TEXT review

‘Besideness-writings’: Creatively critical, and critically creative strategies for inquiry

review by Amelia Walker


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Katja Hilevaara and Emily Orley (eds)
The Creative Critic: Writing as/about Practice
Routledge, Oxford / New York 2018
ISBN 9781138674837
Pb 303pp AUD62.99



As practitioner-researchers, how do we discuss and analyse our work without losing the creative drive that inspired us in the first place? (i)

This is a vital question for writers, artists, musicians and performers among other creative practitioners in academic contexts. The Creative Critic: Writing as/about Practice collates a diverse array of responses to the problem, thereby demonstrating the extensive possibilities of critical writing as a creative act. It spans disciplines including but exceeding creative writing, visual art, curating, architecture, drama, dance, choreography, music, and translation. Many chapters are co-authored by practitioners from different fields, providing examples of how transdisciplinary collaborations can operate in and beyond the arts, and of the benefits such collaborations bring. Because my own disciplinary background – and that of TEXT’s predominant readership – is creative writing, this review focuses on the volume’s relevance for creative writers in universities today (although the scope for this new publication extends well beyond this). I shall consider two areas in which I believe The Creative Critic: Writing as/about Practice bears strong practical applications: one, undergraduate learning and two, research, particularly for PhD candidates and in other higher degree by research contexts.

In my undergraduate teaching experience, students of creative writing commonly express two major apprehensions. The first entails anxieties around – or inability to find purpose in – critically analysing their creative work. Such students may even object ideologically to the analytic act, arguing that it bleeds the magic from what should be tacit, intuitive processes. Such objections reflect a point observed by Hecq, Hill and Theiler (2015) – the persisting false cultural dichotomy between the critical and the creative. This dichotomous viewpoint also feeds the second form of anxiety commonly seen in creative writing undergraduates: that they feel relatively confident with analytical writing, but fear they lack some elusive X-factor or gift supposedly necessary for producing poems, stories, plays and other creative texts.

The Creative Critic: Writing as/about Practice destabilises assumptions that creative and critical processes need be dichotomous and opposed. This book is thus filled with valuable tools to redress the student anxieties I have described, and to open learners’ minds to wi(l)der ways of writing and/as thinking. The book draws on seminal theorists and philosophers including Deleuze and Guattari, Judith Butler, Susan Sontag, Sara Ahmed, Helene Cixous and Donna Haraway. It could thus provide students with a novel way in to these thinkers’ ideas. A key concept worth classroom discussion is that of ‘besideness-writings’ (8). Editors Emily Orley and Katja Hilevaara term this a kind of ‘writing with’ (7) or ‘alongside’ in explicitly ‘complementary’ sorts of ways (6). Adopting a position of besideness entails ‘letting go of “beneath”, “behind” and “beyond”’, which challenges ‘traditional hierarchical and dualistic positions’ including restrictive practices of ‘tracing beginnings and analysing intentions’ (7). This ‘allows a different dynamic of power to be articulated’ (7). Rather than merely discussing creative work, criticism can extend or take a different approach to it. Criticism can even become in itself a new creation that in turn ‘generates further creative and critical work’ (8). Far from deadening or shutting down artistic processes, the critical act thus becomes a way to open up and discover new possibilities. Art and analysis are not opposing but reciprocal, and mutually beneficial.
The possibilities of ‘besideness-writing’ are illustrated in different ways throughout The Creative Critic: Writing as/about Practice as a whole. Its chapters typically discuss and demonstrate creative-critical interrelationships. They describe benefits in working across perceived divides and they explicitly demonstrate critical-creative reciprocities, for instance by presenting arguments in forms of poetry, prose, theatre, photographic essays, fictocritical writing, or similarly playful ways. Exemplary of this is Susannah Thompson’s argument ‘for an art (writing)’, presented through a suite of poetic aphorisms. These are wonderfully quotable and could work beautifully as classroom discussion points and/or on lecture slides. Thompson succinctly and efficiently raises a vital distinction when she notes, ‘[t]he critic may be an interpreter … but our object is not to explain’ (25, original emphasis). In the classroom, this could provide a prompt for exploring how interpreting and explaining processes differ. Thompson also elucidates how ‘[f]or the critic as artist, art writing is creative practice’ (26) because theory and practice ‘are NOT exclusive endeavours’ (27). Taking a broadly Deleuzian approach, she calls for a writing that is both/and rather than either/or – a writing in which: 

We meld anecdote and theory.

We foreground the subjective voice.

We speak our own argot, our own vernacular.

