Towards a Poetics of Audio: The Importance of Criticism
It is an exciting time for audio. The tumultuous growth of podcasting and the concomitant development of digital channels, multiple platforms, and user-driven content has not only expanded and re-energized the form, but forced public radio to loosen its stays and let down its hair.
Where once we might have talked of “the system” or “the industry,” we can now confidently say we are part of “a culture.” But—we are missing two important components of a vital culture: a critical language, and with it, a critical practice. The language should be expressly designed to describe our forms, tropes, and themes, but with reference to the larger culture and world of ideas. And the practice should be constant, robust, and open, with critical tools wielded to help us better understand our work, and ourselves, and to help our public to better understand us as artists.
In presenting this argument, I am indebted to A.O. Scott’s vibrant defense and exploration of the topic, Better Living Through Criticism.
A Microscope, Not a Bludgeon
Before I can urge the importance of criticism, it will help to define it, or at least, since there is a lively and abundant discourse about this, to erect some tent poles. First, criticism does not imply negative criticism. It is an act of engagement and assessment, with myriad roads to comprehension, appreciation, and investigation of a work. Or, if you will, it is a Swiss Army knife with multiple extensions.
Here are some of them: there are some external standards to which works can be held; creative works have not only “content,” but meaning. A dimension in which how something is said, as well as what is being said, is important. Criticism both holds the creator to account and places any individual work in a landscape of other works. And good criticism educates the audience.
People have been discussing and debating this topic for ages. Alexander Pope actually devoted an entire epic poem to the subject (now, those were the days!). His Essay on Criticism (1711) emphasizes the importance of standards, which in the 18th century often looked to the authority (a version of the Platonic ideal): “First follow NATURE, and your Judgment frame by her just Standard, which is still the same…”
A.O. Scott, writing in our own product- and media-saturated time, talks about criticism’s role in helping to make sense of the bewildering cornucopia of stuff that’s on offer. (The subtitle of his book promises as much: “How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth.”). In an imaginary dialogue with a skeptical alter-ego, he observes: “There are so many demands on our attention, so many offers of diversion and enlightenment on the table, that choosing among them can feel like serious work. Q: And that work—the winnowing and contrasting, the measuring and interpreting—is what you call criticism.”
So a critic has an obligation, a mission, a calling. And to answer it, he or she wields an instrument: it can be likened to a microscope, or a telescope, or calipers, but it is definitely not a bludgeon. Through regard and analysis, it helps us to understand the creative properties of works and to deepen our experience of these works. The taxonomies that result serve the further purpose of extending the possibilities for the form. Even though artists often say they are not influenced by critics, they are influenced by an intellectual climate that extends the understanding and meaning of forms and practice. In other words, artists wind up thinking differently because of the way things are thought about.
Then there is the issue of securing the place of audio in the larger culture. As Tom Stoppard famously writes in his radio play Artist Descending a Staircase (an homage to transgressive artist, Marcel Duchamp, whose work wasn’t taken seriously either), “There are two ways of becoming an artist. The first way is to do things by which is meant art. The second is to make art mean the things you do.” Either way, we need criticism.
For almost all other mediums, there is a parallel critical dimension. And while it is beyond the scope of this essay to exhaustively review the ways in which other arts and disciplines have been served by critical discourse, we need only be reminded of a few examples to recognize the bounty that our own fallow ground has failed to yield.
A disclaimer: As A.O. Scott points out, much of what we now regard as “art” came into being without the existence of formal criticism, often in contexts that were either ritual (Greek theatre) or so strongly imbued with particular values (the Renaissance) as to shape artistic intuition with an unmistakable identity.
Even so, subsequent development of the field of criticism has helped to illumine many arts, and many individual works of genius, in ways that help to guarantee their transmission and relevance. Bernard Berenson’s many books brought the Italian Renaissance into the 20th century; Cezanne was virtually unknown until the English critic Roger Fry began to champion him. In the theatre, just to cite one of many examples, Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party” (1957) was almost universally reviled, except for the lone voice of reviewer Harold Hobson, who wrote: "I am willing to risk whatever reputation I have as a judge of plays by saying ... that Mr. Pinter, on the evidence of this work, possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London." Without someone to say “Look again,” or just “Look,” paradigm-shifting work is in danger of remaining marginalized, or rendered invisible.
In addition, the creation of critical contexts and a language shaped towards definition and explication means that practitioners are given different ways to access and understand their disciplines.
