Everyone’s A Critic
Recently the press started slimming its review pages across the board, cutting back on their critics. My own reviews have been hit – everyone’s have, and it’s almost impossible now for younger writers to get into the broadsheets.
In one sense the system needed shaking out now that there’s so much good online critical writing. There were venerable press critics, like Pauline Kael and Kenneth Tynan, whose strongly felt opinions and passions were articulated through experience. There were also critics like Alexander Walker, the passionate but frequently misguided and reactionary film critic of the Evening Standard, but Walker could still write intelligently with a connoisseur’s eye. You paid to hear an expert’s point of view, and lived with their peccadillos.
As they died out, many of these were replaced with photogenic but not very good critics who felt they could write a little about anything, what we might term the ‘Coren Effect’. The internet weaned the next generation off critics, so what might eventually be more useful is a list of what’s new – basic data rather than reviews.
Critics can damage creativity. Tynan was so hurtful about Dulcie Gray’s first play that he killed her career – she never wrote another. Sondheim talks here about peer approval being more important than criticism, but still used to be hurt by dismissive reviews.
I try not to review books I dislike, unless the paper thinks coverage will be so ubiquitous that the public will think it odd if we don’t cover it. Like many writers I see the process from both sides, so I’m careful about what I say. My rule of thumb with reading my own reviews is simple; if more than two critics pick out the same negative element in a book, it’s my fail. If they simply don’t enjoy something I’ve written for reasons of their own, that’s fine.
Smartly written criticism is simply fun to read. I miss ‘Spitting Image’, Tynan and Clive James, all of whom, when really on form, were brilliant. I’d be hard pushed to put names to more than 3 or 4 good critics now. Kim Newman, Jonathan Romney, Michael Billington, Leslie Felperin, Anne Billson and a few other top-notch writers survive, but where did the rest of the great writing go? Online, of course, where people don’t get paid for providing it.