Essay: Michelle Cahillon criticism

I Am Doubt Itself: Criticism, Narrative, Ethics

I thought I was myself and this girl a creature from another order speaking words you made up for her. But now I am full of doubt. I am doubt itself. Who is speaking me? Am I a phantom too?  To what order do I belong?  And you: who are you?

Susan Barton tenders this provocation in a letter in J M Coetzee’s novel, Foe, when a strange woman, who claims to be her daughter, arrives at the house where she is staying. Addressing Foe, purportedly the author of her story, she is also, implicitly, addressing her omniscient narrator.

A confusion of subject pronouns – I, you, who – emphasises the concealment, ambivalence and uncertainty in all constructed meanings. The passage embeds the extraordinary and flummoxing event whereby one ordering of textual truth is in conflict with another. The letter reverberates, reaching us as readers and interpreters of literature, as authors and as critics. Susan’s questions compel us to reimagine conventional divisions between author and authored, (indeed, between genders) as a fluid and permeable boundary. Her dilemma is the ground on which Coetzee advances fundamental existential and ethical questions about the nature of all discourse.

Can we neatly separate the authority of the authored text from that of the critic whose skill is to establish credibility by providing reasoning for her appraisal? How often do we witness authorial primacy being interfered with indirectly and in such a way as to implicate the position and future status of an author or poet in the canon? And which or whose canon are we talking about? In response to The Stella Diversity Count, author Yvette Walker has this to say:

If a nation’s literature represents a nation’s people, then a plurality of voices needs to be heard. Who is being heard? Who is being published? Who is being reviewed? … Is Australia publishing writers who are people of colour, writers from ethnic minorities, writers who are queer, , or disabled? We want to know if the marginalised voices of Australian literature are breaking through into print and, if they are, to what extent and with what impact?

It helps to think about books and literature as spatial objects – not merely linguistic objects. Spatiality brings to critical knowledge and authority the correspondences of territory, incursions, maps, thresholds, frames.

According to Gérard Genette, the thresholds of interpretation are paratexts; he describes them as a kind of frame, a pragmatism but also the liminal zone of transaction between the text and its public readers. Genette’s taxonomy does not account for reviews or criticism in the accompanying material of a text. He refers to imprimaturs, introductions, prefaces, cover art, graphics, as a paratextual fringe, separating the interior text from the exterior space of discourse.

But the correlations between reviews, book sales and awards strongly indicate that reviews possess hermeneutic privilege. They guide the reader’s attention to the significance or obscurity of themes, concluding whether the writing captures the zeitgeist or whether it is experimentally ground-breaking, influencing how a text is read. Criticism continuously engages in processes that mark the boundaries from which to contest eligibility, merit and to position writers accordingly.

For example, an appraisal marked by excessive fault-finding or a focus on the personality of the writer sets a precedent for a future stream of evaluations. Engaging with a literary text in order to evaluate it requires knowledge, taste and ideally, ample time, a scarce commodity for many in the industry, especially freelancers. But even for those critics who can set aside sufficient time to deeply consider a book before casting judgement, the independence of their critique may be compromised by existing reviews.

How does criticism manage the voices of those who are spoken for in Australian literature? By this I mean writers at the intersections of discourses such as feminism or race or nationality or class; those whose voices are systematically mediated by industry, by editors, agents, academia, media and critics?

Unquestionably, there are linear narratives and marketing categories that ultimately determine who is speaking what, and to which audience. These apply restrictions and filters which regulate genre eligibility criteria, writing excellence, mobility and legitimation. In this respect criticism can be a modality that censures or reifies a particular set of objectives concerning literary values. Criticism, as a part of discourse, does not simply reflect on its object, it constructs both fixed and evolving identities, which are themselves aligned to social events, to history and culture. Within these narratives, there are hierarchies and mediations of power that marginalise some and privilege others, creating conflicts which are of their nature, ethical.

