Monday, December 5, 2005

What is criticism?

Essayist, fiction writer, memoirist and critic Gerard Windsor was last week awarded the annual Pascall Prize for critic of the year.

Windsor was travelling in Spain when told by email that he'd won this year's award and says he was glad it wasn't a surprise on the night, as the warning gave him the chance to prepare a coherent thank-you speech. SMH journalist Catherine Keenan in her December 1 piece on the award calls him a 'polarising figure' but doesn't say of whom.

The prize is the legacy of Sydney journalist Geraldine Pascall, who died of a stroke in 1983 at the age of 38; the inaugural winner was Marion Halligan in 1990. Other winners have included Roger Covell and Andrew Ford for music criticism, John McCallum for theatre and Noel Purdon and Julie Rigg for film. Last year's winner was literary critic Peter Craven, himself a more contentious figure in Australian literary circles than many of the objects of his critique.

The Pascall Prize is judged each year by a panel consisting predominantly of previous winners. It aims each year to identify and reward a critic whose work is itself creative, has 'the capacity to excite new interest' in a particular subject and which '‘helps Australians experience aspects of their culture with greater knowledge and perception'’. If they win the prize, says trustee Adrian Read, 'it will be for the writing itself.'

Driving home tonight from the Adelaide Critics' Circle Awards ceremony -- these are for theatre -- I serendipitously caught on Radio National a live recording of a panel of theatre people, Helen Thomson, Lee Christofis and Alison Croggon among them, discussing the difference between criticism and reviewing. Most hard-core literary types don't have any trouble making this distinction but it was interesting to hear theatre and dance critics try to thrash it out, as the differences when trying to write to a tight deadline about a live performance are, well, different.

Poet, critic and blogger Alison Croggon made the excellent point that theatre reviewing is usually straight journalism -- a brief description of an event, written to a tight deadline -- where 'criticism' is a more leisurely, reflective and discursive activity that puts theatre in the context of the wider culture.

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