Ever had a tour of your innards? I insisted on it once when I was about to have my appendix sliced away: my ultrasound operator guided me through the wondrous subways of my lower abdomen, the brilliantly compact fit of the organs, the parts that functioned and the parts that threatened to fail. I like to understand the way things work, the connections between things – and when I love something, I’m much more likely to talk keenly about the parts than ecstaticly about the whole.
That goes for music, books and movies as well as my own insides. My favourite critics are passionate experts like Kim Newman or Mark Kermode – people who have the magic trick of dismantling something to describe it, and reassembling it for assessment in the same m0tion. And my own criticism reads more like a tender ultrasound than the blazing necessity that Neil Kulkarni prescribes:
Accept that everything you say will be forgotten and ignored but write as if you and your words are immortal. Don’t just describe but justify – make sure the reader knows WHY the record exists whether the reasons are righteous or rascally. And always remember you’re not here to give consumer advice or help with people’s filing. You’re here to set people’s heads on fire.
Kulkarni’s contribution to the DiS critique-the-critique-athon is a terrific style guide for anyone who wants to make their writing harder, sharper, more essential. His advice on exclams, embarrassment and thinking like Ed Gein (“cut the fanny”) would be good for anyone’s work, whatever and however you write. But when he writes that “Getting song titles and lyrics right can be less important than nailing your feelings”, it shakes me to my editorial core. He’s right: criticism doesn’t become more thrilling with every layer of fact-checking, but I can’t give up the idea that everything has to be precise before it can be valuable.
And that’s why, maybe, I don’t write with the intoxicating fire of some of the writers I’ve grown up wanting to write like. When I read Charlie Brooker (him) say of Steven Wells (him too) “I disagreed with 85% of what he wrote, but I always wished I could hurl sentences together like him – he tossed words around like a demented cartoon chef. He seemed hilarious and furious, music journalism’s very own Sadowitz” – I envy that slapdash glory, and I know that the reason I can’t bear to throw or toss my words is that I have a precious horror of anyone being able to say that I’m only right 15% of the time.
© Sarah Ditum 2009