Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

What makes a great critic?

with 10 comments

Although my life has since taken me in a rather different direction, for a long time, I was convinced that I wanted to be a film critic. My first paying job as a writer was cranking out movie reviews, at fifty dollars a pop, for a now-defunct college website, a gig that happily coincided with the best year for movies in my lifetime. Later, I spent the summer of 2001 writing capsule reviews for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, during a somewhat less distinguished era for film—my most memorable experience was interviewing Kevin Smith about Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. After college, I tried to get work as a film critic in New York, only to quickly realize that reviewing movies for a print publication is one of the cushier jobs around, meaning that most critics don’t leave the position until they retire or die, and when they do, there’s usually someone in the office—often the television reporter—already waiting in the wings.

In the years since, the proliferation of pop cultural sites on the Internet has led to a mixed renaissance for critics of all kinds: there are more professional reviewers than ever before, but their influence has been correspondingly diluted. Critics have always been distrusted by artists, of course, but these days, they get it from both sides: for every working critic, there are a thousand commenters convinced that they can do a better job, and the rest of us are often swayed less by the opinions of individual writers than the consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, which is a shame. At its best, a critic’s body of work is a substantial accomplishment in its own right, and personalities as dissimilar as those of Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, and David Thomson—speaking only of film, which is the area I know best—have created lasting legacies in print and online. And while the critical profession is still in a period of transition, the elements of great criticism haven’t changed since the days of James Agee, or even Samuel Johnson.

So what makes a good critic? Knowledge of the field, yes; enthusiasm for art, most definitely. (A critic without underlying affection for his chosen medium, or who sees it only as an excuse for snark, isn’t good for much of anything.) Above all else, it requires a curious mixture of the objective and the subjective. A critic needs to be objective enough to evaluate a work of art on its own terms—to review the work that the creator wanted to make, not the one that the critic wishes had been made instead—while also acknowledging that all good reviews are essentially autobiographical. Ebert has noted that his own criticism is written in the first person, and the most enduring critics are those who write, not as an authority delivering opinions from up on high, but as someone speaking to an intelligent friend. As a result, the collected works of critics like Ebert and Kael are the closest things we have these days to books that seem like living men or women, like Montaigne’s essays or The Anatomy of Melancholy. “Cut these words,” as Emerson said of Montaigne, “and they would bleed.”

Surveying the current crop of writers on the arts, my sense is that while we have many gifted critics, most of them fall short in one way or another. A critic like Anthony Lane, for all his intelligence, tends to treat the subject under consideration as an excuse for an arch bon mot (as with Star Trek: First Contact: “If you thought the Borg were bad, just wait till you meet the McEnroe.”) And while his wit can be devastating when aimed at the right target—The Da Vinci Code, for instance, or the occupants of the New York Times bestseller list—it often betrays both too much self-regard and a lack of respect for the work itself. On the literary side, James Wood has a similar problem: he’s a skilled parodist and mimic, but surely not every review obliges him to show off with one of his self-consciously clever pastiches. (If I were Chang Rae-Lee, I’d still be mad about this.) The writers of the A.V. Club are more my style: in their pop cultural coverage, especially of television, they’ve struck a nice balance between enthusiasm, autobiography, and reader engagement. But I’m always looking for more. Which critics do you like?

Written by nevalalee

January 4, 2012 at 10:48 am

10 Responses

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  1. A while back you mentioned you were reading the Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons. You’re probably familiar with his website, http://www.grantland.com; if not, it’s definitely worth a visit. Its primary focus is sports, but they also have plenty of stuff about pop culture, including a very engaging video game critic and a drop-dead hilarious hockey writer, Katie Baker, who also writes a monthly column skewering the excesses of the NYT wedding announcements.

    Nat

    January 4, 2012 at 8:49 pm

  2. I should have added – the video game critic is Tom Bissell, which makes me want to check out his fiction, which I have not read.

    Nat

    January 4, 2012 at 8:55 pm

  3. I do love Grantland. I’ll check out Bissell’s stuff!

    nevalalee

    January 6, 2012 at 5:48 pm

  4. Margaret and David! (www.abc.net.au/atthemovies/) They are an Australian institution, having been reviewing for 25 years on Aussie TV; they even had their own exhibition (at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI)). Not the right critics (at least in their TV work) if you like a review to be a jumping off point for a more digressive essay (I am thinking about Algis Budrys’s reviews in Galaxy and F&SF, many of which considered only a single book and ended up as an enlightening essay on the development of the writer, the craft of writing, or the state of SF). Much of their charm is in the good-natured disagreements they have on-screen (David suffers a little from a ‘the more obscure the better’ attitude, while Margaret is prepared to take a box-office behemoth more on its own terms and give it a friendly review), rather than in any especially insightful comments, although both are quite authoritative in an understated way. It is rather like spending half an hour with some friends talking about what you’ve seen lately.

    Darren

    January 9, 2012 at 4:20 pm

  5. It’s funny, isn’t it, how you can end up feeling closer to a venerable critic than to most of the artists ostensibly under review. Thanks for the recommendation—I’ll be sure to check them out!

    nevalalee

    January 11, 2012 at 2:40 pm

  6. I am assuming you are familiar with Nock Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn in Interzone. I suspect more Interzone readers read his column first than any other section, possibly more than all the other sections combined. Unsurpassed for SF/F genre movies, he pays real attention to his proseas well and the reviews seems to sparkle. They are full not only of arresting comparisons and insights, but also neat turns of phrase.

    Darren Goossens

    January 15, 2012 at 4:26 am

  7. In my comment above I seem to be only half literate. I promise, I am just tired.

    Darren Goossens

    January 15, 2012 at 4:28 am

  8. No worries—I know how that feels. :) And while I don’t have a chance to read Lowe’s stuff very often, what I’ve seen, I’ve loved.

    nevalalee

    January 15, 2012 at 10:20 pm

  9. Did you know Interzone issue 230 — coincidentally containing a celebration of the 25th anniversary of Mutant Popcorn — is available free from Smashwords?

    http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/74316

    Darren Goossens

    January 16, 2012 at 5:32 am

  10. I hadn’t seen that—thanks for the tip!

    nevalalee

    January 16, 2012 at 4:41 pm


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