Daniel Mendelsohn, in ‘A Critic’s Manifesto,’ extols the art of cultural reviewing as a way of teaching readers how to think critically by dramatizing knowledge, taste and analysis. Within a hierarchical structure of discourse, the critic of a given literary text exercises great privilege.  The concept that discourse instantiates authority is given profound expression by Michel Foucault. He elaborates on its instrumentality within a cultural field which sets its own standards of measurement, or to put it another way, its own vantage points:

Discourses are practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak…discourses are not about objects, they don’t identify objects, they constitute them and in doing so, they conceal their own invention.

Foucauldian discourse analysis emphasises the recruitment of subjects and their positionality within discourse. As befits these discretionary operations, it is rare that the allocation of a given text to a particular critic is random and impartial. Foucault refers to such transmissions and disseminations which are not confined to the textual as a sophisticated kind of game-playing which invents its own rules:

Discursive practices [have] a type of systematicity which is neither logical nor linguistic…[They] are characterised by the demarcation of a field of objects, by the definition of a legitimate perspective for a subject of knowledge, by the setting of norms for elaborating concepts and theories. Hence each of them presupposes a play of prescriptions that govern exclusions and selections.

Inevitably complicating this imbrication of critic with text are the pervasive conflicts of interest manifest in an enterprise such as literature where the stakes are invariably, at least to some extent, self-generating. Several editors of leading Australian print and online literary magazines are also authors forging a career path, a duality that readily exposes them to competing interests. Equally, the relationship between the industry and the mainstream media could hardly be described as neutral.

I suspect most CALD writers become painfully conversant with the fictional procedures of being authored by discourse through the operations of paratexts, reductive language, doublespeak, biographical or textual erratum or where the critical analysis is mired in equivocation; or where editorial strategies such as stalling the timing of publishing a review is disadvantageous. At the other extreme, unmitigated praise often ensues from deeply-embedded alliances and may provide disproportionate endorsement to some authors in the short term, while serving the establishment. Undoubtedly, there are strategies and a politics of criticism at work. These are particularly applicable to the literature of those in the margins where a depletion of creative platforms and spaces diminishes the opportunities available to writers; the fertile acres where creative work might flourish are reduced to mere cracks and crevices.

How independent can criticism be? In the poetry world, it has been my experience to observe the natural alliances which are forged as forms of agency where interests are invariably conflated. As a writer, critic and editor precariously close to these dynamics it is more accurate for me to focus on the broader issues: namely that discourses such as criticism do more than merely comment or interpret work, they structure the text’s received identity. Stuart Hall described this spatial and political struggle in his brilliant essay ‘New Ethnicities’:

Thus, while not wanting to expand the territorial claims of the discursive infinitely, how things are represented and the ‘machineries’ and regimes of representation in a culture do play a constitutive, and not merely a reflexive, after-the-event, role. This gives questions of culture and ideology, and the scenarios of representation— subjectivity, identity, politics—a formative, not merely an expressive, place in the constitution of social and political life.

In ‘New Ethnicities’ Hall elaborates on how an emerging black literature can end up essentialising a black subject. This seems highly relevant for Australia’s current literary scene, where there are increasing numbers of culturally diverse writers emerging and where distinction may be awarded purely on the basis of ticking the boxes vis-à-vis multi-cultural themes and content. This approach disdains a more deserving and supple textual analysis. We needed to have ground-breaking writers such as Maxine Beneba-Clarke and Omar Musa who have brilliantly interrogated race and the Muslim-Australian experience, respectively; but it appears that the avant-garde and the literary end of the spectrum remains principally, though not exclusively, white. What role does criticism have to play in forming these shifting boundaries?

Reductive Reviews

Certainly one explanation is the reductive review. We can think of a review as a being such a reading that makes sense of a text’s meaning, or its subversions: its anti-meaning. But, without too much effort, its contribution to meaning can be unbalanced and disproportionate.

In a recent review of the youth adult novel The Hate You Give, which appears in Kill Your Darlings, Samantha Forge exposes how reductive criticism works to construct its own narrative:

There is a hint of the old, tired snobbery towards YA, for example, in a New York Times review of THUG (The Hate You Give) which outlines the novel’s pedagogic value at the expense of acknowledging any artistic worth, noting blandly that ‘some educators see fiction as a particularly potent tool for engaging with volatile topics and instilling empathy in young readers’. Similar sentiments are found in a review in the Atlantic… By emphasising THUG’s didactic qualities, by dwelling on its ‘value’ for young readers, we diminish the novel’s ambition.

