This course will be an adventure in the broad, rich field of cultural criticism, suitable for both novice and experienced writers. Together, we will discuss and discover how writing about books, plays, movies, music, visual art, and other creative genres offers a powerful avenue to engage with readers and the world around us.
We’ll begin by practicing reviewing—the basic building block of the genre—and go on to explore the ways in which a culture beat can open up other journalistic forms, including reporting, interviewing, and the personal essay. We’ll cover the nuts and bolts of pitching and the current publishing landscape for culture writing, as well as considering broader questions about the purpose of criticism, its balance of analysis and argument, and the role of individual perspective and taste.
Over the course of six text chat class sessions, students will draft, workshop, and revise one short review (around 800 words) and one longer critical essay on a subject of their choosing, in whatever form is most appropriate to the writer’s curiosity. This will be a reading- and writing-intensive course, so students should be committed both to pushing themselves as writers and giving generously to their classmates as readers.
This course is open to dedicated and generous writers with all levels of experience.
Class meetings will be held over video chat, using Zoom accessed from your private class page. While you can use Zoom from your browser, we recommend downloading the desktop client so you have access to all platform features.
- Solid overview of the cultural criticism genre, the current marketplace, and how to pitch and publish
- Understanding of the role and responsibilities of the critic
- One solid workshopped review, and the beginnings of a second, longer, more creative piece
- Access to Catapult's list of writing opportunities and important submission deadlines, as well as a 10% discount on all future Catapult classes
Students will write two drafts (one around 800 words, one around 1200-1500), revisions, and reading selections. Writers should expect to spend 1-2 hours each week on the class, and likely more when writing assignments are due.
Week 1: Overview of the course, introductions, discussion of individual goals. How to begin: the importance of openness and the power of obsessions. Introduction to the review, its potential and its limitations. What makes a good review (with examples)? Assignment: a review draft.
Week 2: Workshop review drafts. Further discussion of the structure of the review, avoiding cliche, moving beyond the “good vs bad” review. Overview of the review market: resources for advance copies/access, review timelines, pitches and markets for reviews. Assignment: revision of review draft.
Week 3: Discussion of revisions. Where a review can go and how it can open up. The role of research and contextual analysis. Brainstorming of further development for individual reviews, discussion of the cultural profile, arts reporting, pushing beyond the so-called “straight review.” Assignment: Reading/analysis of a few examples of cultural writing that opens up beyond the review.
Week 4: Personal Issues. How cultural criticism and personal essay are merging as genres, the pitfalls and potential of bringing in the personal. The market for creative cultural essays. Assignment: brainstorming/drafting a personal cultural essay (an exploratory assignment.)
Week 5: Discussion of individual projects. Assignment: cultural essay drafts.
Week 6: Workshopping of essays, suggestions for revision and further reading. Guest speaker, depending on class interest and availability.
Joanna Scutts is a cultural critic and historian, and the author of The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It. Her reviews and essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The New Yorker online, The New Republic, Slate, Vulture, and many other venues, and as a researcher and curator at the New-York Historical Society, she helped plan and launch a new Center for Women’s History in 2017. She holds a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, and has taught classes in literature and writing at Columbia, Barnard, and NYU.
“Joanna has the rare and wonderful talent of presenting literature and writing in a way that not only brings her subjects alive, but makes them accessible and engaging for a wide spectrum of learners. Her methods of analysis and instruction provide a clear framework for both dissecting works of literature and building a creative writing toolkit, helping her students to establish strong foundational skills. In addition to creating a collaborative and supportive classroom environment, Joanna is immensely generous with her time and feedback, always going the extra mile to support students through supplementary office hours and detailed written critiques. She excels at leading seminar discussions, easily coaxing participation out of all students by drawing from a range of literary styles and related arts materials to pique various learning styles and interests.”
"Joanna is a thorough and patient editor, who worked with me through broad conceptual questions and sentence-level details. Her insights helped me clarify points in my book, with a keen thoughtfulness for a non-specialist readership and she was a great support and cheerleader throughout the editing process."
"I have known Joanna Scutts since graduate school (in 2002), and she is an absolutely excellent teacher and editor. In fact, she brings these things together perfectly: her years of experience as an undergrad professor and her years of experience as an editor/writer make her both meticulous and thorough. She can see immediately how an author can improve their work, and she knows how to help them to do so. She creates a stimulating and challenging classroom environment."
"Exhilarating in content, magnetic in clarity, vital in its message."
"Joanna Scutts's account of Hillis and the cultural transformations she made possible is as witty, forthright, and elegant as its subject."
"This is a beautifully written, insightful, and wise account of the life and work of an important but heretofore largely unremembered writer, wit, and proto-feminist."