The Sunday Salon: That Harsh, Hissing Z

The other day, I wrote the word “criticize” into a comment box (while writing a comment, not just inputting a single word, that’d be weird) and then paused. I questioned the choice, so I tried out the word “critique” instead. Doesn’t that just sound nicer? It’s that critical –que; it’s soft, even though it’s a hard k. It’s elegant, round. Inoffensive. In short, it’s not “criticize”, with its hissing, harsh z. But doing that made me feel even more uncomfortable, and I realized what was wrong. I do my damndest to rampage through life enjoying it to the hilt on my own terms—my non-negotiable 11 PM bedtime, baby librarian, cranky old woman-in-training terms. I don’t apologize for being, well, me. But when I found myself typing “critique” instead of “criticize” because it seemed nicer, I found myself apologizing for looking at something with a critical eye, which is kind of my whole thing.

The word criticize—as well as the word critique, its French mother (you’re welcome)—derives from the ancient Greek κριτικός, or kritikos in the Latin alphabet, which means “able to judge, discerning, critical”. To criticize something, solely semantically speaking, is to judge it. No inherent positive or negative meanings, like, for instance, “to bless”. But I think it speaks volumes that both “to criticize” and “to judge” have such negative connotations in modern English. Specifically, negative social connotations—to criticize is to nag and to judge usually means someone’s main criteria for selecting people to interact with is highly arbitrary. The problem happens when that transcends the social context and infects the other contexts. There’s a reason the term “constructive criticism” has to have the word “constructive” in front of “criticism”; it means our society believes that most criticism isn’t constructive.

On top of that, a lot of mainstream discourse about the creative process tends to conflate author and text. Films like Shakespeare in Love and Becoming Jane are part of a narrative that assumes writers can only produce what they know, and, therefore, their work is their life, a phrase that will sound familiar to anyone who ever wrote “deep” poetry as a teenager. Most people rarely take it as literally as, say, Becoming Jane Eyre (ugh), but the idea persists. The truth is that a work is creative output; linked, obviously, to its author, but by no means an avatar of them. I can (and often do) extrapolate about an author’s worldviews based on their work, but, at the end of the day, a text is a conscious creation that is now set in stone by a dynamic human being (even if the author is dead!). It’s this conflation of author and text that translates “I don’t think Steven Moffat writes lead female characters with meaningful relationships to his male leads very well” to “STEVEN MOFFAT HATES WOMEN” to some people.

And, in recent years, I’ve seen the conflation of author and text go one further, to the conflation of reader and text. People get defensive when you point out that a beloved text might be or is problematic, which is a side effect of taking the time to criticize something properly, because nothing is wholly unproblematic. (And if it is, let’s be real, it is probably as boring as all get out.) The thought process goes thusly—if I like James Bond, and James Bond is sexist, that would mean that I am sexist, which I am not, so James Bond is not sexist! Here, I must quote from Social Justice League’s Rachael’s amazing post, How To Like Problematic Things:

As fans, sometimes we need to remember that the things we like don’t define our worth as people. So there’s no need to defend them from every single criticism or pretend they are perfect. Really loving something means seeing it as it really is, not as you wish it were. You can still be a good fan while acknowledging the problematic elements of the things you love. In fact, that’s the only way to be a good fan of problematic things.

And to be a fan is to love something in the best way. Which is why I hate, to the core of my being, people responding to critical overtures with “Oh, relax, it’s just a movie!”. Because criticizing something—picking a text apart, holding each piece up to the light, and then putting it back together again—is the best way I know to love something. It’s love that motivates me to analyze, to criticize, to judge—love for a story and love for an art form. To me, to criticize a text is to love a text, and that’s what that harsh, hissing z sound means to me: love. And I don’t apologize for that.

This was my last week of winter break—in fact, it might be my last winter break from school. I’m heading back for my last semester tomorrow, and it’s going to be… interesting. Interesting is the operative word. In any case, I managed to get through The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Rolling Stones 50, Where’d You Go Bernadette, and My Year of Flops this week, as well as make a dent in Wuthering Heights, which I’m quite enjoying.