The media arts have also been strengthened and enriched by criticism. The intellectuals of the French New Wave helped to establish Hollywood B pictures of the 1940s as a distinct genre worthy of reverence and imitation. And that reassessment lead to the creation of new works that drew on the conventions and tropes of the older forms.
Something similar has happened to television in the last decade or so. A combination of new platforms and economic determinants have made television—particularly cable television--the eminent domain of complex programs and outstanding acting ensembles, and critical writing has risen to the challenge, creating a vital symbiosis. An appreciation of the fact that this 60- something entertainment genre has re-invented itself resulted in a re-assessment by professionals: Suddenly you weren’t selling out if you did TV; you were going to a source of plum roles, complex writing and compulsive viewing. Who wouldn’t want to be there?
These examples can be our beacons, because now it’s audio that is at a tipping point, now audio that is the mature form experiencing a rebirth. So now is the time for us to act to make sure our new culture is fully enfranchised.
The Path Not Taken: Where Was Radio Criticism?
I’ve been thinking about this issue—the paucity of a critical tradition in our field—for a while. Before I became a producer, an age-revealing eon ago, I was a dance and theatre critic, and when I began to work in broadcast, I was amazed to find radio so clumsily situated among the arts, which is how I thought of it since I produced radio drama. And coming from a field rich in critical journals and outlets for criticism, I was bemused to find that the only organ that served the public radio system was the trade journal Current. In 1988 I was involved in the formation of AIR, which struggled to gain respect for practitioners in a largely invisible profession. I started to see a relationship between the marginalization of producers and the lack of discourse about their work. The gap was brought home also in 2002 when I started teaching at The New School in New York. I couldn’t find any critical texts to work with, and I had to re-purpose film studies texts.
So calling for the establishment of a critical tradition isn’t just an intellectual exercise, any more than criticism itself is. There are practical ramifications. If we don’t encourage criticism (and I’m not talking about peer or editorial review, which I’ll address below) we aren’t sufficiently valuing our work. And if we don’t, neither will others, and neither will history. Despite the “hot” nature of audio now, this has been a problem since the inception of contemporary radio—it is ephemeral. And greater access alone doesn’t guarantee endurance. The more crowded the field becomes, and the more varied and complex the work, the more we need to be able to assess and explain it.
A Little History: Golden Age to NPR
It is worth reviewing the history of our field to help us understand why there is such a meager critical framework, no Oxford Book of Audio Prosody, if you will. Then we can look at what developed instead, at the nature and function of criticism, and at long-term benefits.
Radio broadcasting began in America in the early 20th century; by the 1920s it was the dominant entertainment medium of its day, empowered by major corporate networks. At the same time, a parallel universe of university and municipal stations—local and with modest resources—grew up and would eventually become the basis for the public radio system. Neither the robust commercial world of the 1920s-1940s nor public system that emerged in the late 1960s were environments conducive to audio criticism.
In the so-called “Golden Age” of American broadcast radio, the medium evolved from being a backwater to being a vast prolific cash cow and entertainment medium. A tremendous amount of programming was produced, some of it justly cherished today, but it was not situated as a fine art, and no critical field evolved in response to it. The cessation of that world, and the moving of its talents and energies to the nascent medium of television is not our subject here, but suffice to say it opened up the avenue for the creation of public radio (in response to a rightly perceived threat to news and educational broadcasting).
The new form, however—as initially embodied by National Public Radio—defined itself primarily as a news service for member stations, and for its first decade had limited resources and little artistic centralization. Despite the fact that the public radio system that eventually emerged has been the source of extraordinary work, there was little opportunity or impetus here, either, for critical review. (Sound art—situated with the world of conceptual art and galley spaces—developed independent of broadcasting in the 1990s. It, too, has also only recently become part of arts’ critical discourse.)
So some of our problems are in public radio’s DNA. There are standards, but they are often the standards of good journalism, with its constraints and formulas, in addition to opportunities and remarkable craft. And they are almost always applied internally, in the course of production, not externally as part of a larger critical discourse.
NPR, of course, came to produce and embrace many types of programming, and the public radio system itself grew well beyond the confines of NPR, but the pattern had been set: radio/audio is about programming, and it lives in an eternal present. And you can’t have an artform without artists: for many years public radio submerged the identity of its creators, other than high-profile hosts of national shows.
