Saturday, June 16, 2012

Jan Zwicky "On Criticism"

I was very happy to reread this essay by Jan Zwicky, teasing out and challenging the ethics of negative reviewing, which was just reprinted on the newly launched Cwila site, an organization meant to foster stronger critical communities of women in the literary arts. An organization I might add that will only make Canadian criticism stronger and more varied going forward. Zwicky says what I have been trying to say over the last few years regarding reviewing, but she does so with far more intelligence, immediacy and pragmatism.  Here is an excerpt:

The discipline of the appreciative review is, I believe, among the great unsung arts of our culture. I suspect it remains unsung because, appearances to the contrary, it is not actually a species of speaking, but a species of listening; and our culture tends to regard listening as a passive activity. But listening — real listening — requires that we give over our attention fully to the other, that we stop worrying about who’s noticing us, that we let the ego go. As such, it is an activity requiring much more effort than the activity of proclaiming our selves through speaking our views. For we are a culture, perhaps a species, drunk on a narrow notion of assertiveness and virility. We are also a culture, perhaps a species, many of whose individuals are obsessed with rank — to the extent that knowing one is on the bottom rung is felt to be preferable to there being no rungs at all.  These twin addictions, as visible in the contemporary university as in the military, lead us to suspect those with a gift for listening as ‘soft,’ and to celebrate those with a taste for volubly dispensing judgement as ‘tough.’ My suggestion is that it is those who insist on listening nonetheless who are really tough: they have the courage to continue to serve art when everything around them is making it easy not to.

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