Critics and "Users"
A postscript on the evergreen topic of the role of the critic: in last week’s discussion (Do Critics Matter?), the question of whether or not a critic’s role is to be a consumer advocate became a central focus. The fact is that, whether or not we like it, critics are not, in fact, consumer advocates. In a private e-mail, one respondent brought up a study I’m well aware of, but that certainly merits mentioning here: a 2007 survey by Goldstar.com (this link downloads a file with the survey results) showed that consumers overwhelmingly turn to websites with user reviews in preference to published reviews in a newspaper.
Granted, the people who answered this survey were already using a website to access entertainment, so they were predisposed toward Internet use. Still, it reflects a significant societal trend. Though I myself am (of course) a regular newspaper reader, I often browse reader reviews on Amazon.com, or skim through the ratings on a film website, before making a purchase. (My standard response to people who are afraid that blogs are going to dilute the ostensible purity of critical discourse is to point to the Amazon reviews: people are generally able to tell the serious ones from the stupid ones, and by the same token will generally be able to distinguish the good blogs, like the good newspaper reviews, from the bad ones.)
This means that a single voice has less and less power to influence consumer habits. (When I was at the New York Times, I often heard publicists say ruefully that even a great Times review or advance piece of a Lincoln Center performance no longer actually led to a spike in ticket sales, as it once had done.) Certainly, critics are writing for consumers, and we are saying what we think about a production or performance. But to expect everyone to follow your opinions is unrealistic in this day and age.
And in fact, such advocacy has never been the role of great critics. Virgil Thomson, Pauline Kael, Andrew Porter: they’re still read, and still valuable, because they were writing about a lot more than whether or not their readers should bother to buy tickets.
[For the record, I edited the links in the original post to make it easier to find what some of my colleagues had to say about this issue.]
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