Heard, But Not Seen: The Consequences
We have other problems: we have been disconnected from our own history, with few ways to trace the development of our form, to recognize its practitioners, to classify and analyze them. And by “our form,” I am referring specifically to work done since the creation of NPR, in, or in some measure derived from, the public radio system and its descendants. (The current audio boom includes work that does not derive from the public radio culture and its practitioners, but still exists in an environment that is affected by its gaps and lapses.)
This is in stark contrast to the history of old-time radio. Want to know how many radio dramas were produced by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and its successor the Campbell Playhouse? There’s an entire website devoted to this, and many mentions of Welles’ radio work in books about him and in those chronicling the Golden Age broadcast era. Want to know how many plays were produced and/or acquired for distribution by National Public Radio’s now defunct NPR Playhouse? And who wrote them? Or acted in them? Good luck with that. There are several substantial books about NPR, but they are primarily corporate histories, focusing on NPR as an institution, and highly visible tent-pole programs like All Things Considered and Morning Edition. For the most part they leave in the literal dark the vast body of work created by independents in and for the system.
It is a pervasive problem. Golden Age Radio has a legion of fans, sacred texts, and a clear taxonomy. There is no defined curatorial practice for contemporary radio and audio. New York City’s Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television & Radio) for example, has extensive holdings related to commercial and Golden Age radio; its contemporary collection is insubstantial by comparison.
We are missing some of the important building blocks of a critical system: models from the past, and what A.O. Scott calls “a pantheon”—artists about whose excellence there some general agreement, and whose influence can be clearly articulated and traced. He says, “every generation of artists seeks to crawl out from under the overhang of past masters.” Except ours, which does not identify, recognize, or aggregate them.
Imagine teaching theatre with no access to Euripides, or Shakespeare, or Arthur Miller? Or Suzan Lori Parks? Imagine grasping art, and art history, if you weren’t able to see works any older than Andy Warhol’s? And there was no one to explain those.
You get the idea.
A Call to Arms
Here’s a specific example: Reply All producer PJ Vogt gave a fascinating and intense presentation at the Third Coast Radio conference this past November (2016) about a feature he’d done on LSD microdosing (“Shine On You Crazy Goldman,” November 2015). At no time did he refer to the infamous model for explorations of this type, Hunter Thompson’s 1971 Rolling Stone article (and subsequent novel) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Did Vogt know the work? Or the tradition of Gonzo journalism to which all public radio is indebted? Or did he and his fellow producers arrive at their decisions and conclusions in a way that at least felt to them sui generis? Any answer would be interesting. The point is where is our forum for asking the question, pursuing the poetics, comparing and contrasting? Oh, of course, we can ‘tweet’ PJ, or post something to his Facebook page, but social media is not a critical tool.
What exactly would critical discourse gain us that our theoretically transparent world can’t offer? Well, for one thing, the ability to move beyond the creator to the world of the creation itself.
It is a sign of maturity in an art form when it moves beyond the works of the doers into the realm of the thinkers. Harold Clurman has guided successive waves of theatre directors with his brilliant book On Directing, in which he wrote, “Theater is not an accumulation of ingredients: it is a composite organism greater or lesser than its several components.” But, as he went to write, it is the theatre critics who help us understand the choices they make, how we perceive their productions, and how those choices reflect a culture at work.
A.O. Scott points out that one of the first models for this came from inside the poetic process and has given us one of our more resonant expressions for what we might be looking for in the act of critical appreciation. It’s Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn (you read it at school, but here it is again):
Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
You don’t have to be a fan of Romantic verse to grasp the essence of Keats model. If you regard something long enough, with real attention, it will yield up “truth and beauty.” And even if, as Scott cautions, there is a danger in the “subjective universality” of believing there is agreement about these terms, the inquiry remains important.
If we don’t have criticism, we will never be anything but a craft. And if we don’t have criticism from outside our own community, we will remain a club. Discussions of radio and audio work tend to focus on technical issues because we have an established technical vocabulary (flanging, distortion, masking, peaking, etc.), or structure (Is there a good story arc? Are there good characters? Are the stakes high?), or on socio-political factors (Is there a proper gender/racial/socio-political mix?), or journalist issues (Is it well sourced, unbiased, etc.?). These are highly evolved criteria that we inherited from print and that were refined in the crucible of NPR.
Show Me the Poetry
But what of our ability to discuss the psychology, or philosophy, or metaphorical constructs in radio and audio work? One function of good critical language is to give us an enlarged understanding of something more—the aesthetic underpinnings of a creation, and something to aspire to other than the technical means by which that work is created.
