Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Mixed Reviews

How should one deal with reviews and critiques that don't all agree?

Books dealing with the issue

  • Many years ago I.A. Richards wrote "Practical Criticism" (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1929) in which he analysed the comments of a group of students who blind-read poetry.
  • I think P. Hobsbaum in "Theory of Criticism" also covered this issue. He suggested that a good poem can support many interpretations (indeed, benefits from them) whereas a bad poem can't.

Critics vary because there are

  • Inarticulate critics - people who can't find the right words for what they feel. I think in general critical language lags behind the works it tries to describe, but in any case, critics are more articulate in some areas than others (e.g. maybe some are sensitive to rhythm without having the terminology for it)
  • Insensitive critics - Critics are likely to be more sensitive to some aspects of a work than to other aspects (and quite often they're more articulate about the aspects they respond to more strongly). When I use the word "sensitive" I don't mean just a traditional emotional reaction - people can be blind to form, the value of generative devices, etc. Critics may be unaware of their blind spots.
  • Biased critics - Again, this is a limitation we all have to a lesser or greater extent. I think I tend to be a cynical critic: a shit-detector
  • Inexperienced critics - It may be that better critics agree with each other more than worse critics do. Alternatively, "Lesser critics try to normalize, to chastise the poem for straying outside the expected parameters. Bad poets want to be certain more than they want to explore where a poem might be going" - Mike Alexander

A particular poem's best feature might be one that a particular critic's insensitive to but articulate about.

Comments vary because

  • Some poems are prone to multiple-readings
  • People misread poems or miss things (e.g. that the poem's an acrostic). People can correct themselves if they have a chance, and they should be given a chance (rather than being told they're wrong).
  • People have different styles of commenting - I tend to deal with pattern before content. Others look for a human-interest angle first, etc. Some people ignore previous comments, others try to summarise views so far. Some people like saying the opposite of what others (perhaps particular others) say.

Convergence proceeds by

  • Reducing the number of opinions. Sometimes a person's misreadings can be corrected, or minor differences ignored.
  • Reducing the scope of differences - sometimes it's not the whole poem that attracts contrasting opinion but just a stanza (or final line)

In an interpretive community (a workshop) the various types of critic can be mutually beneficial - articulate critics can provide phrases for the inarticulate; the cynic can bring to light features that were overlooked in a gush of praise, etc. An online community is a miniature, accelerated version of culture at large.

Group dynamics has long been a subject for psychologists. Cults led by charismatic leaders (Jim Jones, Kuresh) might form one model for literary groups, as might self-help therapy groups. Obedience and conformance have been investigated. Some groups by their nature will contain people who dislike disagreement. Literary groups (like protest groups, etc) might attract those who are comfortable with lively debate - people join because they like being different. Asch's classic experiments have shown how easily people can deny the evidence of their own eyes when assessing something objective, submitting to the majority opinion. With poetry, where judgement is more subjective, more socially-defined, some people want the certainty that authority can provide, and trust the "leader".

Work has also been done to see how minorities can influence majority opinion. Flexible negotiation is best when differences are large. If differences are small, the minority often succeed best if they rigidly stick to their guns, though this risks accusations of dogmaticism.

A minority in a literary group can often hold views (about obscurity, obscenity, etc) which are held by a majority in society as a whole.

Another documented effect is that of "group polarization" where the group comes to an opinion that is in the same direction as the individual opinions, but more extreme (lingering self-doubts abated).

Online/Offline workshops

  • It can be hard in a workshop context (especially amongst strangers?) to decide how to act upon contrasting comments. In a room it's easier to be one's own facilitator and to find out whether people in the light of the discussion have changed/converged their views.
  • In an online forum one's never sure whether a critic has taken in what others have said. In a room, everyone hears all the comments and maybe there's more of a tendency to clump into factions even if there's no consensus.

How Facilitators can help

Though a diversity of interpretations is to be welcomed, it can be confusing. Facilitators can help by weeding out erroneous interpretations, consolidating similar interpretations, generalising interpretations, and trying to reduce the influence of egos on the course of discussions.

Richards (p.13) prioritised areas of interpretational difficulties as follows (note - the subgroups are mine)

  • "Making out the plain sense", "Sensuous apprehension" - these concern recognition (we could perhaps add recognition of allusions to this). As Richards says (p.336) "Language is primarily a social product, and it is not surprising that the best way to display its action is through the agency of a group... We must cease to regard a misreading as a merely unlucky accident. We must treat it as the normal and probable event". By sharing perceptions a workshop can reduce the differences between members. The sooner this is done the better - sometimes a misinterpretation based on false initial perceptions remains even after the perceptions have been corrected.
  • "Imagery" (especially visual), "Mnemonic irrelevances" (misleading personal allusions), "Stock Responses", "Sentimentality/Inhibition", "Doctrinal Adhesions" (e.g. the truth of political poems) - these concern reactions. There's more scope for individual differences. A workshop can help point out where reactions are idiosyncratic, but with these issues opinions can rarely be termed right or wrong. Much of the discussion is likely to be centred around these issues.
  • "Technical presupposition", "General critical preconceptions" - Preconceptions lie behind the interpretations offered, and one of the benefits of workshops is that members can become aware of their preconceptions. But whereas people might in the course of a session change their opinion about an issue in the second subgroup, general preconceptions might take much longer to dislodge. The facilitators' aim is not so much to change preconceptions, but to challenge them enough for other preconceptions to be given a chance, thus widening aesthetic sensibilities.

Workshop poets usually want to know if their poem's any good and what parts they should re-write. A group can agree on the merit of a poem and which parts need work even if the members' justification of their opinions vary widely. In these cases facilitators can focus on outcomes.

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