It’s taken me a long time to come round to criticism. For the longest time, I felt there was something almost inherently unfair about it; something unnecessarily disparaging or needlessly negative. To my younger self, surrounded as I was by the mediocrity of most internet reviews, and the general culture of soullessly technical dissection that is popular in many spheres of self-declared critics, it seemed to me like people were just taking great pains to ruin things for themselves. And, in those highly specific cases, I think I may still feel similarly. When faced with the sort of people who try to say Guardians of the Galaxy is “merely Space Avengers,” I can only feel a great, mourning groaning in my heart of hearts, and wonder privately how someone can hear a whole story without actually listening to any of it. For the longest time, this is precisely what made me wary of any self-declared critics.
But I’ve come round now, as I say. Not to the Space Avengers people, but to the realization that such people are not, to put it baldly, necessarily critics. Or rather, just because they say they are critics, and call themselves critics, and may even talk like critics, does not mean they know how to give actual criticism. You can be a critic without being a good one. Frankly, though, I don’t think it’s a matter of whether or not you are a critic, or that there is some difference between “true critics” and “pretend critics.” I don’t believe Criticism is some anal matter of rites of passage, or official recognition, or any other such banalities we might come up with. The truth of the thing, I believe, is that Criticism is not about critics. It may be a subjective thing, but it is not truthfully a personal one. It is not a celebrity affair. A neater way of putting it would be that Criticism is not about the critic, but the thing being criticized.
Now, the fact that the words “criticize,” and “disparage,” are now more or less synonymous in our modern language is, I think, rather exemplary of my inner misgivings towards the institution in general, but I will not blame the foibles of the English language on a time-honoured part of literary appreciation. Criticism, I believe, is valid, even if we don’t know how to talk about it.
To return to the point, I think the problem with much of what we pretend counts as criticism, with much of what might be called Reviewer Culture, is that it is far more occupied with the reviewer—with the idea that the whole thing is a review—than it is with the story. This, I think, is best characterized by that fact that most reviews—most so-called criticism—boil down to whether or not the critic liked the story. How a critic feels about a story may be absolutely relevant, but it is only relevant in the same sense the lens of a microscope is relevant. Necessary, yes—even important—but ultimately not the point. The point is the story itself. It is not the lens, but what you see through it. And if the story cannot be examined for its sake, judged on its own merits, sought after and thought through simply for what it is trying to say and do, then what good is criticism at all? What is Criticism, if it is not merely listening and thinking, in a deep and delicate way, about what a story is trying to say with its words?
For the first time in my life, I find myself warming up to certain critics I have encountered, in one place and another. But it is not because I agree with them. In fact, most often I don’t, simply because I disagree with most people on most things. I am an oddball, and perfectly used to that. I don’t especially care whether or not such-and-such a person enjoyed Infinity War, except in the general sense that I care for humanity and its happiness. What I care about, as a seeker of literature and a bearer of the torch of Story, is what Infinity War is trying to say, and if they (the critic) are thoughtful enough to see it. What is the story doing, what is the story breathing, what is the story about? That is the point! Not the plot, which anyone could likely summarize in a short jumble of dull sentences (unless the story is immensely complicated, which is not always a compliment), but the actual themes, the breadth, the characters, the conflicts, the life between the lines of print. As Ray Bradbury put so beautifully, “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” Anyone can count footprints. Story, on the other hand, is where the characters are trying to go, and why, and what that says about them and us; their world and ours.
I do not, under any circumstances, consider myself especially capable of what one might call storyspection; the practice of delving deep into the layered, entangled weave of a story to find out the meaning behind the web of dreams, and how well the web has been spun to show it. It is natural, then, that I—and I think all of us—seek out others who are more capable. There will always be great minds who can peer into the looking-glasses of Fairyland and see visions we, in the rush of our lives, could only glimpse momentarily upon the rim. No two human perspectives are identical—that, after all, is why we have Story in the first place—and to see what others can find in a great book is one of life’s most sublime joys. That is why we have Criticism, that is what Criticism is for, and that is what I look for in a critic.
To finish: If you are hoping to become a critic, and I hope you are, I can only say, as a mindnumblingly meta critic of critics, to avoid the myth of recommendation. A part of modern Reviewer Culture, a part of the trend that I believe has bred Youtube breakdowns, and so-called “angry reviews” that are most often little more than private rants broadcast at an unnecessarily broad scope, is this idea of whether or not a given critic recommends a given work. Now, recommendation is not a bad thing, by any means, on its own. If someone I know and trust recommends a story to me, it can be a delight. But the fact of the matter is that an online voice most often does not know you, and you as an online voice do not know the majority of your audience. You can’t. The internet is too large a public square to glimpse the many faces of those around the edges. You can recommend something from one friend to another, but broad recommendation to an indeterminable audience is an endeavour built to fail. You can’t know if someone will enjoy something if you do not know them personally, and to me it hardly seems much of an occupation to make jabs at educated guessing. It conjures in my mind the image of some old man at a video lottery, calling out numbers to an unfeeling machine. Surely there are better ways to spend our time.
If you are aspiring to be a critic, it is not your job to tell people what to like. Moreover, audiences do not need to be told what to like, and shouldn’t be. The world is not made of electric sheep, to be programmed by a shepherding switchboard of internet trends and celebrity vlogs. As human beings, we should be capable of determining whether or not we like something, and why, on our own. It is not a critic’s job to preach a sermon of subjective pleasure or dissatisfaction. It is a critic’s job to find a story’s heart and expound upon its pulse.
I realize there is some irony in my saying all this. On this very blog, I have frequently recommended this or that movie, this or that story. I have written many reviews, some of them angrier than others, and they probably make up the bulk of this site’s content. The myth of recommendation is everywhere, stamped across everything in our reactionary, trendy internet culture, and I am neither special nor exempt to it. And I do hesitate to say it doesn’t have its place. If there is someone whose work or ideas I admire, and they recommend a book, I may enjoy the book. That logic is sound enough. But recommendation certainly warrants a much smaller place than it has.
My point is, whether we like or or not, recommendation is not actually Criticism. Even if you never read a book, to read a criticism of it ought to give you some insight, or some fresh idea about the world, or whatever the book was about. Blandly boiling a story down to “worth your time,” or “not worth your time,” seems blind to me, as if stories were just coins to be flipped. Heads or tails, good or bad, recommended or not recommended. It is naught but an empty, chilling echo of the meaningless, knee-jerk, like-dislike culture of social media and the binary, zero-or-one mentality that is the bane and the basis of computer culture. Stories may be good or bad, all-in-all, in the context of their own quality, execution, and ideas, but to merely blandly state so achieves nothing. Anyone could do the same. But to take that quality, that execution, those ideas, and to actually examine them, turn them over, to try and see what they say altogether as whole about our world and the worlds that could be through the eyes and the struggles of the characters, that to me is Criticism.
And Criticism of that sort, I believe, is something we need far more of.