We revel in puns, polari, plagiarism. (27)

The above points provide explicit strategies for students to apply in their writing. Thompson’s example could additionally help dismantle preconceptions of critical writing as necessarily formal or objective in voice. As a classroom activity, Thompson’s provocations could provide a leaping-off point for (re)considering what constitutes ‘formal’ and/or ‘objective’ as opposed to ‘informal’ and/or ‘subjective’ writing, and of how a perceived ‘objective’/’subjective’ split might relate to notions of a critical/creative divide.

Important to note, however is that although I am recommending The Creative Critic: Writing as/about Practice as a strong tool to inform undergraduate teaching, this is not the book’s intended purpose or audience. Caution would need to be taken with using chapters from the book on course reading lists. Many parts of it are complex, theoretically and linguistically. Those using it for teaching would need to carefully select suitable extracts and frame these to make them engaging and accessible. Two chapters that I believe could prove particularly useful as readings include ‘Yoko Ono Fanfiction’ by owko69 (Owen G Parry) (95-102) and ‘The Construction of Self(ies)’ by Joanne ‘Bob’ Whalley and Lee Miller (248-256). Parry engages Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of ‘minor literature’ in order to call for a re-seeing of fanfiction as a form of literary criticism. Interspersed with humorous, readable examples, Parry’s chapter would easily build into a learning task involving students writing their own fanfiction as a form of critical engagement with books, shows, films, musicians, public figures and/or contemporary topics. Whalley and Miller’s chapter examines the photo-based social media platform of Instagram, particularly the curious slippages between ‘Rinsta’ (real) and ‘Finsta’ (fake) profiles. While ‘real’ pages typically offer an ‘edited, polished, curated’ online presence for potential employers and/or partners, ‘fake’ profiles host ‘the unruly body… the unbounded, the out of control, the ugly’ (250). The rinsta / finsta relationship thus blurs received assumptions about what is fake versus real. Whalley and Miller’s chapter could offer a springboard for classroom engagement with postmodern theories about truth, representation, the construction of selves, and more. In a creative writing classroom, this could segue into an ekphrastic writing exercise using images from social media. It could also support exercises in writing creatively about how social media usage shapes relationships with others and/as selves.  

Having considered how The Creative Critic: Writing as/about Practicecould inform pedagogy at undergraduate levels, I turn now towards its applications in research contexts. One of the ‘main motivating forces’ behind the book’s creation was Orley’s ‘experience of giving a yearly talk to postgraduate students about using performative and other modes of creative writing in their theses’ (xx). With co-editor Hilevaara, Orley therefore sought ‘to bring together a range of models of writing (in the loosest sense) by practitioners who are thinking about their own work or work that has inspired them’ (xx). In this, the book certainly succeeds. Were it possible to hop in a time machine and deliver my younger, PhD candidature-commencing self a care package of tools from the future, this book would be among them. Each of its thirty-seven short chapters demonstrates a different way in which it is possible to write both critically and creatively about topics and practices of the arts. Reading them all is akin to sampling every item on a menu before deciding what one will order to eat for real (or better, jumping in the kitchen to invent a new dish not on the menu but inspired by the tasting experience). While eleven of the chapters deal specifically with creative writing (including for theatre), all bear relevance for creative writing research, for in architecture, visual art and numerous other contexts, questions and challenges familiar to our field emerge and are addressed in similar yet different ways, revealing multiple exciting options.   

Many chapters provide strong examples of what creative research writing can look like.  These include PA Skantze’s long poem-as-essay in ‘Lyric Theory’ (30-38) and Iain Biggs’s provocative investigation into ‘notitia’ as ‘a form of listening that attempts “to recover the neglected and perhaps deeper roots of what we call thinking”’ (40), which Biggs illustrates through two cases of creative research projects in healthcare settings. Taru Elfving’s ‘Writing With Fungi, Contagious’ (108-115) likewise demonstrates exciting possibilities for creative research writing and will particularly interest those exploring ecopoetry. Building on the case Isabelle Stengers (2008) presents for writing as ‘transformative’, Elfving asks, ‘could it [writing] also follow a fungal logic, become contagious?’ (109). With reference also to Felix Guattari’s (2008) ‘transversal thought’, Elfving broaches ‘the urgent task of reimagining co-dependence’, tackling ‘the inseparable processes of subjective, social and ecological transformations’ (110). Similar themes resonate in the thoughtful and poetic reflections of Salomé Voegelin, who in ‘Writing About the Sound of Unicorns’ (129-134) urges readers to ‘listen to a mushroom and a bicycle’ in response to the dilemma of ‘how to listen out for something you do not know’ (129, italics in original). Voegelin thereby theorises a ‘writing the possible impossible’ that sings writing’s capacities to bring up the silenced, overlooked or not-yet-known and signal possibilities for positive social change (134).  

