Critics’ critics

Guardian entertainment critic Dorian Lynskey has a most entertaining column about what’s it’s like to face the bloggers and commenters in the paper’s group arts blog:

. . . Like backroom comedy writers dragooned into performing late-night stand-up in a club full of tetchy drunks, this paper’s critics have had to learn to deal with hecklers very quickly. The first time I experienced it, my offering was described as “stereotypically self-indulgent Guardian wank bordering on self-parody”. I sulked for a bit, then got over it. All but the kindest critics have written unpleasant things about artists in their field, so we should learn to take a few knocks.

I’m not convinced, though, that what might politely be described as “robust” debate on the blog generates light as well as heat. The internet has always licensed people to be far ruder than they would be in a face-to-face encounter. In 1990, US attorney Mike Godwin formulated Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Similarly, as an arts blog discussion grows longer, the probability of the writer being branded “smug”, “pointless”, “arrogant” or “London-obsessed” approaches one. . . .

This is just one front in a wide-ranging battle between the blogosphere and so-called old media. In an ideal world, there should be room for both print critics and online ones, with plenty of overlap between them. Good writing is good writing, wherever it appears. But the campaign is in its early days and there are several years’ worth of grievances to thrash out before a peace treaty can be agreed.

Many of the people who post on blogs appear to be annoyed not by what the writers say so much as the fact that they’re in a position to say it. You can spot this type because they write things like: “You’ve only written this to provoke a reaction.” Or: “Why did you even write this? What a waste of time.” As if writing to complain about a waste of time were not, in fact, a bigger waste of time. . . .

You’ll find something similar on the websites of Entertainment Weekly, the Village Voice and anywhere else critics invite feedback – only to wonder why they bothered. I hope this resentment will fade, because although a firestorm of invective can be very amusing, it’s only when critics and readers meet halfway that enlightening debate can happen – and surely that’s the whole point of the exercise. Recently, I posted a blog entry about why I dislike Bruce Springsteen. Predictably, some Boss fans were not best pleased and the usual reasoned responses ensued (“Back to school”, “knobhead”, etc). But halfway down, a reader who knew more than I did about Springsteen’s strengths and failings weighed in with a series of nuanced posts that broadened and enriched the discussion in a way I couldn’t have predicted. I’m also fortunate with the contributors to my Readers Recommend blog, where differences of opinion are met with good humour and nobody has ever been compared to Hitler.

These are relatively early days. With time and luck, the good will out and the bad will lose the chips from their shoulders; or, failing that, find something better to do with those slow periods at work. Until then, at least, every critic knows that it is always better to be read than ignored. No amount of abuse at the foot of a blog is quite as disheartening as the dread phrase: “Comments (0)”.

Last I checked, this piece had 74 comments.