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What makes good criticism? It’s a big question, especially in this age where there are more critics than ever. Specialist blogs proliferate; anyone with a social media handle can review the latest films, novels, albums, plates of food….
Firstly, it’s important to separate general cultural criticism from academic criticism. The latter is deep-delving, forensically detailed. It exists in a sealed, specialist world, with its own language and narrowly focussed aims. Graduates starting out in journalism often (understandably) make the mistake of taking their lead from this kind of writing.
Journalistic criticism could not be more different. It should be informed but informal, knowledgeable but democratic. It should speak to the enthusiast and the novice. No jargon. Sparing use of adjectives. Almost never any adverbs. There is such a difference between analysis which is dense with ideas and analysis which is smart. The former is just turgid. Smart writing evaluates without laying anything on thick. And you should always know, at the end of a review, if the writer thought the subject was good or bad; enjoyable or tedious; worth seeing (or hearing or reading) or not. It’s funny how often this gets forgotten.
So, include all of the above and you’re onto a good thing. But for me, what elevates good criticism to great is style. A clever turn of phrase, or a carefully crafted joke. Two examples from the recent Observer reviews. Our pop critic describing Bjork at the Albert Hall as “dressed for the occasion like a cross between a bride and a moth drawn inexorably to a rave…” And Susannah Clapp on Good Canary at the Rose Theatre in Kingston: “A street of brownstones takes on fluorescent intensity. Windows shrink and expand; pills torrent from the sky; super-bright oranges and lime greens give way to blackness and a scarlet inferno.”
With this kind of writing, reading criticism becomes not just informative and interesting, but an experience of pure pleasure.
For more information on the Observer/Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism, click here.