Also of note are the four chapters (six through nine) that in different ways play with usages of para-text and/as parallel texts. In ‘Footnoting Performance’, Mike Pearson with John Rowley and Richard Huw Morgan (61-65) hyperbolically test the limits of the footnote, which on most pages of their chapter consume more space than the main text. Indeed, the chapter’s first page does not even include any chapter text as conventionally understood: it is entirely consumed by notes clarifying aspects of the title, author names and preliminary information. This raises questions about what defines main as opposed to supplementary text. Then in chapter seven Mojisola Adebayo offers ‘An Extract from Asara and the Sea-Monstress’ as a ‘play with theory’ – a section of the ‘practice-as-research doctoral thesis’ in which Adebayo presented, using two columns, a play script (on the left) and ‘a series of connected critical notes’ (on the right) (66). The rationale behind this, Adabayo explains, was ‘to reveal how the play and theories are in dialogue with each other and illuminate each other’ and also to challenge ‘the hierarchy of critical over creative writing’ (66). In chapter eight, ‘Same Difference’ (73-80), choreographer Nicola Conibere also uses columns, but differently, for in Conibere’s chapters both the left- and right-hand columns are simultaneously critical and creative, ultimately merging together and then followed by a series of images that wordlessly speak for themselves. Conibere notes that this approach ‘owes a debt to long histories of writing practices and authors including shaped and concrete poetry’ and entailed ‘organising words on the page a bit like bodies on a stage, an exercise that articulates the shared practices of choreographer and writer as putting things in relation’ (73). Chapter nine, ‘Critical Groundlessness’ (81-87) by Diana Damian Martin, takes the parallel text in another direction yet again, presenting on the left ‘documents of a lived experience: criticism reflecting on a referent of focus’ and on the right ‘a related argument, a broken-up, brief incursion into possible ways of viewing and grounding this mediated experience’ (81). For Martin, ‘criticism’ as ‘documents’ of ‘lived experience’ includes letters, computer screenshots, lists and scripted snatches of dialogue. This again challenges preconceptions about creative and critical practices as neatly divisible. Martin argues compellingly for research writing that ‘makes the process of thinking visible’ as ‘by nature unfinished and fractured’ (86).

There are many more chapters I would ideally like to discuss: each brings something valuable and unique, and each will offer bespoke insights to different researchers pursuing varied concerns. However, those researchers will do best to discover this book and its highlights for themselves. In the space here remaining, my priority is to consider what research candidates and their supervisors can draw from the book’s structure. Considered in its entirety, The Creative Critic: Writing as/about Practice is finely-curated, reflective of a keen awareness that ‘[f]orm is not a container for scholarly content: it is part of the scholarship’ and of ‘criticality’ as something ‘embedded, often, in the shape, style and tone of the writing itself’ (12). In addition to Jane Rendell’s skilfully dialogical and interconnected ‘L’avant-coup’ (Foreword) and ‘L’après-coup’ (Afterword), the book contains three ‘Middlewords’ that draw together ideas from across multiple chapters and act as conclusions to – or perhaps more accurately, extensions of – the three sections into which the book’s chapters are arranged. Creative play with form-as-content is also strongly evident in the book’s introduction, an elaborately polyvocal feat presented in the form of a play script presenting lines of dialogue between the book’s editors, key theorists, inspiring figures, and contributors to the book itself. This approach draws on, yet remakes, mainstream conventions of the traditional scholarly book introduction – that is, of setting a context, acknowledging precedents, and indicating the contents of the chapters to come. This is a valuable example for postgraduate research candidates and supervisors to consider and discuss when it comes to questions of structuring creative writing theses in ways that demonstrate rigour yet still foreground play. It is also useful for creative writing researchers generally as we broach demands to demonstrate our worth in line with formal research evaluation criteria.

Overall, The Creative Critic: Writing as/about Practice is therefore well worth ordering for the university library. For learners, teachers and researchers engaging creative writing for purposes of inquiry, it constitutes a valuable resource of practical application to the real questions and challenges we face as creative and critical learners, teachers and makers operating in the academic space today. It also reminds us how our concerns, as creative writers in universities, connect with those of practitioner-academics across a multitude of other arts-based fields of inquiry, signalling a rich scope for increased dialogue, collaboration and exchange across our differing-yet-connected contexts.  


Works cited



Amelia Walker lectures at the University of South Australia. She is presently secretary of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs and with Pablo Muslera co-edits TEXT reviews. She is also a member of the editorial board for the peer-reviewed queer writing and diversity studies journal Writing From Below. Details of her recent publications may be found by clicking on the ‘output’ links at her staff home page:https://people.unisa.edu.au/Amelia.Walker 


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Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker. Assistant reviews editor: Simon Telford