‘The Critic in New Zealand’ by Rosabel Tan

  • “The only way to save a rhinoceros is to save the environment in which it lives, because there’s a mutual dependency between it and millions of other species of both animals and plants.”

    — David Attenborough, BBC Interview


    Early in his career, Wystan Curnow was invited to give a lecture on what it meant to be a critic. “But that presented certain difficulties,” he later wrote in the Bulletin of New Zealand Art History. “For instance, I was not sure I was one.”

    It was 1974 and Curnow was working at the University of Auckland’s English department. He was, by definition of his employment, regularly engaged in the business of literary criticism, but he had avoided being a critic of books by New Zealand writers. As for his other interests, he conceded he might be considered an art critic. “At least,” he wrote, “if a dozen or so notes and brief essays published over a period of fifteen years in magazines all but one of which are now defunct makes one an art critic in New Zealand.” Ruefully, he concluded, it seemed it did.

    Like many others before and after him, Curnow’s hesitation stemmed from the occupational versatility our country demands from its creative practitioners. Because of how small our population is, the market for any art form is prematurely capped and its growth is precariously stunted, economically and artistically. Industries have to be propped up by public funding and philanthropy, and being able to specialise as a writer or an artist or a musician becomes either a unique luxury or a financially risky lifestyle choice.

    Because of this risk, artists often end up expanding their talents horizontally, whether they want to or not. It’s remarkably and sometimes advantageously easy to do in a country with so many shoes to fill. We see musicians who are also teachers who are also music writers who are also promoters. We see actors who are also publicists who are also producers who are also casting agents. We see the rise of the cultural ambassador: people who – rather than honing a specific craft – hone the skills of an entire industry. Like plants, we grow in the direction of the sun, but here the sun shines with a hazy, erratic glow.


    To be a critic in New Zealand is to be a kind of weed. It’s easy to be one, but the space you occupy is contentious and you probably wouldn’t be missed. To many, you are – by definition – simply “hindering the growth of superior vegetation… unprofitable, troublesome… noxious”[1].

    The sentiment is hardly new. The work of a critic has never been stable and the value of that work will always be contested. For readers, this is because everybody has a basic competence: anybody can read, or sit in a theatre, or look at a painting. Anybody can respond to an experience. This is, by definition, precisely what it means to be a reader, a listener, a member of the audience.

    But not everybody is a critic. Which is to say: not everybody is always ready to be the ideal reader, and not everybody will respond thoughtfully, empathetically, and with a broader consideration of the socio-political and cultural landscape within which a work may sit. And even then: not everybody who does this is worth reading.

    There’s also a perplexing idea that critics need to prove their authority through practice. Geoff Dyer highlights the paradox in an essay on Susan Sontag’s novels. “She couldn’t meet [novelists] on equal terms simply as a critic,” he writes. Instead she had to write fiction and, despite being a lousy storyteller, claimed to value her fiction more than her criticism because the former legitimised the latter. The novels allowed her to say “that the magisterial pronouncement about literature was a side-effect of having produced it.”

    We don’t expect this from any other kind of writer. We don’t expect political commentators to have practised politics, or sports writers to have played the game at any meaningful level. It’s this problematic standard of legitimacy that’s contributed to the recent, postmodernist surge in personal essays and singular responses to art. There’s no grand truth and, besides, it’s easier to present your own than claiming any other kind.

    Through the course of reading, I wanted to revisit the nagging question of what the purpose of public criticism was and whether that purpose was still being served, or whether it was being better served elsewhere.

    It’s worth making some distinctions at this point. There are public critics, who write for the general population, and academics, who write for each other. There are reviews, which are written for an audience who haven’t yet seen the play, read the book, or listened to the album, and there is criticism, which is for audiences who have. This latter distinction is carefully made in virtually every book on criticism, but in New Zealand it hardly matters because often they’re one and the same.


    Three years ago, some friends and I started work on an arts and culture website that we inadvisably named The Pantograph Punch. I’d just returned to Auckland from Wellington, where I’d been working on a short story collection, and was spending my weekdays in a sterile, windowless office on the third floor of a medical research centre. I told people I felt more productive in a city that made me unhappy, but what I didn’t say was that I’d freaked. Having clambered down from the seven-year safety net of academia (in which I had bounced hungrily from English to clinical psychology to marketing to creative writing) I’d experienced the crippling anxiety of being a twenty-something with no clear direction and had run straight back to school under the guise of a salary. But I wanted to keep writing, and one of the forms of writing that felt the most important to me at the time – particularly in a city that made you work so hard to love being there – was criticism.

