I’ve always enjoyed the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest and their critical and hilarious critiques of heavy-metal rock and roll, community theatre, dog shows, folk music, and the entertainment industry. Exaggeration can be a component of a good piece of creative cultural criticism as the writer casts a satirical eye toward the customs and details of a particular group or an aspect of our contemporary world. I always appreciate it when the writer suddenly and surprisingly becomes a part of the culture under consideration and is willing to be an object of his or her own criticism. Good creative cultural criticism highlights some aspect of our world and critiques it in a way that allows us to think more deeply about who we are. Here’s a writing activity whose purpose is to invite us to do just that.
1. Identify a particular cultural group (maybe it’s Ohio State football fans, or your neighborhood association, or art collectors, or jazz aficionados), or something that’s of interest to you about our contemporary culture (maybe it’s reality television, or Facebook, or Twitter, or online shopping. Maybe you’re a part of this particular group, or maybe you’re not. Maybe you appreciate a particular aspect of the culture, or maybe you oppose it.
2. Spend a few minutes characterizing the object of your criticism. What are the facts and the procedures? By what is this cultural group or phenomenon known? Buckeye football helmet mailboxes? Clove cigarettes? Fine wines? Wry status updates? A credit card at the ready? Tell us anything you can to characterize what you’ve come to critique.
3. What’s your history with this group or this phenomenon? Are you a member? A participant? Have you been in the past? Or are you truly an outsider? Answer these questions or others that occur to you by beginning with, “I am/am not what most people would call a _____.” Fill in the blank with the object of your criticism: Buckeye football fanatic, Facebook user, etc. Talk about what excites you about the group or the aspect of the culture, or talk about what you fear when you consider it. Give us a sense of who you are in relationship with the thing you’ve come to critique.
4. Give us a quick scene, or a mini-scene, about something that happened to you because of the object of your critique.
5. What are the general assumptions about the object of your criticism? Begin writing with the words, “Everyone assumes that. . . .” Then go on to consider the easy conclusions that we’ve reached about your group or your phenomenon. Then find a place to make room for an opposite truth that you’ve learned from your own experience as represented in the scene from step 4. You might say something like, “I’m starting to think, though, that. . . .” Your goal here is to see if you can find an opposite truth or another layer of truth that the general population has missed because of their hasty assumptions.
6. Write two more statements to be used as a focusing device for the piece of creative cultural criticism that this activity may lead you to write. Begin with, “It wasn’t_____(fill in the blank with the object of your criticism: Buckeye Football, Facebook, online shopping) that ____ (fill in this blank with a result to complete the cause and effect suggested by the first part of the sentence). Then write a statement that suggests a new cause. Begin with, “It was_____.” Here’s an example from Meaghan Daum’s essay, “On the Fringes of the Physical World,” in which she considers the effects of email and online chatting on romance: “It was not the Internet that contributed to our remote, fragmented lives. The problem was life itself.”
This exercise is an invitation to think more deeply about what some aspect of our culture can show us about ourselves. As always, we’re looking for the truths that most people won’t see. In creative cultural criticism, it’s often the leaps in thought that the writer makes that take us to this surprising place.