During my time away from this page a couple of weeks back, I had been thinking: What Is the Worth of A Critic? This thought may have first come to me when I was asked to be a part of the reading team for this year’s Golden Baobab Prize for African Children’s Literature, somewhere in June.
In arts, a critic is everything. The best chisel of a piece of art work in progress is a critic. The writer’s best chisel is his reader. The poet’s best chisel is his audience. The playwright’s best chisel is his auditorium.
Every story is a critique of some social construct. The first critic of any piece of work is the writer himself. For a writer to write anything you enjoy reading, he must have critiqued the possible questions you will have on his choice of words, his storyline, his characters, his narrative voice, his grammar. Every moment while he writes, he is trying to outwit you; trying to tell you the same story in ways you have never heard; trying to keep you from getting bored, even trying to keep you awake. Critiquing your responses!
When I read any piece of writing, my mind goes into critic mode: probably the reason I am typically slower at reading than most. I unconsciously pick out words, pick apart sentences, perform reconstructive surgery on battered expressions in my head, all while I read; perhaps because, I want to write better than I read. I want to be the best writer I can be.
I started work on a book. It won’t be out soon but I hope it won’t wait forever. As I write, there is a little sprite that constantly comes back at me, pointing a finger at that sentence I wrote, asking why I used an extra word, made the sentence sound so cliché, made the paragraph run so long, kept the wording so terse and uninspiring. Isn’t there a better way to put that phrase? Do I really need that entire sentence? This word here is going to turn readers off. I criticize myself.
For eternity, I have been critiquing other people’s poems, even long before I started to put it out here on this blog. The reason why I do it for poetry is that it can hardly go wrong. Poetry is correct even when it is wrong. Poetry transcends some measure of judgment.
These past weeks have been filled with reading some exciting stories as part of the reading team of the Golden Baobab Prize and I have realized that a critic can be wrong too. Sometimes, going back and forth, reading a story over again and benchmarking a story against one’s own view and imagination of the world makes the story more open to you. You owe it to every writer whose work you read, to be as thorough, liberal and accepting of change and difference as a fair critic can be. If your view is narrow, your critique will be narrow. If you have seen enough of the world by traveling or by diverse reading, you will appreciate better those quaint twists in a story set in another part of the world. An art critic is not typically a judge; he is more of a supporter in the stands, maybe even the coach, urging on his players (the story, the writer) to a winning end. It may not have crossed many minds but the critic critiques because he is cheering you on to a win.
At this point of reading, there is one conclusion I can draw about the next generation of stories on African kids’ library shelves; they will be bold, they will be fearless and they will tell the story of today’s African. I know this because I have felt the roller coaster of emotions that writers have told their stories with. All of those stories, some affected by true (and oft times, harsh) African political, economic and cultural inflections, are the real reason why Golden Baobab’s grand vision will succeed. The African has been given another stage to tell his unheard story to the world.
One of these stories will go on to win. When it does and you hear anyone mention that it has achieved ‘critical acclaim’, just remember the critic. It all started with a writer who second-guessed the story he wanted to tell, who listened to his characters lie to him in the first and the second and the third drafts, and who, regardless of the odds, outwitted the judges, answered their unspoken questions and critiqued his way to triumph. In this game, only the best critic wins.