Guardian column: Who needs critics?

My column for the Guardian this week pulls together some of what I’ve written here to ask what the role of the critic should be in a world where everyone is a critic and no critic can watch everything. (Nonregistration link here.) Snippet:

New media
When everyone’s a critic, where do all the critics go?

Jeff Jarvis
Monday August 7, 2006
The Guardian

Who needs critics, anyway? Not the producers of The Da Vinci Code, who launched a gigahit without showing the movie to critics much in advance. Not the latest Pirates of the Caribbean, which was deep-sixed by professional scribes – who as a group gave it only 52 out of 100 points, as calculated by RottenTomatoes.com – while the critics who count, the ones with tickets in hand, gave the sequel the biggest three-day box office in US history. Not newspapers in the US, which are laying off critics and refusing to send many of those left to soak up PR and parties at television critics’ junkets to Hollywood.

Yes, who needs critics in an age when everybody’s a critic? And what is the role of the critic at a time when there is far too much entertainment for any critic to take in and review?

The critics are, naturally, debating the point. The Wall Street Journal’s man on movies, Joe Morgenstern, fretted recently that at a time when “shoddiness has been radically redefined by a surging stream of studio swill … 11 movies so far this year have gone into distribution without being shown to critics – up from two during the same period last year.”

Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw warned: “Without critics you would be left with hype, with a jabbering army of Amazon reviewers and headache- inducing prose on aintitcoolnews.com.” New York Times critic AO Scott argued that critics, even if ignored, suffer for your good: “We don’t go to the movies for fun. Or for the money. We do it for you.”

Music man Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone dismissed his amateur competitors: “Much as I like Depeche Mode, I’d sooner shoot myself than read 50 short reviews of their latest CD by DM obsessives. If that’s the future of arts journalism, best of luck to all.” But the Wall Street Journal’s man in the theatre, Terry Teachout, argues on his blog at ArtsJournal.com: “Middle-aged print-media critics who want to be read in the age of web-based journalism must start by recognising that they’re in direct competition with younger bloggers. If they don’t, they’ll vanish – and most of them will deserve their fate. If I were a newspaper editor, I’d be looking to the blogs for the next generation of critics.”

In 1990, I created Entertainment Weekly, a magazine of pop cultural criticism in the US, because I saw an explosion of entertainment choice thanks to cable and the VCR (little did I know what would come next). And so I said we needed critics to help us find the good stuff. But if I started EW today, I’d create it online and I’d try to find ways to gather the taste of the crowds regarding far more entertainment: let sci-fi fans help you hunt the best sci-fi; debate the literary merit, if any, of Harry Potter; argue with Woody Allen fans over whether he has his mojo back. Mind you, I’d be loath to end up with the world’s largest focus group or most uninformative online poll. Instead, I’d hope this would be a salon of salons, where you could find the discussions and people you like and with them, the entertainment you want.

Would I have critics? Yes, but their roles would change. They still should give their views and set art in context. But rather than issuing pronouncements and bon mots, unchallenged, from the screening room, I’d want them to spark the discussion about entertainment: find the good voices, pinpoint the arguments, even referee debates among artists and critics. A great critic should be a magnet for fascinating discussion. Take the debate around politics at the Guardian’s Comment is Free and imagine similar discussion over the arts, with critics acting not as pontificators but as opinionated moderators, even generous hosts.

Just as the public and critics have a new relationship thanks to the internet, so may artists and their audiences alter roles. I know authors who’ve written books on blogs, to get help from readers. I know others who have opened up acts of fiction online with interactive elements to make the audience part of the art. The New York Times reported recently that the producers of some TV shows go to the fan site Television Without Pity to defend what they have done to favourite characters. I’ve never been one of those to predict that we would want to choose or create our own endings to movies and books. Art should not go karaoke. I do believe in the role of authorship. But what happens when the public, so quickly promoted from audience to critic, can now become participants in creation? What happens when art becomes interactive?

  • http://lastyearsgirl.pixlet.net lism.

    Excellently written article – came across it on the Guardian website this morning. I’ll be keeping an eye on this blog.

  • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

    I agree. Most of my casual moviegoer peers don’t listen to critics at all (I believe they all saw POTC2 multiple times during the first weekend, as well); they simply don’t think critics are relevant. But critics have their place, and are necessary…I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the critics-as-discussion-moderators idea, and I like your comment about “setting art in context.” A good critic knows film history and theory, and that extra knowledge and insight is what sets him or her apart from the casual moviegoer. I’d hate to lose access to that insight because people think critics are irrelevant.

  • http://www.dere-street.com Dave

    I think there was/is a longstanding white collar belief that certain sectors of the economy [particularly the media and the finance industry] would be immune to disintermediation, and the howls of angst of those decrying the decline of the critic [who is an old-fashioned media intermediary] are compaining beacuse their cocoon is disintegrating around them.

  • Pier

    As in the famous Mark Twain quote, reports of the demise of the critic have been greatly exaggerated. Why does anyone read criticism to begin with? Because there is a presumption that critics in general (and especially in widely-read, prestigious publications) know a bit about their subject. That’s not to say that if I read a critic more than once, it’s because I agree with everything he/she has ever written. But when I read Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle, it’s because Mick’s seen a million movies, has interviewed hundreds of actors, directors and writers, and basically knows a lot more about how and why films are made than I (or any of my friends or acquaintances) ever will. He can relate whatever movie he’s reviewing to others made by the same director, or compare it to others in the genre, and he’ll usually have something interesting and cogent to say. Now, do I use Mick as my fail-safe guide as to whether I should go catch “The Night Listener”? HELL no; I ask my buddy Eli, whose taste is similar enough to mine that if he liked it, I probably will too. The information I get from Mick is just as valuable, in its way, as what I get from Eli, because I view each with different expectations. I think many critics are snooty and exclusive (including some who get paid a LOT), and if they have anything interesting to say it’s purely by chance. I don’t read them. I DO read the good ones.

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  • cryinginthewilderness

    IMHO,
    Critics are basically interpreting entertainment for the New York, Hollywood, San Francisco, Seattle Axis. They have nothing to say to people in Flyover country. I quit paying attention in my 20’s and I’m 67 now.

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