What does the verb “to criticize” mean to you?

16 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: That Harsh, Hissing Z

  1. I agree that in many cases, making the effort to interact with a text and to criticize it indicates that one does care about something and find it worthy of contemplation. I often think that UNcritical acclaim seems vapid and undiscriminating. But yes, the z “sounds” harsher than the hard k. Great point about “constructive” criticism!

  2. There was an article in (the print version of) the Daily Telegraph yesterday wherein the journalist, Sarah Crompton, was making a similar point about “citizen journalists” and the general lack of critical judgement which most non-professional critics and writers have for the subjects which they write about (it was a bit of an anti-blogger article, but there was at least one valid point raised, I thought): a critic, she says, “is someone who devotes their time to the pursuit of cultural judgement.” Most professional critics have seen (or listened to) a LOT of whatever it is that they write about, and therefore can put new things into context – judging them, in other words. She argued that non-professionals didn’t have that knowledge and experience and therefore weren’t qualified enough to be taken as seriously… Crompton ended by saying “…I believe that the vibrancy of cultural debate needs citizens who have opinions and critics who try to put their opinions at the service of the bigger picture.”

    I don’t believe she’s entirely right – most journalists are journalists, and many critics appear to have got into the game by accident. But I do think that even as a part-time blogger, that you have a duty to readers to try to explain why you think something is good – or bad – or why you enjoyed it.

    • Hmm. Professional/amateur is really a matter of payment (if we’re striving to be objective, which we are!), and I think she’s using that binary to create a spectrum of people serious about a thing to people not serious about a thing. Words—those tricky little bastards. But I quite agree that simply saying “I don’t know, it just didn’t work for me” and giving up at that isn’t cricket.

  3. Z is harsh? Maybe I’m just too used to Polish, where Z is practically every other letter. I far prefer “criticize” to “critique”, though anyone who uses the word “problematize” needs to find a better word.

    Do zobaczenia. (Doesn’t sound harsh at all!)

  4. I enjoyed this post & agree w you. I find it tricky to write about books I either liked or loved but also had some kind of problem (usually racism, sexism, etc). I’ve yet to find a way to word it that doesn’t result in at least one comment saying ‘Oh, I know now to read this now.’


    I’m joking, I’m joking.

    Really, though, you make a lot of really god points, and I very much enjoyed reading your thoughts. Also intersting re: criticize and judge.

    I think it’s interesting how people become so protective of what they like. But nothing happens in a vacuum, and I don’t find it surprising that people react in that way given that we often judge people (positively or negatively) based on just what they like.

    Obviously I don’t disagree with anything you said here at all. I really really love this post.

    • Aw, thanks so much!

      I thin people buy a little too much into the idea of having friends just like them. It’s important to reach out to people who don’t like what you like or think like you do (who are also respectful of you), so you can constantly reevaluate things. You don’t want to end up in an echo chamber. My friends and I have a feminist forum every Friday, and one of my friends, who doesn’t identify as a feminist, enjoys coming because she gets to hear things she doesn’t hear from other sources, and we love having her, because she offers a different point of view.

  6. Love this post! I’m never sure what to say about books that are clearly problematic. In particular, I have a fondness for these turn of the century adventure novels that are, like, SUPER racist. And sexist. They are both. I don’t defend these things about them but I do sometimes want to say things like “BUT THEY ARE SO FUN AND AWESOME.” (Not a defense.)

  7. I like your description of your own terms (“baby librarian, cranky old woman-in-training”). My own two cents is that “critique” doesn’t sound softer than “criticize” because it’s the “crit” part of the word that sounds harsh! (Does that seem like a criticism of your post, though? Because I didn’t mean it to be.) I thought your points were excellent, and I no longer feel guilty about liking Orson Scott Card’s fiction even though I don’t subscribe to his entire belief system in real life.

    • Thank you! I do try and be specific—everybody’s idea of living life to the hilt is different.

      Yeah, that sounds like criticism—and criticism is good, useful, and lovely. So thank you! 😉 My family is French-American, so the word “critique”, being French, probably has some connotations of home and heritage to me which softens it for me.

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