Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Critic speak

The poems are full of fine moments of attention and crystalline, lucid images and overall the poems work to discover value and meaning in the world.
Crikey, I thought when I first read this, who talks like this? I mean, people have a go at poets for not using ordinary language (and we don't) but this slip - from a judge - sounds to me like it's coming from another world. I mean, if you're reading a book of poetry, could you imagine someone coming up to you in the street and asking, "Are the poems full of fine moments of attention?" "I'm looking for something with images that are crystalline, but also lucid". Huh?

Critic speak I've called it, because obviously, critics do it too; it's something critics and judges do in common - apply their critical faculties to a work of art and then describe it evaluatively. This isn't a particularly bad example - questions about just what 'fine moments of attention' are (is the attention 'refined', or are the moments of attention just 'fine', ie, good)? You see the same tics in music or art gallery reviews or whatever - the problem is simple, and hard: how to convey something of the experience of a work of art without, you know, actually reproducing the work of art? You can't, obviously, though you can try, which is why critics and judges tumble over themselves to produce language which tries to be both descriptive and coolly analytical, all at once.

Just this morning Dr Cat spotted the following phrase critically applied: "achingly gritty". Not so much mixed metaphor as mixed cliche - though at least it has more spring in its step than "grittily achy", or whatever. Mind you, once I was watching one of those ABC list programs where readers vote on their top ten favourite whatevers and the host - in this case Myf Warhurst - attempted to find the adequate critic speak for each of the books (okay, it was books). The top book was one of those predictable bestsellers, and Warhurst described it as "A guilty pleasure which we can all read without guilt". Um, okay then...though personally, I rather like the sound of the phrase, "A guilty pleasure which we can all read without delight", and I feel certain there are plenty of books this can be applied to accurately.

It might be fun to ask these sort of questions of critics at critics festivals, or wherever it is that they all hang out, though: "the book you're reading - is it achingly gritty?" "Does it cast a coruscating eye over the post-industrial subjectivity we are imbricated in, or is it more a lazy summer afternoon read that we should all make time for?" "Do you give it four stars, or is that the television guide?" Go on! Try it yourself! Let me know how you go! I'll just be right here waiting for you to report back.

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