    Without ever realising, I’ve spent my whole life trying to convince others of the value of art. As a twelve-year-old, it was my parents, who wouldn’t let me go to auditions because it interfered with school. As a psychology student, it was my supervisor, who’d been initially reluctant to let me do my Master’s thesis on the psychological benefits of fiction because it was uncharted territory and so a risky gambit. Now, as a researcher for arts organisations, my entire job revolves around helping galleries, museums, theatre companies and orchestras to convince the wider public of their worth.

    Criticism serves this missionary role, and I think it’s true that many critics are guided by something more abstract than the creative impulse. They’re driven by an agenda that’s rooted in the conviction in the power of art and the belief that we can be better – as artists, as humans, as a society. Lionel Trilling – one of the great New York Intellectuals – saw it as a force for social change. “In interpreting the work,” James Ley writes in The Critic in the Modern World, “Trilling seeks to make use of it, inviting the consideration of broad contextualising questions on the assumption that literature cannot help but be concerned with something more than itself.”

    Above anything else, the critic understands that while art can disturb or shock, the conversation that surrounds it should always support – not the artist, nor their work, but art’s own beating heart.

    In the case of reviews, it’s not the only thing they do. They’re also an archival document, a consumer guide, but the most important thing is still the way it encourages and elevates our experience. Take Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s Perfumes, a book that did far more than change the way I thought about scent – since, in truth, I had hardly thought about it at all. Perfumes were revealed to be complicated, flat, cheerful and pale. They were physical (“boiled kale”), aural (“hissy sage”) and unsettlingly atmospheric (“the haunting, outdoors witchiness of tall pines leaning into the night”). Some were fully-formed personalities, like Oud 27’s raunchy “wet-hair note” that “behaves as if it’s been interrupted in midaction, hastily buttons up, and acts natural thereafter, nonchalantly pretending to be a woody fragrance.” But Turin’s best work is when he abandons metaphor and unpicks the actual mechanisms of perfume:

    Many, indeed most, fragrances create in one’s mind an impression of a solid surface, or a succession thereof, fading into each other as the fragrance dries, as in a slide show. [Secret de Rochas Oud Mystère], right from the start, gives a beguiling impression of a space in which one enters wondering what is behind the next corner.

    This task – of explicating, encouraging, elevating, supporting – is getting harder. It’s not just because it’s difficult to make a living as a critic, though this is a hard truth (there’s little financial incentive to do it, and in many cases there’s none at all). It’s not just because your repertoire of work inevitably expands far beyond this role, leaving you with less time and opportunity to develop. It’s because we’ve stopped expecting it. Worse, we’re suffocating it.

    There are certain ways we’re doing this that are global in nature. The first is the issue of space. One of the best theatre critics in this country is only allowed 300 words per review. It’s a neat challenge and a (dishearteningly) normal restriction for a mainstream print publication, but it’s barely enough to include a description of the show, let alone to support a deeper conversation.

    Second is the matter of urgency. Cultural doomsayers say the internet is damaging criticism – they say unpaid work undermines the value of that work and the ease at which anybody can contribute an opinion is degrading the quality of the conversation – but both of these problems, though they have their short-term complications, will hopefully have a positive effect. More voices mean more conversations, and over time, greater nuances.

    What won’t have this effect – and it’s a problem being perpetuated by traditional and emerging establishments alike – is the emerging culture of immediacy. Kermode observes in Hatchet Job how the shift online saw the systematic destabilising of traditional media outlets, resulting in a broader crisis of journalism. But the difficulty with online media was never simply that it exists; it’s that its rapid evolution was accompanied by a panicked financial imperative that upset the balance of power, especially in countries like New Zealand where the size of the market made organisations susceptible to small changes in readership and revenue.

    Some publications chose not to go online – this came with its own pitfalls – while the ones that did were confronted with the idea that their continued existence depended on having to balance traditional values (like telling the news) with the pursuit of maximum clicks. This meant providing news as it happened and it meant doing it in ways that would interest or entertain the masses. It’s understandable to some extent, but for some perverse reason the mentality of breaking the news bled into the arts pages, with reviews popping up overnight or even earlier.

