Sunday, 6 December 2015

In Defense of Critics

It occurs to me that I haven't based a blog post on something I heard on the Nerdist recently, so if that's your thing, then you're in for a treat. To wit:

I was listening to Chris Hardwick and Neko Case this week, and the subject at some point turned to the merits (or lack thereof) of entertainment critics. It's kind of axiomatic that creators don't like critics, as a number of singers, to pull an example at random, have written songs excoriating some music journalist.

And while I understand being annoyed when someone shits on what you do, whether on social media or in print, I do think that critics occupy a more nuanced place than what Hardwick implies, ie people who couldn't hack it in the creative business and so are working out their frustrations by tearing down other people's work. I'm sure someone like that exists - but I doubt they're most of the critics out there, or the best-regarded.

Fantasy author Daniel Abraham once said (I think it was him, but can't find the blog post where he said it) that the two are different skills - a good author doesn't necessarily make a good critic, or vice versa. The thought that they might be the same thing probably comes from the confusion between criticism and reviewing - a review is to say whether something's worth consuming (reading, watching, eating, etc) whereas criticism is to say whether something's done well.

British film critic Mark Kermode had something along these lines in one of his books, where he was talking about the Sex and the City films. He can say it's shit all he wants, but that's not going to stop people from watching it - but he's not here to tell us it's shit, he's here to tell us why it's shit, from a very formal point of view (this is all an enormous paraphrase, by the way).

So I find the idea that any criticism stems from jealousy of someone who was successful in creating a movie or book to be wide of the mark. There are a number of reasons why someone would review your novel or album badly - some are unfair, granted, like they're prejudiced against your genre or were simply having a bad day and now associate the work with that (this, incidentally, is why I don't like Reservoir Dogs).

Or there are other completely spurious reasons to hate a work: I remember a reviewer of Paul Theroux's 2006 travel book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, seemed primarily to take issue with the fact that Theroux isn't Norman Lewis. The fact is indisputable, but it seems somewhat beside the point - you read Theroux for Theroux, not for retreads of Norman Lewis (or Bill Bryson, or Jan Morris, or whoever). Review the book on its own merits, rather than on how it doesn't happen to have been written by your favorite author.

But other reasons are completely fair - you might have phoned in the work, or put a lot of effort into something that simply doesn't connect with anybody, or your reach might have exceeded your grasp and you failed to convey certain things in your work. The fact that nobody sets out to write a shitty novel or make a shitty movie doesn't mean that no novels or movies are shitty, or that we should give everything a pass just because it got made.

This is why reviewers and critics are important. The reviewer tells you whether a movie's worth seeing, and the critic tells you whether it has anything worth studying - these are very different skills from actually writing or directing or acting in a movie. The fact that a good writer or actor or musician should be able to pick out what works and what doesn't from another book or movie or song also doesn't mean they should be the ones doing the reviewing or critiquing (although I know some do, and do it well).

It's one reason why I've avoided book reviews on this blog: while I generally know and can pick out what doesn't work for me about a story, I accept that it's not really in my skillset. My calling is to tell stories, not necessarily to tell others about them - but I do believe that it's a calling for some people, and if they do it well, then more power to them.

Of course, I may be biased because I haven't had the pleasure of being savaged in a review. Check back in with me when I've started being reviewed for my own books or movies, and we'll see what I say then...