John Bailey

My earliest extant piece of writing was an illustrated book that went by the title The Haunted Skeleton and while five-year-old me never finished the thing he did go to the trouble to write a back cover blurb for it. The young critic’s summation simply ran thus: “Is it good? Yes it is.”

I largely abstained from criticism for the next several decades but studied and often tried my hand at every art form within reach. At some point I found myself writing about stuff. This isn’t the only way of extending your own thinking on a subject—there’s a place for live conversation and opposed argument and sheer wordless immersion—but for a certain type of personality there’s a particular reward that comes from talking to yourself on the page.

I quickly discovered that while all of the artworks that had driven me to write still compelled my imagination, it was the writing itself that people were willing to allow me. I suppose I am absolutely the failed artist that critics are sometimes disdainfully characterised to be, but if you’d seen The Haunted Skeleton’s drawings you would have encouraged me to stick with the words as well.

I write for The Age and RealTime and sometimes broadcast on RRR and have been known to do teachy things at tertiary and high school level. I’m also currently working on longer projects including fiction and a graphic novel.


Writing can be a way of realising the self, but why should anyone else care? No one’s reading me because I’m me.

A critic is a haunting. We’re there but we shouldn’t be and that can result in humility or arrogance. I feel that mystery has more appeal than authority, though there’s ample evidence against that position.

I don’t think criticism necessarily equals a judgment of merit. Criticism that argues for a work’s value or lack thereof is persuasive, rhetorical, prescriptive. That’s not what draws a lot of people to art in the first place, unless they’re looking to fill some void once occupied by religion or politics or a parent figure.

So while the five-year-old’s question “is it good?” is one that has its function, the answer is inevitably the least interesting thing for a person to read. Writing that instead offers ways to reframe something, even those somethings we otherwise have good reasons to turn away from, gives you more to do with your time. I’d rather spend mine with some thoughtful words inspired by the dullest of experiences than merely nodding or shaking my head at some umpire’s signal.

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