Historically, there is a legacy in Commonwealth literatures of discriminatory stereotypes and appraisals of Aboriginal, Anglo-Indian and other mixed-heritage writers that can be traced back to the 1850s. Concurrently, in the archives, one finds ample evidence that excessive critical scepticism was directed at African-American ex-slave autobiographers, presumably because of deeply entrenched racialized beliefs that black people tell lies.

It is important to be aware of these historical and colonial conventions since, to some extent they shape the continuing reception to literature by writers of colour, particularly those who are not from a privileged class. To an outsider, Australia’s literary industry is a tight-knit circle; at times a community that is weakened by its own quasi-dynastic and predominantly white ruling elite. Anxiety about the repercussions of disclosure has silenced writers of colour from analysing how white power can mediate narrative supremacies; but this silence consolidates a linguistic as well as a spatial lacuna.

Writing this essay I spoke to one CALD writer about the impact of a review that panned her book. She gave me permission to quote her comments but asked not to be named:

I do feel that the negative review has impacted on my ability to secure writerly gigs in the Eastern states, especially. It is still on the first page of Google reviews that comes up, despite overwhelmingly positive reviews on Goodreads and writers’ blogs. I also know that a white woman director of an ‘Asian’ writer’s conference used that review to disqualify me from being invited to a forum where I would have fitted in well. How do I feel? Powerless certainly, and definitely lacking in agency.

This is not an uncommon occurrence in the critical culture: predatory reviews reinforce the critic’s rank or position relative to the author’s in the hierarchy of merit. While such reviews speak more about critics than they do about the text under appraisal, they can initiate or perpetuate a cycle of irreparable damage since the reading of a text becomes a shared experience and practice, which going by Foucauldian analysis, enters the repository of knowledge.  Although the critic is a retrospective reader, she or he, may participate in what reader-response theorist, Wolfgang Iser describes as ‘uncontrolled subjectivism’ in the writing of critical reviews. This comes back to the concept of the literary text and the critical review being imbricated into new meanings and interpretations that can function as an end to themselves. To some extent this is unavoidable, but it can work to dramatically limit the validation of a literary text, destroying the possibility for more favourable future readings. On the other hand, reviews which are replete with platitudes and excessive praise can work to position a book, or a writer excessively favourably in the short term while displacing other voices which are perceived as more critical of the establishment. This does not encourage a strong, independent intellectualism to nurture literature.

If criticism is to apply a microscopic lens to a book or to a writer, then it should arguably atomise the various strengths and weaknesses of a text, applying its lens with commensurate magnification; however too often what we read are accommodating praise or hatchet jobs.

Paratexts, Subtext and Editorial Mediation

Reading a recent interview and a preface to a book, both by white Australian arbiters, I was disturbed by the implied prescription of how CALD writers should be addressing their subject and their audiences. Not content to provide commentary on the work’s merit, these critics indirectly sketch what, from their vantage, constitutes an unseemly approach to themes.

Is it still considered acceptable for some white critics to be instructing CALD writers that we are not entitled to a linguistic mythos worthy of appraisal if it anchors our identity—that dirty word— in history; or that we are not entitled to our emotions about injustice or the migrant experience being expressed in its entire range from lyric containment all the way through to postmodern excess? Apparently so. These ideological claims are border-thinking.

Domesticated and readily digestible CALD writing is at one end of a tokenising, polarised spectrum – opposed to which are the spaces of the angry, spoken-word migrant voice or the humorous, satirising tropes. But between these extremes there is significantly less visible representation, particularly within the ranks of the avant-garde or the risk-taking literary tropes. It is important that we address these boundaries and  imbalances if we are to fully appreciate what ‘tokenisation’ and ‘appropriation’ actually means, since white Australian writing and publishing is increasingly capitalising on such topics as the exotic Other or the refugee experience, within its many and varied canons.