    Reviews, or criticism – or anything else, for that matter – cannot be written thoughtfully and quickly. And while there’s value in publishing a review while the a play is still on or the movie is still playing, there’s questionable value in publishing one just hours after seeing a show, without the benefit of time to reflect and build on what you’ve seen. The only person an instant review serves is the publicist, yet it’s a trend that’s gaining momentum with bewildering popularity, to the point where people are brazenly and unapologetically writing book and film reviews without having even read the book or seen the film (Frank Bacon, who has reviewed for People and Loaded, apparently bragged in his 2013 memoir that he hadn’t watched many of the films he’d covered).

    This problem of immediacy is heightened in the performing arts because you’re capturing a moment in history. If you don’t write about it, who will? The review’s archival function takes on new significance, and it does so in a tiny community. Not only do you have to save history, but you have to do it without stepping on anyone’s toes: it’s not uncommon for artists to respond to bad reviews with threats of physical violence or cries of ignorance and disloyalty – and this becomes complicated when you consider that many of our critics are working alongside these same artists in other capacities. None of this helps anybody. Because of this blurry occupational distance, and because of the perceived importance of recording the impermanent, we’ve managed to amass swathes of archival puff pieces like our very own cultural fatberg.

    A good theatre review (let alone criticism) is a rare treat. Reading the rest evokes the same pain as making small talk with someone you used to love: everything that once shifted your centre of gravity is still there, but it’s been paved over by polite and descriptive banalities. Ultimately, while critics shouldn’t tell us how to think, they should illuminate new ways of seeing. We want them to be invisible, but we’re making them ineffectual. We are, in essence, killing the conversation.


    It’s not the critical impulse that’s at risk of extinction. We’re with no shortage of smart and passionate thinkers in this country. The complex and perplexing challenge is how we foster this in an environment that threatens to suppress it: how we can encourage a necessary part of art’s ecology to thrive. Some of this will lie in recognising these constraints and disassembling them where we can, having fun with them where we can’t, and subverting them where it’s possible. Another part will be much simpler, and will involve reminding each other why critics exist. The century-old perception that their relationship to art is parasitic continues to persist, despite the fact that the relationship is more accurately mutualistic. Critics are gut flora. They’re art’s forgotten organ. We can survive without them, but it’ll only make us weaker.


    [1] The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary On Historical Principles.


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  • invisiblerider

    April 7, 2015

    Very much enjoyed this piece, thank you. Many of the points you raise are things I feel anxious and annoyed about on a daily basis, it was very good to read it here.

    I had a question which I hope the writer would expand on:

    “We don’t expect this from any other kind of writer. We don’t expect political commentators to have practised politics, or sports writers to have played the game at any meaningful level. It’s this problematic standard of legitimacy that’s contributed to the recent, postmodernist surge in personal essays and singular responses to art. There’s no grand truth and, besides, it’s easier to present your own than claiming any other kind.”

    A very good point made here about the ‘standard of legitimacy’. Are you saying it’s this standard that has led to a surge in personal essays because writers don’t wish to claim authority, or fear they will be shot down if they do?

    The personal essay has been around a lot longer than postmodernism and I’m not even sure if this standard is new–why it is there is very interesting though. Do you think that there is a rise in people being more afraid to risk an argument or challenge in criticism, hence the ‘personal response’? Or are you saying this just a step away from the idea of ‘truth’ or one correct reading?

    I wonder if the fashion for the first person novel that walks very close to the writer’s life, so it might even be called memoir: Cusk, Knausgard, Cole – is also somehow related to the surge in personal essays…

    Thanks again.

  • Rosabel

    April 11, 2015

    That’s a really good point about memoir fiction. I think the two forms are definitely related, and both speak to a growing hunger for the ‘real’. I’m not sure what drives this hunger, but I think we can attribute it (at least in part) to the rise of our digital, global lives and the unique sense of immense connectively and isolation it creates. As readers, we’re so much more aware of how little we know, and we hunger for that knowledge. As writers, we’re more readily primed to be in a mode of working autobiographically because this is how we interact online.

    I think that idea of risk plays a part too. The social consequences of getting something ‘wrong’ can escalate so rapidly and disproportionately (Jon Ronson’s, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a fascinating, upsetting testament to this). Tied to it too is that timeliness aspect. It’s much simpler + seductively faster to write a personal response and I suspect – in a lot of cases – that this is all that it comes down to.

