Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Critic as Other

Most people are their own worst critics. I mean "worst" here in the sense of "least competent". It is not that people say nastier things about themselves than they say about others (though that is sometime true), it is that their criticism is less precise and less constructive. As I said yesterday, the function of "the self as critic" is too often simply to prevent writing, not improve the results. That is why scholars have to find good critics among their peers, both before, during, and after the publication of their work. Criticism works best when it is a social activity.

As in the arts, a critic represents the larger body of readers of a work. The critic does not just react personally to what an article says, but rather tries to imagine what competent, well-informed readers will make of it. A peer-reviewer has to decide whether the paper will be worth the author's peer's time to read it; after publication, other scholars have to frame their criticism in such a way as to contribute to the knowledge project of other scholars in the field. Before publication, a critic is also sometimes asked to imagine what peer-reviewers will say. In all cases, there is a reading that is not merely engaged and interested in the text, but also carried out on behalf of the rest of the field.

When we write as scholars we should keep those critical readers very much in mind. Wayne Booth evokes the spirit of a mythical Oxford tutorial in which only two questions were put to any given text: "What does the author mean?" and "How does the author know?" If you remember that that is what your reader is always asking himmerherself of your text, you'll be better able to write a critically robust one. Note that, on this view, the critic is not constantly asking "Is the author right?" or "How is the author wrong?" Criticism only involves identifying a claim and relating it to its basis in the text being criticized. It is true that a critic may eventually conclude that an author has nothing to say and has no knowledge of the subject. But the purpose of critical reading is, in the first place, just to trace a statement back to the ground on which it is made.

This, of course, is why I recommend organizing your writing around claims that can be supported in paragraphs. If you ask yourself "What do I want to say?" and "How do I know it is true?" and then spend 27-minutes, six sentences, and about 175 words answering those questions, you are giving your critical reader the right sort of material to work with.

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