The Mona Lisa would not be the icon she is today without the romantic writings of Walter Pater, the 19th-century esthete who created a mysterious persona for her. The films of Alfred Hitchcock are marvels of cinematic craft, but are just as often discussed in terms of the psychological clues that are embedded in the mise en scene. Sex, dread and disorder are key themes for Hitchcock, and dozens of books and essays discussed them in every way imaginable.
The only work in the history of radio to reach unassailable iconic status is Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, which is soon to be celebrating its 100th anniversary. A critical tradition will help us to swell those ranks. Our medium itself is getting on for 100. And yet we have few great works universally shared and recognized. Where are our Canterbury Tales, Hamlet, Ulysses, Guernica, Sense and Sensibility, Godfather, Take the A Train, 9th Symphony? (Make up your own list—that’s the point,)
There is, as yet, no book exploring the ways which Jad Abumrad and Radiolab have reconfigured the landscape of radio using the tools of musical composition (and so much more) in the service of arcane facts, scientific conundrums, and complex moral issues. In the world of cinema, Jad might be termed an auteur—a term crafted by film critic Andrew Sarris in the wake of that French New Wave movement. What would happen to our understanding of his work, and of the cadre of producers who have followed his lead, if we could avail ourselves of that tradition and its language, or find new language that responds to the challenge of that complex work? And what if we could learn about seminal radio programs as schools and movements?
There are also (now) dozens of books on the feminist dialectic in literature and cinema, belatedly though those fields came to it. The Heart (Kaitlin Prest; Mitra Kaboli) is the closest thing we have to works of Anais Nin, not to mention elements of Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and its creators’ kinship with ground-breaking women directors like Catherine Breillat and Barbara Hammer. When will we see The Heart investigated with the care and curiosity that has insured a place in the academy for feminist work in other disciplines? Close analysis of the show’s productions would be illuminating, and help place them in this larger frame.
Criticism is a hedge against invisibility. It gives mass and intellectual weight to existing forms that help them to thrive. The radio theatre director and writer Arthur Yorinks, who has been laboring for many years in the salt mines of radio drama (until recently a virtual endangered species in the U.S.), has this to say about how a critical culture could help: “It is a deep belief of mine that one of the reasons radio drama, audio theater, whatever one calls it withered in America is the near total absence of informed criticism of the field. I think it's vitally important to the health of our field, not only for my own work, but for ANY work—it creates a conversation and like all conversations, some of it might be off the mark, but it's crucial for innovation and the health of the field. There's a long and interconnected path that criticism (informed, of course, which is crucial) helps to create between the artist and the audience lending a form of respect that can push the artist and the audience to realize there are standards--standards we take for granted in other artistic fields—but are lacking in ours.”
Not a Club
We do a disservice to the serious work of all radio and audio artists—and certainly can’t help disseminate their values—if we discuss them only in their own contexts, and among ourselves.
Which is one of our other problems: as a culture, we’re a coterie. In the past decade, some great resources have become available that have done much to surface and share our culture, but most of them are generated from within, and are self-directed.
To name only a few: Reality Radio, that fine collection of essays, was a welcome addition to the scene, but it is one half of a whole: it offers important reflections by major producers, editors, and creative sound artists about their work, but no critical appreciation by an objective, or even subjective, third party.
Third Coast’s Re:sound has proved to be a tireless excavator of the treasure trove of modern audio works, but this act of reclamation is still coming from within the field. And Transom’s HowSound is a similarly precious collection of encounters with significant producers and their methods. Ironically, the spread of radio/audio/media courses in colleges has insured that individual teachers are creating an awareness of the culture, but this is a diffuse phenomenon that still lacks a core curriculum or resources. (When I propose a new course, I often feel like Harold and the Purple Crayon—if there isn’t a road, draw it.)
With the Internet and social media, we are only just beginning to see the creation of a common culture. Still, without an independent critical awareness, we’re stuck with what Scott calls “the language of the initiated” or the “genius of the hive.” Scott references an article by Jacob Silverman, published in Slate, that addressed this issue. It was called “Against Enthusiasm,” and warns against “clubbiness and gladhanding.”
Let’s face it: we are sometimes guilty of this (clubbiness and glad-handing) although for many defensible reasons: in part because for a long time ours has been an under-appreciated, under-recognized, and under-paid field, so the twin instincts of solidarity and insecurity reign; in part because the few forums that exist are more like a marketplace, or a town square, than an environment for critical debate. Longing for inclusion and fear of exclusion in the system is understandable, but shouldn’t prevent us from taking control of our aesthetic cultural history as much as we have tried to take control of our markets and programs.
