Do We Still Need Critics?

I think I probably bought every issue of Time Out from its very first copy to my last, about three months ago. It guided me through London from Cheap Eats to Agitprop, and listed all the peculiar little cinemas with daily-changing repertory double bills, fringe theatres and clubs. It was essential to survival in a city where the pace constantly outstrips the public. It’s always more fun being a buyer than a seller, and I never stopped to consider that all those shops, cinemas and restaurants in the listings were fighting to sell their wares.

As a reviewer and columnist it was nice to become a buyer once more, after spending so many years selling the services of our film company, and trying to interest people in buying books. When you’re a buyer everyone pitches at you, everyone’s your friend. On average I’m sent thirty books a month to fill just two slots in the FT, and a great many books I like can’t be fitted in. The ones that do make it often end up in there due to accidents of time and space.

Critics are buyers; everyone sells to them, and this puts them in a position of power. But what we write doesn’t affect every purchase equally. When the restaurant critic Fay Maschler turned up at tiny new Fitzrovia diner Dabbous, it changed the fortunes of the place overnight. I tried to get a table there last month and was told to try again after Christmas. Restaurant critics are not only listened to but slavishly followed.

I think the same applies to theatre critics. The disastrous ‘Babel’, reviewed here a week ago, got similarly lousy reviews from every critic, so the producers grabbed vox pops from audience members to fight the damage. Key theatre critics have been in their jobs for decades and develop passions and turnoffs, so you have to filter what you read through their temperaments.

Book reviews are different, though. Writers develop their own tastes in isolation – we know bad books when we see them, and as space is too valuable to waste on mere vitriol, we simply avoid them in favour of praising something good. Which is why you get such a bewildering array of rave reviews on book jackets, most of which don’t give you enough detail to allow you to decide what to choose. All book reviews can do really is to pull a book onto the public radar.

Likewise, I’m not sure that film reviews are really needed now (separate to the academic criticism of Sight & Sound magazine) since any reasonably articulate writers can review what they’ve seen without having to provide an overview of world cinema history. Usually no specialist knowledge is required at all – but it’s nice when you find a good reviewer like Damon Wise, Kim Newman or Jonathan Romney who can articulate and communicate the appeal of a particular film.

The press is fast squeezing out critics – their space is shrinking because specialist sites can go into far more depth on the subject you’re seeking. And the reviewers are unpaid; people do it just for fun. We’re in the dying days of some areas of criticism – but restaurant, art gallery and theatre critics will remain immune because they get the invitations that don’t reach the general public. Everything else is fair game for all of us.

3 comments on “Do We Still Need Critics?”

  1. Amy says:

    I rarely seek out a critical opinion for my own consumer needs. Caveat emptor dictates that the burden is on me to be knowledgeable about what I’m consuming. Yet, I’m a rebel and I like to take chances sometimes.

    I’m okay with not liking a meal, reading a book I don’t particularly like, or going to a movie that’s not my cup of tea. I take the good with the bad and I think the bad shapes my tastes in things just as much as the good, so it’s never time or money wasted. Better yet, knowing what I think is bad helps me have a better appreciation for what I think is good. Outside opinions are just entertainment. I rarely value another’s opinion over my own. I even go into the doctor’s office with as much information as I can gather about a health issue, to my doctor’s chagrin, because I found out a long time ago that “expertise” does not automatically mean a superior opinion.

    Regarding critics and power, that’s a subject that I could probably write a few pages on. lol I won’t. I’ll just say that power in the hands of mere mortals can be crushing or empowering. So, it’s the critic’s individual responsibility to think about what he or she puts out into the world.

    No. I don’t think professional critics have ever been needed. Nevertheless, there will always be a place for them where consumers are concerned and they can be very helpful. However, I think those professional critics who are isolated and out of touch with the public will probably struggle with finding a way to survive in this Information Age because so much can be gathered with a simple click of the mouse. Nobody really wants to go to an expert who looks down on them for anything when they can find most information on their own.

    I liked a lot of what you had to say about how it helped you navigate a new place to read critical information. As far as knowledge gathering and familiarizing yourself with a subject or place, critical opinions can be very useful.

  2. Cat Eldridge says:

    The pull quotes I find amusing are the ones that are not about that specific work but are a ringing endorsement of the author. Hell I’ve seen pull quotes from reviews I’ve done that bear little or no resemblance to what I actually penned.

    Then there’s the situation in which a certain American book chain now routinely blacklists any new book by an author who sold less than well so that the new work must be under a pen name so there can’t be any quotes from their previous work!

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Cat that sucks about the book chain. Of course the films do the same: “Best teen butter film yet! Three stars!’ The Owl Watchers’ Times of Little Falls.

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