In Defense of the Critics

In light of the recent discussion of how to get people more interested in literary fiction, I’ve often wondered what it is about literary fiction or the art film that people are so resistant to in the first place.

I’ve eventually decided that most people see books and movies as simple forms of entertainment and that, as such, the art ought to be the one doing the work. Enjoyment of such work should require little to nothing from the participant and the degree of successfulness of the art is based on the amount of time that the participant was not bored while consuming it. And whether or not one was bored is based entire on an instinctive, visceral reaction.

As such, it makes sense that a man would be resistant when certain educated people tell him that he should or should not like a work based on long, complicated explanations that have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not he was bored while consuming the work. Indeed, it injures one’s pride to be told that there are intellectual reasons to dislike something you like or to like something you dislike.

Thus, a fierce antagonism towards the “the critics” is born. I am stunned by how often I hear someone say, “I hate the critics.” (As if “the critics” were one unified body in the first place!) So great is this antagonism that many people are willing to put more stock in the opinion of the philistine in the cubical next door than in any publishing critic.

In order to deal with their disagreement with critics, I think that many people have come to consider literary fiction or the art film as a genre in itself ““ and a genre that, for whatever reason, critics just happen to enjoy. Bringing all of this closer to home, I once heard it mentioned that AML was biased towards literary fiction. Again, as if literary fiction were some genre that some people happened to like.

Though I don’t like using the word “good” because of its broadness, I think it’s roughly fair to say that literary fiction is such because it’s good. You can hardly call it bias to be biased towards something that’s good. The problem, of course, is the subjectivity involved in assessing what’s good ““ and whether there’s such a thing as the objectively good at all.

A brief experience: at BYU I took a Shakespeare performance class with Bob Nelson. In it, we took turns performing scenes from the text, and then, as a class, assessing each other’s performance. I could usually tell a good acting performance from a bad one, but I struggled when prompted to give specific constructive criticism. I mean, bad acting is just bad acting, isn’t it? I wanted to just say, “Uh, be more realistic and stuff.”

Even though I knew it was coming, I would inevitably be floored when Prof. Nelson offered his suggestions. As I would think about his comments in response to the preceding performance, it would dawn on me that implementing those ideas would make a better performance. At times, I would disagree with him initially about whether a performance was good or not, but would change my mind when I had reflected some more on his remarks.

I like sharing this story with people because I think it shows a possibility of some objectivity in art. If it’s possible to make objective criticisms about acting, which is about as abstract as you can get, then surely there are objective criticisms to be make about film and literature. The problem may just be that we haven’t been trained to see it.

Since this experience I’ve come to place a certain trust in the critics of various types of art and believe that there might be something there that I’m missing. Of course, there are different reasons for believing that something is good or bad, and even the best critics are going to disagree at times. But I think that if we’re willing to listen to those who critically express judgments about works and come to understand why they’re saying what they do, our own experience with works will be richer and our ability to appreciate good works will be greater.

5 thoughts on “In Defense of the Critics”

  1. There’s a really funny new book out now, “The Film Snob’s Dictionary” by David Kamp, that is full of “inside” information about stuff that you absolutely have to know about in order to be a True Movie Geek (like Sam Raimi, Japanese horror movies, Tod Browning’s “Freaks”, Mexican wrestling movies, etc.) This is the sort of “I know more than you” snobbery that many people associate with “the critics.” Ironically, the book is full of interesting ideas and films that I now want to check out. The key to criticism, like so much else in life, is attitude–do you do it on order to aggrandize yourself and lord your superior knowledge over others; or do you sincerely want to contribute to the conversation so you can enrich your own experience and that of others. I think other people can really pick up on what kind of critical attitude one really has.

  2. One difficulty is that literary criticism isn’t much of a performing art. When was the last time someone published the best of the Atlantic Monthly’s book reviews and made the New York Times bestseller list? People didn’t pay money to come see your theater professor critique some monologues.

    It seems that despite the “critics'” knowledge of what makes good writing, they rarely seem to be able to employ those techniques in their own writing. So we get awful titles like, “Place, Poesy, and Praxis in 20th Century Intermountain West Fiction.”

    Somehow my curiosity isn’t piqued.

    Now if criticism becames known as a creative enterprise, instead of an academic one, then maybe people would take the critics a little more seriously. Maybe we would have different kinds of critics.

  3. I’ve eventually decided that most people see books and movies as simple forms of entertainment and that, as such, the art ought to be the one doing the work.

    And they see critics as the uniform body of those who insist that they should be doing the work.

    BTW, I should be under the Links “blogroll/reciprocity” part.

    if we’re willing to listen to those who critically express judgments about works and come to understand why they’re saying what they do, our own experience with works will be richer and our ability to appreciate good works will be greater — indeed, at least when we are ready for it. 😉

  4. Ethesis:

    The blogroll isn’t working at the moment — I’m going to change the way it works, in fact. However, I’m about to go on vacation so it won’t happen until the last week in July. 🙂

  5. Stephen said, “Now if criticism becames known as a creative enterprise, instead of an academic one, then maybe people would take the critics a little more seriously.”

    This sounds like a job for … satire! 🙂

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