The Art of Critique Writing, Part Two: A Level Playing Field
Media critiquing isn’t a spectator sport. We writers aren’t satisfied being delegated to the sidelines with the who, what, when, where, and how components of reportage. No, what we’re called on to do is explore the question of why a work of art matters. It’s our job to engage with a piece, talk back to it, and recognize its larger significance to the society, culture, and medium that produced it. We writers must remember that our strength comes not from the size of our font, but from our ability to be objective in our conclusions. And we must remember the following five components of critique writing, because it’s through our mastery of these ideas that our voices will fulfill their obligations.
- Evaluate a piece based on the artist’s ability to meet his or her goals—and not your personal preferences.
One can’t judge Woodland baskets as if they’re Southwestern pottery because the medium, culture, and functions are different. The same is true of trying to review a sculpture as a painting, or a jingle-dress dancer as if she were in a fancy-dance competition. Yet sometimes book and film critics evaluate work outside of its own genre. Literary fiction is not the same as either a murder mystery or a historical novel and we must approach them each differently. Critics should look for sound artistic input, but to do so we need to set aside our biases and meet the artist in the artist’s own arena.
I’m a voracious reader who loves fiction and history, but when the publishers of Yukhika-latuhse asked me to review Oneida comedian Eddie Campbell’s memoir, 44 Horrible Dates, I accepted their invitation. Campbell happens to be gay, but this happily married heterosexual wrote that Campbell’s perspective on same-sex dating was so wickedly funny that he “makes his readers allies in his bemusement.” It’s a great book, and I’m glad my literary preferences didn’t keep me from championing it.
- Use quotes whenever possible to give voice to the writer.
Subjective plot summarization is a necessary part of our work, but when illustrating a definitive point we should default to the primary text. Quotes are the critics’ version of the writer’s adage “show versus tell.” Moreover, quoting an artist’s words gives our conclusions credence because it allows the work to speak for itself.
In my review of archaeologist Douglas Scott’s historical account, Uncovering History, for Winds of Change magazine, I quoted Scott as noting that despite thousands of pieces being written on the Battle of the Little Bighorn, “neither oral tradition nor the documentary records have mentioned everything worth mentioning.” Scott’s admission surprised me, but it’s an intriguing assertion that I wanted to share with my readers.
- Consider a piece within the context of the artist’s or genre’s previous work. Successful artists are rarely stagnant, and so whenever possible we critics should explore an artist’s prior work to better identify his or her evolution. Failing to do so may result in our missing the complexity of an individual piece.
For example, each of Turtle Mountain Chippewa author Louise Erdrich’s novels fills in parts of her fictitious community’s story. While each novel is compelling on its own, a diligent reader will recognize the unspoken connections between the works. Collectively, the shared plot points are small but important additions that critics should illuminate.
It’s also important to note when a piece breaks new ground. In my review of the essay collection Stories Through Theories/Theories Through Stories, edited by Gordon D. Henry Jr., Nieves Pascual Soler, and Silvia Martínez-Falquina, I noted that the book was “equal in ambition to Louis Owens’s seminal work, ‘Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel.’” In both cases the books ushered in academic discourses in print and at conferences. Four years later, I’m thrilled that my review in the Tribal College Journal was accurate in its projection.
- Be honest and considerate, not sensationalist or degrading.
In order for our readers to trust us, we critics must give our honest opinions. That doesn’t mean that we should either exaggerate the merits of a work we enjoyed or completely dismiss one that has flaws. I direct plays for College of Menominee Nation, and I once received a review that was so flattering it was embarrassing. Yet another review pointed out a flaw that I had failed to correct. I appreciated both, but the latter of the two helped me improve.
Similarly, Charles Cambridge’s (Diné) review of Claiming Tribal Identity by Mark Edwin Miller for Tribal College Journal was honest about the book’s flaws while also highlighting its redeeming values. Cambridge first wrote, “Author Mark Edwin Miller creates an imaginary world where the federally recognized Five Tribes have an acknowledgment phobia toward southeastern groups wanting to become Indian tribes. The author creates political intrigue and conspiracies surrounding the acknowledgment process, while ignoring the natural desire of recognized tribes to protect their unique sovereign status.” While Cambridge was rightfully dismissive of the text’s faults, he threw Miller a bone by conceding, “The book’s redeeming value is the historical discussion of the self-identified Indian groups and their members’ personal life stories.”
- Invite your readers to engage worthwhile art themselves.
The best critics encourage others to explore a work of art themselves. We must never give away the ending, nor should we fail to invite others to experience the art firsthand.
Critics have an important role to play in every piece we review, because our work has the potential to unite art producers with art consumers. Yet despite our impressive repertoire of writing tools, our most respected asset is our ability to keep an open mind and to look at the bigger picture. We critics should remember that although we’re an invaluable part of the game, it is the artists themselves who choose our playing field. Our role is to both help improve the level of art being produced and usher in the spectators.
Cambridge, C. (2014). Review of the book Claiming Tribal Identity: The Five Tribes and the Politics of Federal Acknowledgment by Mark Edwin Miller. Tribal College Journal 26(2). Retrieved October 2015 from: http://www.tribalcollegejournal.org/archives/28957
Winn, R. (2011, May 13). Review of the book Stories Through Theories/Theories Through Stories edited by G.D. Henry Jr., N.P. Soler, and S. Martínez-Falquina. Tribal College Journal 22(4). Retrieved October 2015 from: http://www.tribalcollegejournal.org/archives/3140
Winn, R. (2014a). Review of the book Forty-Four Horrible Dates by Eddie Campbell. Yukhika-latuhse, 10. Retrieved October 2015 from: http://oneidanationarts.org/pdf/spring2014_yukhika.pdf
Winn, R. (2014b). Review of the book Uncovering History by Douglas Scott. Winds of Change 29(5), 62.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.