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Cher Tan on Criticism and Reviews

A photo of Cher Tan. Photo credit: Su Cassiano.

Cher Tan is an essayist and critic. Her work has appeared in the Sydney Review of BooksKill Your DarlingsRunway JournalGusher magazine, Overland and Catapult, amongst others. She is an editor at Liminal and the reviews editor at Meanjin.

Ahead of Cher’s Online Feedback Clinic starting this month, Writers Victoria Program and Competitions Administrator, Caitlin McGregor, spoke with Cher about her critical practice, the books and fellow critics that inform her writing and ‘the chaos magick of knowledge’.

Caitlin: What kind of experience(s) are you hoping to have when you read a piece of criticism?

Cher: In my life and work, it’s the dual sense of curiosity and wonder that act as driving forces. I would not be alive otherwise. Similarly, whenever I read a piece of criticism, I’d also like to experience those feelings. I also enjoy being challenged, developing new lines of thinking (whether on something I think I already know, or don’t know at all), and witnessing on the page certain thoughts or feelings I’ve had articulated by someone else with a clarity that feels almost orgasmic.

Caitlin: When you write, what kind of reader are you hoping for?

Cher: This question is often posed to me, and one I find difficult to answer. I don’t think of a reader (or readers) when I’m writing. This is not because I’m stubbornly engaging in solipsism and/or disregarding the importance of having readers, but that I mostly see myself engaging with my thoughts and observations—often circling around in a pool in my brain until I finally find satisfaction through being able to assemble them in a way that simultaneously fills me with mirth and builds a sense of intellectual rigour—in order to find unexpected connections and discomforts, which I then pass on in the hopes that it will spur some kind of dialogue, whether directly with me or in culture and society more broadly. Hua Hsu said it best once in an interview: ‘I try to begin from a place of authority and then I try to lose it over time. I want to transfer it [the sense of authority] to the reader.’

Caitlin: A lot of your cultural and literary criticism is concerned with new technology and the internet—and I know you’ve written before about the relationship between the internet and your work. I don’t want to create a hard binary between virtual and physical, but I do want to ask: do the physical environments you inhabit have any noticeable impacts on your writing? If so, could you tell us a bit about those influences?

Cher: Hmm. I find it difficult to delineate between “virtual” and “physical”, to be honest (outside of VR and games, of course). I’m obsessed with thinking about the sociology of the internet—which is similar to my obsession with thinking about class—because they are deeply material things that manifest in less visible ways, which in turn becomes subjective based on one person’s imaginary. Whether these subjectivities hold any water is dependent on how much social power that person has. So, as much as many people tend to think of the online worlds as “over there”, they have had an increasing influence in many people’s day-to-day lives for at least the last two decades now. Most people, unless they choose to live off the grid, engage with the internet on various levels, and we can see how this leaks out into our offline worlds and back again, creating a kind of feedback loop that is at once “real” and “unreal”. It is my way of engaging with the Lacanian Real, maybe, and works in tandem with my attempts at dissecting the overarching societal obsession with authenticity.

Caitlin: Please may I have a list of seven (7) books, articles, podcasts, films, etc. that have been big influences on your thinking & writing?


  • K-Punk – Mark Fisher (basically coming out as a MF stan, but I’m sure many are already aware of this)
  • Psychopolitics – Byung-Chul Han (I’ve read this at least once a year since it came out in 2019)
  • Flyboy in the Buttermilk – Greg Tate (Reading Tate is so enjoyable; his one-of-a-kind sentences, how he doesn’t pander to a dominant paradigm, how he tells a story about culture as he sees it, how he never lets pomposity take over and instead is willing to dodge to humour and the so-called ‘low-brow’)
  • Spectacle of the Disintegration – McKenzie Wark (I was recommended this book by one of my chosen brothers after I introduced him to the Society of the Spectacle. He spoke about the latter at the pub and a friend of his told him about Wark’s book. It’s basically a contemporary take on Situationist thought, which I’m quite influenced by)

And I wouldn’t say there have been specific articles, but critics such as Merve Emre, Pankaj Mishra, Hua Hsu and Parul Sehgal inspire me greatly. I read almost all of their writing and interviews.

Caitlin: In a piece of yours that I revisit often, ‘Six contradictory polemics’ you write: ‘The more digging I do, the more I find people who have created work that speaks to my work in some way – which I like to refer to as ‘the chaos magick of knowledge’.’ This is a selfish question, because I’ve been chewing on that phrase ever since I read it—can you expand a bit on this idea of the ‘chaos magick of knowledge’? How do you think it works, and how does it interact with your own writing and thinking?

Cher: I tend to have my tongue firmly in my cheek when I come up with such things, but I guess I was mostly riffing on chaos magick, which I regard as an attitude that comes with surrendering your psyche to a state of unpredictability. This is probably why I find curated book stacks or lists baffling; pre-emption does nothing for my practice, self or mind. It’s a way of remaining open to new ideas and new theories, and letting your unconscious guide you towards what you think is useful. The threads that occur can sometimes be wonderful, which lends a ‘magical’ aspect to it. I suppose it’s a kind of pattern recognition.

Caitlin: What is, in your opinion, the best snack to consume while writing criticism?

Cher: At the risk of sounding like a wanker: nothing (unless it’s a clinically wolfed down meal). Eating is for relaxing. I don’t feel relaxed while in the act of writing, so I don’t really eat when I write, criticism or otherwise. Spite and a sense of wonder act as fuel for me.

For an unmissable chance to receive in-depth feedback on up to five pieces of critical work, sign up to Cher Tan’s Online Feedback Clinic: Criticism and Reviews before the 18th July!

Members of Writers Victoria receive up to 37% off the full price of all clinics, workshops, seminars and courses.

Writers experiencing financial and social barriers to developing their skills are encouraged to apply to The Writers Victoria Fund for subsidised attendance at workshops and clinics.

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