These notes were included in the souvenir program that was distributed at the launch of the award at the Vancouver Playhouse on April 18, 2017.


Apologia pro vita sua

Engagement with the imagination and creative expression of others is one of the ways we develop our moral sensibilities, using our experience of art as a way to understand our place in the universe.

At its most basic, the critic’s job has always been to be the context provider, the interface between the act of creation and the imaginative activity that it liberates. Despite the traditional assumption of mutual antagonism, the critic is the artist’s best friend, if the job is done right.

We are privileged and passing occupiers of this marvellous earth. Our contacts with art become part of our personal search for authenticity, the hidden truths of our daily being. Books, plays, paintings, ballets, music … they all have the potential to express ideas and insights that we have perhaps intuited but not been able to articulate: glimpses of the phantoms of sublimity.

The best pieces of criticism not only illuminate the event or object under discussion, they give us ways to think about them. They share enthusiasms, provocations, disappointments and pleasures that we feel as individuals. By giving us insight into how other people think about the things we experience they encourage us to see the world and the way we live in it from perspectives that are new to us.

Cultural commentary will not produce a cure for cancer. It will not take us to Mars: not physically, at least. But in its constant probing of new ideas and its ceaseless explorations of the human spirit it gives us ways to rethink who we are and contemplate how we can be better. Through the shared experience and examination of artistic expression the critic and the cultural commentator inspire us to aspire.

And I salute the humane vision, the generosity and the sheer goodness of heart that animates not just this inspirational project but everything Yosef Wosk does to make our world a better place, for those who are here now and for those who will follow. He’s the kind of reader every writer writes for. He’s the kind of leader every civilized society should have.


Imagine you’re a virgin every night, waiting for that something special to happen for the first time. Be prepared to be swept away—or disappointed, as the case may be.

Pay attention. Be what Henry James called one of those people on whom nothing is lost. That requires a strangely schizoid state of mind, summed up best by the American poet and dance critic Edwin Denby. He said there are two aspects of looking at dance as a critic: one is being made drunk by the experience, and the other is expressing lucidly what you saw when you were drunk.

The same principle applies to any artform, of course. It makes the act of criticism quite unlike the experience of a member of an audience. As an audience member you can surrender yourself entirely to the moment, and that experience can be quite enough in itself: that’s what you’re there for. In your critic-as-virgin state you can have the same reactions, but you’re always aware that you’re going to have to rationalize and justify them. That ability to explain the why and the how is what separates serious criticism from the off-the-moment opinions we exchange as we’re putting our coats on.

Care enough to be upset if what you experience is less than you hoped for. You hope the experience will be the best it can be, and sometimes it will fall short of its potential and you will have to say so. You are likely to be having an ongoing lover’s quarrel with art. Only a masochist or a chronic unemployable (yes, both are definitions of critics, according to some of the more jaundiced) wants to spend night after night with strangers in a darkened room having an experience that comes with no guarantee of pleasure.

Do your homework. Let what you write about be part of your life. Look and learn and read in an endless cycle. It will keep you humble by forcing you to recognize how little you know.

Commit for the long haul. It’s an ongoing search, and a lot of the time you may not find anything particularly rewarding, but some of the time you do, and that’s what you’re there for. While you’re waiting you need to stay flexible, open, receptive, even to ideas that might strike you as strange or stupid or repellent. Never lock yourself off from possibility. You will find truth and beauty in the strangest places.

Develop a palate, but accept that it’s going to change as it matures. Any critic will develop a set of personal benchmarks that will fluctuate according to the changes that occur in the evolution of the artform and in the society in which it exists. Do you contradict yourself? Very well, then you contradict yourself.


Remember some of the things you are not. You are not a consumer reporter. You are not an arbiter nor are you a judge. You are most certainly not a butcher of Broadway. You are at best an interface, a sliver of interpretive membrane between the act of creation and the imaginative activity that it liberates. Ideally, an intelligent reader learns from a critic not what to think about a work of art but how to think about it.

  • Show, don’t tell. Look for the telling image. Evoke through metaphor, descriptive language, well-chosen images, contextual reference. Avoid the passive voice. Stay clear of weasel words that sound meaningful but mean nothing (“interesting,” “fascinating,” provocative,” “incredible”). Be judicious in your use of adjectives—make them work for their existence. Be sparing in the extreme in your use of adverbs.
  • Don’t perpetuate pretentiousness. Just because it is fashionable for academics to use “privilege” as a verb and say “interrogate” when they mean “examine” doesn’t mean you should. Eschew jargon in all its forms. Eschew obfuscation. Eschew the word eschew.
  • Support your assertions. Anyone can have an opinion. You need to be able to back them up.
    Respect your readers. They are paying you the compliment of their attention. Don’t be profligate with their time. And don’t talk down to them. Most people are smarter than they’re given credit for.
  • Be fair, but don’t pretend to be objective. Individual experience colours our perception of the world. Objectivity is a news report, one hopes. Criticism is bias, predilection, ignorance, enthusiasm. The critic acts from instinct, intuition and insight, processed through analysis and argument into something that might be helpful for someone else to read.
  • Have fun. As Pauline Kael said about movie reviewing, it’s not heart surgery. Entertain your readers as you enlighten them. A review should be enjoyable as a piece of writing on its own terms.

Edited extracts from The Crisis in Criticism, a pair of essays at