artform's potential... precisely by interrogating and playing with our notions of... "character" and "narrative"." Not by developing character and narrative, not by foregrounding character and narrative, not by revering and "honing" character and narrative, but by "interrogating and playing with" character and narrative -- such interrogation and play being a substantial undertaking (a function of the artform) rather than a superficial one. It's the playfulness towards, and the interrogation of, narrative and character that makes those books valuable -- a playfulness and an interrogation that are both conducted via a formal experimentation that challenges aesthetic conventions -- rather than the earnest devotion of artistry to the characters interrogated and the narrative that is played with. In other words, you have located the value of those books exactly where I too would locate it -- but, for reasons that aren't quite clear to me, you want to challenge the idea that that value stems from the particular ways in which those texts take advantage of the particular capabilities of literature as an artform.

Daniel Wood
24 September at 11:21AM

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