Emerging Critics: Laura Waddell on writing, the arts and criticism today

Emerging Critics is a scheme run by Scottish Review of Books in partnership with Creative Scotland. Its tagline is simple: 'The death of the Arts Critic? Don’t write them off so easily.'

In short, this programme aims to encourage young writers to develop their criticism skills. It includes a half day seminar and small-group mentoring over a 10 month period for those new to criticism, those already working in this field who want to improve their knowledge, recent graduates and post graduates and those with a genuine interest.

The deadline for applications to round two is Wednesday 14 March 2018. If you're interested in applying, and want to know a little bit more about what's on offer, read on. We got the skinny on the scheme from Laura Waddell: a writer and publisher based in Glasgow, who took part in the programme's first round. 

Why did you apply to Emerging Critics?

When I took part in the inaugural Emerging Critics scheme last year, what struck me was that I'd never seen any schemes in this area before. Literary criticism can feel like a mysterious beast. Although I'd dabbled in reviewing and had an insight into it from a publishing and publicity perspective, I really appreciated the opportunity for more structured support and guidance as a writer of the form, and the aims of the scheme to explicitly encourage new critics and inspire new routes into criticism. I was delighted to be selected.

There is absolutely a strong need for arts criticism in Scotland. Arts coverage is an important part of the cultural ecosystem- Laura Waddell

What was your experience of the scheme?

I was paired with Alan Taylor as my mentor, and to learn from such an esteemed critic made me feel very lucky. Working with him helped me shed some academic hangups and take a more practical look at reviewing and writing for the press. And there were a lot of good stories along the way! The experience encouraged me to dive right into reviews instead of spending hours fussing over them, and I pitched with more confidence, to some success, afterwards. Having a mentor, and such a good one, made me feel better equipped and less like I was floundering in the dark in approaching literary review.

Do you think there’s still a strong need for arts criticism in Scotland, and if so, why?

I think there is absolutely a strong need for arts criticism in Scotland, and there are some excellent critics out there. Arts coverage is an important part of the cultural ecosystem, and of course there is a strong indie publishing scene here, but occasionally I notice a disparity between exciting new publishing and what actually makes it to review pages.

I think there is room for new formats of criticism too; not necessarily transferring everything to digital, but finding ways of encouraging engagement. People are interested in books, and enjoy discussing them, but not everyone will rush out and buy a brand new hardback upon its release after reading a print review.

What other opportunities are there to cover and discuss books, with well informed criticism playing its part? How can we build book criticism into public discussion, beyond declining column inches? How can we get the subject of books into people's lives, utilising all media available? I'm very interested in that. I'm also part of the new co-operative board behind Gutter magazine, which is entering a new phase in its existence and ownership as it continues to publish new writing and review, which would not be possible without the support of the literary community here.

What challenges do you think arts critics face in the current climate?

Declining space in some print press for arts coverage has been an issue for some time, although some literary review publications have reported increased circulation in the last couple of years. I have, unfortunately, seen occasions of fairly dodgy writing on arts by political reporters, presumably in the absence of experienced and insightful arts critics.

The VIDA count each year tirelessly documents gender disparity in literary review, and when some publications continue to demote both female reviewers and authors, they do themselves no favours regarding relevance in a contemporary world. And of course, when opportunities for paid writing decline, so too does the number of people who can afford to take part.

That's what the Scottish Review of Books is doing with Emerging Critics, with its support from Creative Scotland: providing professional mentoring and encouragement, is valuable in navigating what comes next for new generations of critics and avenues for criticism, both honing their skills, and opening discussions up around criticism, its joys and purposes.

What doors can Emerging Critics open for young writers?

Criticism is a particular form of writing that, as mentioned, I had no training for but was having a go at based on the writing I'd done in other contexts; I've come out of the Emerging Criticism scheme with a much stronger insight into literary criticism as a form and a much clearer idea of what I hope to achieve when I am writing.

I've had more reviews published since taking part in the scheme, and I'm glad to have it on my writing CV. I'm hopeful that the new generation of critics who take part in this scheme will apply the valuable mentoring lessons they learned to new initiatives in arts coverage and literary criticism.

Apply for the Emerging Critics scheme by Wednesday 14 March, via the Scottish Review of Books.

This article was published on 02 Mar 2018