How to Write About Art and Not Art Critique

Appreciation: Why New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl was the last of a breed

NEW YORK — I don’t know where this line of thinking comes from, but I read a great deal. That’s where this line of thinking comes from, because I read a lot and I’m always struck by the number of books that I know that contain very little that I don’t know about. This is true for fiction, nonfiction, movies, TV shows and everything else. It’s also true for the reviews I read, though maybe it’s a surprise for myself because some critics seem more passionate about the art they critique than their readers.

I have been a critic for many years, and one of the things that you’re always taught by reading literary fiction is to recognize what’s different about the writing and how people create in different ways, which is why I’ve been spending this week talking to critics about why and how they write and their different approaches.

I had the good fortune to meet Peter Schjeldahl, the only person I know who I’d read who was a critic who worked in the arts and yet was writing about art and not art criticism. I asked him to write a book review this week, and he obliged.

I first met him at the 2015 San Francisco Book Fest, and our introduction was a warm and generous interview in which we talked about art, criticism and books in general. Peter had a way of bringing a subject to life that was just right for the story he had to tell.

His interview with me was a great example of how writing art criticism is a way of writing about art and not art criticism. He talked about getting to know the artist, how he learned to write fiction, the inspiration he got from books as much as his work as a critic, and the way readers read things differently.

But more than this, the things he said about the critics he respected most were things that resonated with me, and I hope they resonated with you, too. Here’s just a few that really stood out:

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