Timmah Ball, an interdisciplinary artist who is of Ballardong Noongar descent, attests to these deceptive paratextual currencies, reflecting on

 the ironies of an arts industry that craves ‘diverse programming’ and ‘new voices’ but lacks the structural frameworks to deliver fundamental change. Everywhere you look Aboriginal writers, actors, musicians and artists are on the rise, and recent festivals like Asia TOPA illustrate the industry’s desire to showcase artists beyond the white canon. Despite these shifts, systemic racism and prejudices pervade, hidden behind marketing material with alluring POC faces splashed across posters and company webpages.

The armoury of editorial mediation can prevent, adversely label, or at best delay, important and necessary perspectives.  This is particularly so when editorial independence is undermined and minority writers from CALD or queer backgrounds are vulnerable. Another writer I spoke to as I wrote this essay described her experience thus:

I was told I had not closely read the text (which I had read and she had not). I was told I had an agenda, which I preferred to write about instead of the actual work — even though my work reflected more on the author’s writing than the other reviews by white critics. They insisted on changes; and I made it clear that no changes to the ideas would be made. As far as I’m concerned, I was polite and professional and they bullied me.

One way of intercepting what Hall describes as adverse ‘discursive conditions, modalities and limits’ is by narrative mediation, a legal methodology applied to conflict resolution. Narrative mediation recognises that legal conflict is historically and socially grounded in the positionality of certain viewpoints conferring unfair advantage to some. This approach to criticism probes into conflicts conditioned by discourse. It seeks to describe the history of trauma, and to find shared grounds for new, alternative narrative solutions that are more empowering to those who are positioned with less leverage. Narrative mediation is a form of interceptionality which provides transient but cumulative exchanges of equal status between those who are oppressed and those who are privileged within cultural discourse.

The word ‘interceptionality’ which I have theorised in a previous essay, deliberately draws from the matrix of social and racial intersections that oppress individuals. Why do we need it? Interceptions such as email correspondences, social media messages, even this essay, are necessary interventions because despite its widespread use and its promise as a research tool, intersectionality has not succeeded in reshaping public policy or arts policy, probably because of the salient operational challenges. Intersectionality had its beginnings with Crenshaw’s descriptions that legal cases of domestic violence were complicated by race, class and gender.

For our purposes in the literary field, if critics are approaching literary texts with sensitivity to the cultural privilege enjoyed by the existing dominant narratives; if critics show respect for the author’s intersectional identity and for the history of traumatic, reductive discourse that has shaped minority literatures, particularly as oriented around class, to occupy the spaces of difference hitherto, then the occasion for narrative mediation can begin.

Access to highly-contested material resources is a crucial factor for writers. It is likely to impact on their career paths and outcomes, but also on their psycho-social well-being. Chronic adverse effects on writers in the margins can often be traced back to reductive reviews, to critical discourses which effectively manage, gag and gate-keep certain voices, limiting their movement into more desirable textual spaces. For these writers Susan Barton’s question:  ‘Who is speaking me?’ runs to the very core of a discursive crisis which Hall describes as ‘continuously contingent, unguaranteed, a critical politics, a politics of criticism.’ It is not enough for a nation to facilitate equitable access to law, education, health and housing; people from all walks of life in our society have the right to imaginatively anchor the stories they alone can best memorialise or reconfigure as individual and collective history — in their own voice.


Works Cited

Ball, Timmah.  Blak Critics Flipping the Power Play in the Arts. 10 May 2017.
Forge, Samantha. Books for Girl, Kill Your Darlings, 4 May 2017.
Foucault, Michel. Ethics : subjectivity and truth; edited by Paul Rabinow; translated by Robert Hurley et al. New York: New Press; New York, 1994.
– The Archeology of Knowledge (Alan Sheridan, Trans). London, England: Tavistock, 1969.
Gérard Genette. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, March, 1997.
Hall, Stuart. ‘New ethnicities’ in K. Morley and D. Chen eds., Stuart Hall Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. London: Routledge, 1996. 441-449
Kure, Nikolaj.  ‘Narrative mediation and discursive positioning in organisational conflicts.’ Explorations: An E-Journal of Narrative Practice. 2010, Issue 2, 24–35
Mendelsohn, D. A Critics Manifesto. 28 August 2012.
Walker, Yvette. Reflections on the Stella Count Survey. 2015.