On nasty critics
This weekend Julia Keller, a cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune, wrote a small manifesto about being a critic. The thrust of her argument is that some critics exult in being mean, and she vowed she would never be among them.
I remember taking a similar vow back when I wrote my first reviews (very unwillingly; I didn’t want to be a critic at all). I still hate writing negative reviews. But I think that Keller’s vow, well-meaning as it is, is a little misplaced.
There’s a school of thought that the arts, like cooking and travel, belong in the category of marvelous lifestyle enhancements: things that adorn our lives and make them nicer. The role of a critic, in this view, is simply to alert readers to the wealth of marvelous things that are out there, and act as a consumer advocate, preferably by recommending nice things, or writing about the nice things that have taken place. People who espouse this view don’t understand why critics are so, well, critical. I wish I had a dime for every reader who had written me to say some variant on the theme “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” (though that would seem to negate the critic’s whole function). I once met a critic who told me that s/he had sworn never to write a negative review, but only to write about things s/he liked. I appreciate the sentiment, but it also meant I never needed to read anything s/he wrote again: I already knew what s/he was going to say. Think about it.
Keller does acknowledge that sometimes you have to be tough. But her piece focuses on being nice, being decent, being sorry about writing badly about someone. And I question whether those sentiments are really germane to the discussion of the job - just as I question whether an artist’s personality is relevant to a discussion of his or her art.
The arts are more than decoration. If they have the power to sustain us (and to endure over decades and centuries) it’s because of their commitment to certain standards, certain ideals. The critic’s job is to try to uphold or at least remind of those ideals. In the service of that, one can sometimes get very angry at mediocrity. I concur that some critics, as Keller describes, seem to take delight in skewering people, and I agree with Keller that no one should be happy about writing a nasty review. But I think that getting lost in discussions of the critic’s personality is a distraction from the main point of the exercise, which is to care enough about the thing one is criticizing to think it makes a difference whether it is good or not, and to get angry, sometimes, when it is not.
What are your thoughts?
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