This is a piece by Rebecca Dempsey reflecting on the Criticism Masterclass at the recent Emerging Writers Festival.
Photo: Alan Weedon (alnwdn.com)
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I'm in the Melbourne CBD, at the QV Food Court, which is on the ground floor but is reached via flights of stairs so that it feels like a mood-lit, trendily backdated basement, with its now bare concrete ceiling and exposed air conditioning ducts. It is teeming with backpackers, salad shop touts and streams of caffeinated foot traffic heading one way or another. I'm hunched on a stool pondering the midway point of the Emerging Writers Festival Criticism Masterclass being held at the Wheeler Centre across the road. I feel both radically outclassed by some of the guests, but also energised. Anwen Crawford’s keynote speech was especially effective in this way, with her considered and personal discussion of the body in relation to her music criticism. Her earliest attempted criticism was written at age 12, which she shared with us. It reminded me of my own writing. I wasn’t listing my favourite bands at that age but my diary posts usually turned into stories or reviews.
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Out of the bitter gale wandering its erratic bursts up and down Little Lonsdale Street, I observe like an outsider and, thanks to Anwen, I am even more aware of my public performance. I mean I watch myself as I observe as a means to communicate my experience of this day. I edit as I go, choosing what to focus on. As Anwen alluded to the tensions between the safety of private thoughts and public discourse I test them here. Yes, it would be safer to take my thoughts with myself, rather than engage with the world, but a critic analyses and then shares. To be a critic is to weigh the risk and speak anyway.
In this moment, under the QV lights strung beneath the concrete, once more I’m overwhelmed by my sense of being an outsider. I’m not from Melbourne and I wonder if I belong, to the city, or to this event. And with my disappointing whole grain sandwich crumbing the floor for the sparrows darting in and out, I'm considering why, during events like these, I feel this way.
As a writer, I’m mostly lost in worlds of my own devising, or musing, via a blog for an audience who can to choose to interact or not, digitally. Presented with writers who network and communicate with each other seemingly more readily than I do is a shock to my usual introversion. But then again, these birds don’t belong. They are an introduced species and have adapted as I must.
The tiny brown birds flit here, like me, searching for food and for shelter, and like me, they're soon on their way, but to where? Aren't we all interlopers in this polished concrete-floored thoroughfare? I recall the keynote and Anwen’s consideration of the significance of the Welcome to Country. It is thus right to feel like something of an imposter here then. Yet, it’s not quite that either. I stretch for the correct word while I’m in this place. Hiraeth? That yearning for someplace I can’t visit or never existed? Watching the people buzz around me, I’m overcome by a kind of grief for a past that never happened and perhaps a future that might not either.
I admit there are sometimes doubts about my abilities. Today, the doubt could have been acute, given the work read out by Emma Marie Jones and Sam van Zweden. If ever there was a reason to stop, it would have been each of their singular poetic faculties and erudition. Instead, I’m inspired; I need to read all their publications. I want to know what they read, the steps they took to get where they are. They burst into my consciousness like Athene from Zeus, fully formed and ready for the world. Surely, they didn’t begin like that though?
My meal holds no answers to these questions, but as I sweep away the detritus of lunch, I understand the point is that a critic does stand outside. Like Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, they find a niche; engage with culture and other critics. Whether through traditional essays such as Heller-Nicholas, or lyrical responses, like van Zweden, or through video, like Conor Bateman, each takes a surveyor’s view coupled with a scrutineer’s close examination. Crucially, however, they see the broad historical and cultural context, and, in addition, appreciate the minutia of a work or event. Critics see the city and the crumbs.
In hindsight, I have the privilege of an education. I find myself nodding along at the speakers' references to Kristeva and even Judith Butler (though I fear I seldom comprehended a word of Butler). However, I'm missing key ingredients. With their prior connections and networks, some of these critics feel to me like they're in an 'in' crowd, describing their university teaching, internships, books, and TV work, without explaining, how? How did they get that and that and that? Did I go to the wrong universities? Should my hair be a neon colour? What were the barriers they overcame, and importantly, how? Few answers are forthcoming.
Thus, I'm not one of 'them' but I'm not sure I'm one of the participants either. I've been published, I've critiqued texts professionally. Thus, I'm somewhere in between. Like in the food court, not quite inside, not quite outside, but here, like the birds, momentarily and for a reason.
Over thinking all this? Oh yes. Yet, this masterclass lends clarity to my equivocation.
Even if I don't have a defined peer group, which I am unsure as to how to remedy even in this City of Literature, I'm not starting from the ground floor. After lunch and after the final session, heading towards the train, I'm again suspended between levels, sometimes above the crowd, sometimes not, on the escalator, going places. Unlike the City Loop, I don't have a set path. But there isn't one. Each speaker engaged with texts and the wider culture in their unique way. Some approached works through breathtaking lyricism or through intelligent vision and others through traditional critical analysis, but all with dedication. They each worked for years to get to where they are. During their discussions they demonstrated that they knew what they knew. Following the signs to the lower platform, underground, I too, know what I know.
As a result of today, I’m in the throes of changing. For instance I was going to blog these reflections, but Sarinah Masukor and Stephanie Van Schilt expressed as some disdain for the practice. They emphasised the need to pitch over blogging, and to keep pitching. It’s not that I won’t blog any more, but for the first time, I pitched instead of blogged. And, it worked. After all, you’re reading this now.
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Rebecca Dempsey is a writer, mainly of short fiction, which has been most recently published in the US. She keeps a blog of reviews and reflections, often on Doctor Who, but not always, at writingbec.wordpress.com