The trick is, we must do this by cultivating a language beyond our own, and voices beyond ourselves, or at least work on adding to our language and urging some of our own to take that step.
Critical movements evolve with the engagement and collusion of individuals, but then grow into transmittable systems of thought. That happened in literature with the Aesthetic movement and the Practical Criticism movement; and, as noted, in film with the French New Wave (among others). (Incidentally, there is an Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies; where is ours?)
Our problem isn’t that we can’t converse or analyze, but that we don’t allow ourselves the kind of discourse in which aesthetic disagreement is encouraged and practiced regularly in any independent organ. We don’t have forums that imagine and examine aesthetics, instead, we have passionate debates about vocal fry, or coding, or representation—incredibly important, but limiting. Let’s move on, also, to talking about how diversity has changed us aesthetically, not just politically/socially. And confront how complicated cultural confluence is and why the act of creation is alembic.
We’ve established that critical appreciation in the context of a defined culture differs from having editorial standards (a profession coming into its own in this country) or technical standards. And it sure as hell differs from our landscape of app- and social-media dominated selections. Criticism is not a matter checking the iTunes charts, or of swiping right or left, or of tweeting, or sharing. I don’t want to “like” something. I want there to be a coherent universal reason why and I want that reason to be bigger than the artist, the work, or me. And I want whatever it is to be accessible and transmittable to the general public.
Proliferation brings its own challenges. “Groping in an epistemological fog just about defines today’s podcast environment,” Scott observes wryly. And the proliferation is not just of content, but of the commodification of it; the growth of networks, the tendency to regard works as products, assessed in terms of performance and income. “Marketplace values,” instead of “intangible values,” notes Scott. Before audio once again (as in the old days of broadcast radio, with its architecture of gatekeepers and concentrated sources of funding) comes to be all about the survival of the fittest. We owe it to ourselves to take that important next step of ensuring the survival of the best. If we help to empower better listeners, people will make better work.
When thinking about who might fulfill these roles, I of course thought of editors, who do perform this function, albeit for individual works, and presumably do so with some standards in mind. The excellent editor Julia Barton, to whom I put this question, comments: “I do think editors are ideal critics in many way, since when it comes to audio, one has to have a good ear trained to hear the decisions that producers and programmers make (and most importantly, what they leave out of stories, their shortcuts and paths not taken).”
But Barton also makes the salient point that the media industry generally does not seem ready to give elbowroom to a new form of criticism: “Until, say, The New Yorker wants to add an audio critic to its staff, there's just no safe haven for people qualified to do this work. It's a shame, but that's how things currently stand.”
Absolutely. But it’s worth noting that this situation can change and evolve—indeed, is changing. This essay is being presented on a site for audio fiction, a form that existed in the shadows ten years ago. There was no formal dance criticism in newspapers until the explosion of the field in the 1930s and 1940s made it essential to respond. Then existing critics in other fields (like the New York Times’ music critic John Martin) began to learn new languages, and at the same time writers drawn to the newly emerging dance forms began to self-identify, and this is happening, to a modest degree, already in existing print and some online outlets (see below).
It’s A Start
There has always been a spotty and vestigial “literature” of radio and audio. There were fanzines in the Golden Age, and the UK publication Radio Times has covered programming for years. But its content is more in the spirit of the TV Guide—fulsome features, rather than criticism. In the realm of public radio in this country, certain shows, by virtue of novelty, excellence, and a critical mass that makes them hard to ignore, have pushed through the ceiling to garner media attention: Prairie Home Companion in its ‘80s heyday; This American Life; Radiolab; Serial.
Recently, however, The Guardian has begun to publish reviews of individual programs and podcasts its editors seems to feel tap into the zeitgeist. In November 2016, the Arts section of The New York Times ran a feature entitled “11 Fiction Podcasts Worth Listening To,” though its one-paragraph encomiums can hardly be considered reviews. In January 2015, The New Yorker, an important cultural bellwether (as Julia Barton indicated in her comment), published an appreciation by Sarah Larson of the NPR program Invisibilia that does address radio as an artform—indeed, it is entitled “Invisibilia and the Evolving Art of Radio.” But these are the exceptions that prove the rule, with much of the vast landscape of radio and audio still excluded, and no regular platform for these discussions.
