What is creative criticism?

1. Questions like this are always risky. All too often they conjure up a readily identifiable object with equally identifiable distinguishing properties, as if we’re asking, ‘What is an African elephant?’ Having no such objecthood or qualities, creative criticism, as a necessarily singular and ever-changing practice, escapes this kind of definitional logic.

2. Or so I thought, until I wrote an essay on the topic for a book called The Critic as Amateur (2020). Following the usual academic protocols, the manuscript was submitted for peer review by two readers. They liked it but wanted me to define what I meant by ‘creative criticism’ and to set out my ‘method’ more clearly. Exercising my right of reply, I told the editors I could do neither because, bafflingly but perhaps also tellingly, the readers had somehow missed the point. All I could suggest is that we confront this head on by prefacing the published version with the following mock ‘trigger warning,’ using some wording from the readers’ reports:

The following does not contain a definition of ‘creative criticism’ which is not a determinate or determinable critical method and can never be a school. Using Rabindranath Tagore and Maurice Blanchot as guides, the essay takes an alternative, anti-scholastic route through the labyrinth of a multilingual intellectual history in order to explore the possibilities for creative criticism as a practice, particularly in today’s corporatized university, and to reaffirm the public value of literary innovative writing in all its unpredictable, generative and experiential dimensions.

The Critic as Amateur is specifically about literary criticism—hence ‘literary writing’—but, for reasons that should become clearer soon, I prefer the adjective ‘innovative’, which is less presumptive, perhaps less burdened too.

3. Things worked out in the end as the editors published the essay with this prefatory warning and no other major changes, but the experience left me with a nagging question: is it possible to produce a brief, non-definitional, non-prescriptive guide to the kind of creative criticism that underpins a book like Artefacts of Writing? Here’s an attempt at a very short, five-step, open-ended how-to:

Step 1: Begin by ferreting out by whatever means you can examples of writing you find genuinely puzzling, perhaps even impossible to read. (Remember you are a human reader with a bio-cultural brain now living in an age when words like these are regularly ‘read’ by machines for machine-purposes, which serve larger all-too-human interests, usually of corporations or states, too of course.) These writings may be puzzling because they are in a language or writing system you don’t know, or because they seem foreign to you in some odd or indefinable way, despite being superficially legible given your own prior training and experience as a reader.


Step 2: Do whatever you can to avoid becoming one of the many bad male readers who populate James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939)—some of whom are rather bot-like. Take only one example: the ‘ornery josser, flat-chested fortyish, faintly flatulent and given to ratiocination by syncopation in the elucidation of complications’ (FW, 109).  Besides all that, the josser ‘cannot read a quite everydaylooking stamped addressed envelope.’ Why? Because he focuses exclusively on the letter it contains, its contents, or, even more narrowly, what he supposes to be the letter’s meaning, ignoring not only the envelope itself but ‘the enveloping facts themselves circumstantiating it.’ So don’t be a josser: read as an embodied bio-cultural brain encountering equally worldly, even if digital, inscriptions in all their myriad, changing forms and contexts—since, as Joyce also notes, ‘the world, mind, is, was and will be writing its own wrunes for ever’, whether on stone, papyrus, bamboo, parchment, paper, or, we could now add, online (FW, 19, see the ‘Strip Teasy’ post).

Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist.

Step 3: Bear in mind that the culture might already have packaged these innovative forms of writing in various envelopes as ‘political’, ‘literary’, ‘philosophical’, ‘religious’, ‘visual art’ or something else. If you are attached to a university, things may be trickier still because these envelopes may link to various established and circumstantiating fields or disciplines or sub-disciplines, creating more thickets of preconception. All these larger and smaller envelopes may be interesting, even helpful, so worth attending to, but, to make the most of Joyce’s analogy, don’t forget that you can always create your own, since, by definition, letters can always be readdressed and put in new envelopes.

The world is everything that is the case.

Step 4: In the ideal scenario, these puzzling, always worldly encounters with innovative writing will re-make you as a reader, and then encourage you to find or create a critical language, perhaps even a new mode or so-called ‘voice’, in which to write about the experience. Even more ideally, making something of your experience in this idiom will give these forms of writing a new lease of life, helping others see the special kinds of work they can do, and so reaffirm their public value. Much may depend on this creatively-critical ability since it marks the increasingly fragile difference between you and the many machines now doing so much of the reading out there. GPT-3, the latest (2020) iteration of OpenAI’s powerful text generating language model, is now capable of producing plausibly human-like prose starting from a very minimalist prompt, such as ‘Write a 100-word essay on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake’ — for the result see below.

The world is all that is the case.

Step 5: If all else fails, and you’re still not sure how to orient yourself as a creative critic, then take inspiration from this ancient Zen saying, which applies to many concepts, including creative criticism: ‘A finger is needed to point at the moon, but what a calamity it would be if one took the finger for the moon.’

The world is everything, that happens to be the case.


The sentence/letter intersecting this post/envelope is the first proposition in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus in various iterations, beginning with Zhang Shenfu’s Chinese translation from 1927-28 (literal back translation: ‘The world is everything that happens’), then Wittgenstein’s original German from 1921, followed by the English of C. K. Ogden from 1922 (GPT-3’s preferred option), David Pears and Brian McGuinness from 1961, and Peter Caws from 2006. It is, to my mind, an endlessly beguiling puzzle as a proposition and as a translatable sentence. As one of the most innovative exercises in writing to emerge in that year of abundance, 1922, the English Tractatus asks to be read alongside Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Mansfield’s The Garden Party and other Stories, and Joyce’s Ulysses.


 GPT-3’s short essay on Finnegans Wake:

Wake essay

And here is GPT-3 regenerating responses to the prompt ‘Explain this in simple English’ — this being the opening of Finnegans Wake:

GPT3 Wake opening

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