‘Readers, Not Critics, Determine A Book’s Fate.’
Wristwatches. Cufflinks. Neckties. Tea-cosies. Newspaper critics.
What do they all have in common?
They’re all still available long after their original need to exist has vanished.
The future is never quite the future. Much of the past clings to it; retinal-display phones exist in the same world as letter-openers. For over 200 years newspapers provided us with essential information, because it was material we could get nowhere else. The UK has 11 national papers, all of which still have a demographic slice.
As the press works out how to monetize its model for an online world, there are winners and losers – the New York Times adapted brilliantly to online subscription, but nobody’s talking about how the online Sun is doing, and it’s depressing that Sight & Sound, the UK’s only serious national film magazine, has failed to add interactivity to its online pages when you can click on any photo in the small Canadian film mag Rue Morgue and initiate moving footage.
We’re in crossover times – subscription press, like streaming and Cloud storage, is becoming a fact of future life, but the old formats have to remain for a while yet. The next generation of home entertainment is arriving in the form of 4K TV – essentially just a picture that’s four times sharper than Blu-Ray – but right now there’s no delivery system that can handle it, so studios are pushing Blu-Ray, and while they’re keen to phase out DVD – the industry’s cufflinks as it were – an ageing population is still resisting because it’s a likeable, easy format.
Opening the Sunday Times online this morning, two things strike me – the app’s technically inefficient, and why on earth do we still have critics’ pages? AA Gill isn’t someone I’d want to meet but he writes a journalistically perceptive column, very little of which is to do with his job – restaurant criticism. But Camille Long writing on film is less edifying than asking the person in the seat next what s/he thinks of the movie. And reading that she thinks the film ‘Elysium’ should spend its time with the rich characters instead of the poor ones is insulting.
Let’s not single out Long, though; most book, film and theatre criticism survives in print papers as set dressing – it’s there because we expect it. In a world where everyone can give an opinion on anything the real surprise has been not that how much of it is bad, but how much of it is very good indeed. And its a meritocracy; the writers aren’t given columns because they’re blonde or because their parents were famous, but because they’re passionate readers or audience members who pay their way.
As it becomes easier to collate your favourites into personal editions – I’d be lost without Matt Brown on London, Kim Newman on rare movies and the West End Whingers on theatre – the pointlessness of paid pundits is obvious, and their pages shrink monthly – yet they remain, journalistic cufflinks.
Most newspapers aren’t interested in insightful criticism but in providing digestible capsule round-ups for the sake of completeness. In a week when Benedict Cumberbatch asked journalists to go and cover something more important than him, and the estimable Phillip French retired as a film critic, you have to ask yourself why press critics still exist at all.