As Devon Taylor reminded me in a peer review of this essay, an encouraging development was the creation, several years ago and now defunct, of The Timbre, an online critical site she co-founded, which specifically aimed to fill the gap between creation and criticism with deep dive podcast reviews. It was, perforce, sui generis, and still not reflective of a shared critical language, but heartening in its assumption that—as in Scott’s earlier contention—audio is worthy of this level of attentive listening, regard, and discernment. And while earlier schools of criticism evolved from the traditional cultural essay form, in the realm of print journalism, reviews were often the first step to more mature and nuanced forms of criticism. So efforts of this kind, anywhere, are welcome. Practice makes perfect.
But for these efforts to “take,” criticism still needs to happen more comprehensively. Public radio really came into its own when it was simultaneously embraced institutionally at the station level, and a first generation of producers, performers and journalists identified with it as a professional sphere. Audio criticism needs this kind of stimulation.
What Do We Want, Then?
Well, we know (or at least I think we know) what we don’t want. We don’t want to create monsters, certainly, the sort of windy self-aggrandizers Pope warns against in his Essay on Criticism:
But as the slightest Sketch, if justly trac'd,Is by ill Colouring but the more disgrac'd,So by false Learning is good Sense defac'd.Some are bewilder'd in the Maze of Schools,And some made Coxcombs Nature meant but Fools.In search of Wit these lose their common Sense,And then turn Criticks in their own Defence.Each burns alike, who can, or cannot write,Or with a Rival's or an Eunuch's spite.All Fools have still an Itching to deride,And fain wou'd be upon the Laughing Side;If Maevius Scribble in Apollo's spight,There are, who judge still worse than he can write
Some have at first for Wits, then Poets past,Turn'd Criticks next, and prov'd plain Fools at last;Some neither can for Wits nor Criticks pass,As heavy Mules are neither Horse or Ass.
And we don’t want a vast self-justifying reviewing afflatus of the kind that plagues consumer entertainment.
What would be our aspirations for this new realm? Not to practice “meanly” but not to forget, either, that what criticism does is to reaffirm the importance of the thing itself, even if it means we take issue with a particular example. Our field should be inclusive, but our pantheon cannot be, or this is a futile exercise. Otherwise we’re all just in one of those kindergarten classes where everyone is a special snowflake, or gets a rosette. Let’s have the courage to discern and then we’ll have the possibility of a wider platform for excellence without having to either embrace or apologize.
And wouldn’t it be good to add another professional dimension to a field that is only beginning to realize that different skills mean different kinds of contributions to the form? In discussions about radio/audio production, in the structure of startup programs, and networks, and in job listings, there is much more emphasis now than there used to be on the separate and interconnected contributions of producers, editors, sound designers, musicians, actors, and how these roles are distinct.
So why shouldn’t we also have our Hilton Als, Bernard Berenson, Pauline Kael, A.O. Scott, Susan Sontag, Edmund Wilson?
Our critical language must be organic and fertile; our critics courageous and acute. We tend as a community to be anti-doctrinaire, but maybe we do need at least a little bit doctrine, the way Bill Siemering’s visionary National Public Radio Purposes (1970) paved the way for the system. A practice that avoids glibness and vagueness, that goes beyond hype and narcissism, that is rigorous, but embracing, that give us a way of describing things that opens them up and spreads them around. Surely we can do better, for example, than to term the subtle, community-creating, elegant technique of juxtaposing voices in features by the unlovely name of “butt cut”?
Scott says one important job of the critic is to look for “larger ideas.” What might those be in our brave new world of critical appreciation? Well, something that moves us, as Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn urges, to look beyond the physical to the metaphysical. So—to conclude by honoring just one work that I admire hugely—Scott Carrier’s “The Test” could be discussed in terms of the existential questions it clearly raises, not just as an adroit and tactful piece of journalism and personal narrative. Pick your own cherished example. Start spreading the news.
Before we become completely commoditized, we owe this to ourselves. We know we offer Truth and Beauty. Let’s invite someone else to say so: out loud.
Sarah Montague is an award-winning public radio producer and director of documentary, spoken word, and drama programs, including SELECTED SHORTS, the national broadcast series featuring short fiction in performance, and an award-winning revival of Archibald Macleish’s The Fall of the City. She has also produced audio theatre readings and live drama at WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Performance Space. She has contributed features to Morning Edition, On the Media; Only a Game; and Studio 360, and wnyc.org. She is an adjunct professor of culture and media at Eugene Lang College/The New School, where she co-founded the Internet radio station newschoolradio.org. and teaches courses in media, audio theatre, and journalism.