  • Arthur Meek

    April 29, 2015

    Hey Rosabel,

    Thanks so much for a really stimulating essay. It’s got me thinking about the role of the critic in our world – the theatre. I’m excited by the comparison between you, me and an environment that flourishes or dwindles based on mutual dependency of its inhabitants.

    In my current experience, I’m not existing in the same environment as critics, to the detriment of everyone. I have no friends who are critics. I have never met several people who have written critically about my work on a number of occasions. After reading your essay, and agreeing with your analysis, I’m worried that this is really unhelpful to both of us, and I’d like to propose a solution.

    Whether reviews of my work are good or bad, I often feel that they’re written with as much distance between me and the critic as if I were from a foreign country or dead. At its best, I’m attributed with succeeding in something I didn’t realise I’d attempted, and at worst I read that I “seem to be trying to…” and have fallen short. I’m always astonished by these suppositions, because I’m only ever a phone call or an email away. In fact, given the size of our community I’m often in the same room. Why don’t practitioners and critics hang out and talk more about what we’re trying to do and how it’s coming across, so we can both gain a better perspective as to whether it’s translating into performance?

    Morgan, a British composer I know, often attends concerts with a critic who also reviews Morgan’s concerts.

    You bring up politics and sports journalism. Both of these types of commentators mingle constantly with the people they’re commenting on. The press gallery spends an inordinate amount of time fraternising with politicians, who give its journalists the insights and context they need to deliver tip-of-the-iceberg reports to the general public. Sports journalists tour with teams. The close-quarters contact gives them an extraordinary context from which to determine what bearing the intentions of a coach and the players have on the match. When I first started watching rugby, I could never have been able to tell that Richie McCaw was a good player, because my only criterium (?) for good playing was ‘who scored the try?’. It was rugby critics who taught me how to watch in a more sophisticated way, and deepened my appreciation. I wish the same for people who watch the theatre.

    My hypothesis is that when it comes to reviews about literature or writing, there is currently not enough contact between those who make the content and those who review it. This lack of contact could be one of the things that prevents the General Public from being able to separate the analysis of the casual commentator from that of the the skilled critic.

    Written previews of a production – the one place at the moment (outside of the programme) where the intentions of a theatre maker are sometimes outlined – are most often written by someone other than the person who subsequently reviews the play.

    My first suggestion would be for publications that carry previews to give the work (and hopefully the money) to the critic who will subsequently review it.

    My second suggestion, to try and put my words into action is ‘would you like to hang out more?’ At the very least it seems like we might go see a show together.

    I suppose what I’m proposing has the advantages and dangers of embedded journalism.

    The ideal would be that the forging of closer personal relationships between writers, directors, actors and critics will confer critics with the ability to comment more “thoughtfully, empathetically, and with a broader consideration of the socio-political and cultural landscape within which a work may sit.”

    The danger would be the risk of the critic suffering some literary form of Stockholm Syndrome. But if Jane Clifton can remain the best political critic in the country while married to a politician, surely there’s not too much danger in a few of us catching up for a show and a chinwag?

    • Rosabel

      May 1, 2015

      Hey Arthur,

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply!

      The question of distance is an interesting one. On the one hand, I do think there’s value in it, if only to prevent the literary Stockholm Syndrome you mention. Art is often an act of vulnerability – more so than sports or politics – and at a very basic human level, it’s harder to be critical when you want to be supportive, and it’s harder to appear unbiased if you’re raving about a friend. On the other hand, this attitude treats artists as fragile creatures incapable of handling criticism when this isn’t / shouldn’t be the case.

      I’m totally on board with practitioners and critics having more dialogue – with the caveat that those conversations shouldn’t need to happen after opening night. A critic shouldn’t have to call a playwright to ask what they were trying to do with their play. If it’s not clear from the performance, then this is a problem, and it’s likely to be a true experience for other audience members, too. Maintaining that fidelity is crucial.

      That being said (this thing is just paragraph after paragraph of contradiction): I do think it’s always worth experimenting and both your suggestions are great. Over the past few months we’ve been trying out this kind of preview/review hybrid with varying success, but the kinds of questions that led to this were: Why do we actually read reviews? Do we even read reviews? and Is there a better way to do any of this? I don’t know if the hybrid works, but I’m glad we’ve tried. And definitely no danger in seeing a show!