Letter from America revisited

November 17, 2010

in Articles, General Interest

A consideration of the use of reviews versus opinions of gardens, by Anne Wareham

In October 2010 I published the contents of an email which I received from a friend in America, Suzanne Albinson, who had come to the UK in the summer to visit gardens. Her email was bluntly dismissive of two of the gardens in question (she used the word ‘crap’).

Three members of the thinkinGardens committee protested about this, so I approached several people to try to discover how people generally felt and thought about it. I got a range of full responses, some of which I will include on a separate page soon to keep the length of this piece down.

Here I have put the pieces that are most telling for me and, at the end, my own conclusions. Anne Wareham

From Corinne Julius

We might say something is ‘crap’ to a friend who understands our reference points, but it isn’t an adequate critical comment. You have to define your parameters for critical discussion, not doing so limits potential response. It becomes yes it is/no it is isn’t, which doesn’t advance the debate or our understanding.

As we want to encourage a different framework I don’t think a one word review is helpful. It would be fine to say it isn’t good because, but not just Crap. In a way the reverse is also true. Brilliant isn’t much help unless we explain even very briefly why?

I am on the governing Council of the Critics’ Circle, which is the professional body for all performing Arts and Visual Arts critics and any review however hostile always contains a critical framework. I think it s a useful policy.

I think a few lines of why something is bad is much more helpful than a one word, which in written form comes over as more offensive than when said aloud.

Blunt is fine, but but but- we want people to think about the gardens and not just have an emotional reaction. ‘Crap’ is just emotional and actually a very lazy response.

Perhaps we should all read the founder of contemporary criticism – Hazlitt!

From Bridget Rosewell

One of the key issues here is the role of the amateur against that of the expert.  I have just come from a seminar about how data on London should be used and viewed.  At one end of the discussion are those who think that only experts have the capacity to look at data and interpret it ‘correctly’.  At the other, there are those who think that everyone has the right to interrogate such information, even though they may do so in a partial or incomplete way.  The debate that can result from such interpretations is still capable of moving the debate on, and indeed of generating insight.  I am therefore on the side of openness.

A good example is the incident know as ‘climategate’ where climate scientists were unwilling to the point of data destruction to release their information in case people might draw the ‘wrong’ conclusions.  This is arrogant and in the end deeply counter-productive as it actually threw doubt on their own conclusions.

I think this debate has resonance with the debate on what constitutes ‘suitable’ criticism.  I contend that experts may not be the only or best arbiters of this.  Clearly I will pay more attention to reasoned and argued criticism than that which is not.

Helping the amateur to be better is OK but preventing them publishing stuff is not.  The only caveat might be obscenity – which leaves me slightly uncomfortable with the cxxp word.  However, otherwise publish and be damned.

From Sara Maitland

I agree with Corinne Julius about “one word reviews” but this isn’t a one word review.

First it isn’t a review – it is a personal letter and the site makes that perfectly clear.

Second it isn’t “one word”. It is a substantial account of a tour of 24 gardens and some of the descriptions are long enough for the reader to glean a good sense of her critical framework. She is clearly well informed, energetic, interested and frank – and not afraid of her own taste. I think this is a useful overview, expressed informally but vigorously, of the state of English gardens seen by an outsider in a quite specific context.

I can’t help wondering if it is the word CRAP that is causing the trouble: if she’d said “Not worth a visit” or “wish I’d given this one a miss” would people mind so much?

From Suzanne Albinson

I thought the whole idea behind your thinkinGardens web site was to hold gardens up to criticism as pieces of artwork, just as plays, films, books, restaurants or whatever are critiqued by reviewers?

I would think the garden owners would want to know how people feel about their garden so that they may be improved if necessary. When you visit 24 gardens in 10 days (and this is the fourth time I have put together a garden tour holiday – so have seen around 100 gardens on the tours plus all the gardens visited in the 37 years I lived in England, not only public gardens but spending most weekends in the summer visiting gardens under the National Garden Scheme) you get to know those gardens which are good and those which are not.

Naturally garden visiting is subjective, just like art of any kind, so certain gardens appeal to me based on my preferences and biases. But I feel if a gardener is charging you to visit, regardless of the style of garden, there are certain standards and expectations that should be met. September is a tricky month for some garden owners whose displays are centered around spring or summer but if they are charging admission then there should still be something interesting for the autumnal visitor to see. I know it is possible as I have seen fabulous gardens in September.

I am really at a loss to understand what all the fuss is about?

My conclusion

It is a pity about the ‘c’ word – there are many alternatives, equally blunt, which would not have confused the issue with ‘bad language.’ But it did, I fear, help raise attention for the issue.

I thought about all this and have been weighing it up. I can quite see that ‘Letter from America’ was not reviewing gardens in the serious and illuminating way that I wish thinkinGardens to promote. Neither do the twitter reviews. So why am I so drawn to these expressions of opinion?

I think it is because these are mostly voices we have never before been allowed to hear. These are mostly the opinions of garden interested people who are not professionally involved with gardens. These people are beginning to be heard, principally in blogs, but most garden blogs appear to be about gardening. Those which do write about gardens quite often keep very much to the familiar print conventions, though change is beginning.

But what Suzanne Albinson and the tweet reviewers are doing is different from the familiar writing about gardens that we see in print. They are not second guessing an audience that they believe will depart in droves if a straight word is uttered. They are not protecting delicate sensibilities. They are not caught in a fixed tradition of relentless admiration. None of them has been shocked by the ‘Letter from America’, either by the expletive or the abrupt dismissal of a garden. These are the people who actually pay to visit gardens. Their responses are varied and refreshing. I believe we need to hear their opinions and I propose to continue to publish them in addition to longer, more reflective garden reviews.

Anne Wareham

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