Everybody’s a critic it seems these days. With opportunities to comment on Amazon or Goodreads, in newspapers on-line editions and a multitude of blogs big and small, it appears everyone has a strong opinion about creative efforts and are eager to express it loud and clear. The more critical one is, it seems, the more people pay attention to you.
Or do they?
People confuse what it means to be a critic. They assume it is the job of the critic to attack (or occasionally praise) a book or a movie or a video game. Not at all. A review – which does both those things – largely is an expression of an opinion, not much more sophisticated than I like that or I hate this. A review is not criticism. Often it is nothing more than a vendetta.
The role of a true critic (and yes, I understand I am about to be called an elitist in this oh so democratic world) is to place a creative work in the context of history and culture and to try to understand what an artist is trying to accomplish within that context and to, finally, judge whether they have succeeded and failed and why.
To be a reviewer, you just have to be there; to be a critic, you have to yourself be immersed in the creative activity if not as a practitioner then as a student of the field and the practice.
In other words, the role of a critic is not to snidely criticize (though many of them do this in a most delightful way) but rather to understand what is being done and, in an odd way, to support the artist in his or her efforts.
Do critics serve a real purpose in the work of the working artist? This is a harder question to answer. In many cases, the critic is examining the final product. The criticism will not unmake the movie or unwrite the book.
In the case of the novelist, the work was largely completed 12 or even 24 months ago (not so in self-publishing but that’s another story). The writer, in many cases has already moved on and unless they are writing a series of books (only common in fantasy or mystery for the most part) they are no longer engaged in the themes or stories of the old work. What then can they learn from a critic? It’s not like it never happens – after all writers do revisit themes on a regular basis – but only in a few cases does a real artistic dialogue exist between creator and critic (unless you consider editors the ultimate critic – which I suspect a lot of writers do).
The critic may play a larger role historically and academically in placing the artist in their proper place in the pantheon or they may – if they are particularly skilled at bringing their strength of criticism into popular reviews – be useful as a guide for readers and watchers as in: if you liked this, you might like that in the way Amazon algorithms never will.
But for the rest? When Hemingway was confronted by an erstwhile young critic and asked if the birds flying up from the gondola were a symbol of sexual consummation, Hemingway responded with: What? You think you can do better?
And that’s ten minutes. (With thanks to Stephanie Ann Johanson for the topic suggestion).