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14 March 2023

Who is criticism for?

Seth Rogen’s protest against bad reviews misunderstands the role of the critic in the fight against mediocrity.

By Lola Seaton

In an interview last week the actor Seth Rogen, reflecting on his brushes with bad reviews, said: “I think if most critics knew how much it hurts the people that made the things that they are writing about, they would second guess the way they write these things.” The Guardian’s film critic Peter Bradshaw came to the defence of “bad notices”: “Of what value are the good reviews… without the bedrock assumption that the reviewers were free to say the opposite?” The exchange dredges up an old question: who is criticism for?

Rogen is both right and wrong about reviewers – at least according to the outlook of ruthless practitioners of the malign craft. Delightedly collecting the inaugural Hatchet Job of the Year award (for a demolition of Michael Cunningham’s novel By Nightfall) in 2012, the writer Adam Mars-Jones declared flintily in the Guardian: “A book review is a conversation that excludes the author of the book.” It is precisely because Mars-Jones knows exactly how criticism can smart and scar that he believes it is part of the discipline of the principled critic to discount the author’s feelings. Displays of tact or generosity – any “second-guessing” arising from extraneous social concerns, whether sympathy or self-interest – are compromising. Mars-Jones does his best to pretend the book he is reviewing “arrived not by my letter-box but through a portal from an alternative universe”.

Reviews are addressed to the “potential reader”, who is “being guided to pleasure or warned against disappointment”. But criticism, in Mars-Jones’s view, is there not only to shepherd toward pleasure. It is itself supposed to be a source of it. “A reviewer isn’t paid to be right, just to make a case for or against, and to give pleasure either way” – including, presumably, by means of thrillingly vicious insults and titillating displays of merciless candour. The reviewer is not paid to be right because he cannot really be right (or wrong). Although there is some consensus at the extremes – axiomatic masterpieces and unequivocal flops – the flexibility of interpretation and the fact of personal taste mean that reliable pleasure-giving may be more to the point in criticism than the iffier matter of pleasure-guiding. While it’s a “good idea” to “back up points with solid evidence”, the only “bad” review, as far as Mars-Jones is concerned, is “one whose writing is soggy, its formulas of praise or blame off the same stale shelf”.

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Criticism, in other words, is not an unerring ranking system but a form of personal expression, and a good review is not right (or not only right) but convincing, fresh, entertaining, satisfying, perceptive – in other words, possesses the sorts of qualities prized in the objects the critic is nominally appraising. “Right opinion is not the only judge of a critic’s powers,” Elizabeth Hardwick insisted in her lament at “The Decline of Book Reviewing”, published in Harper’s in 1959. The minimum we expect is rather “the communication of the delight and importance of books, ideas, culture itself”. “Beyond that beginning, the interest of the mind of the individual reviewer is everything.” Hardwick was dismayed by the flaccidity of judgements – the ubiquitous “sweet, bland commendations”, the “slumberous acceptance” of good and bad alike – but was perhaps more vexed by the limpness of style – “the unaccountable sluggishness” – she encountered in the review pages: “the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity – the lack, at last, of the literary tone itself”. For Hardwick, reviews do not simply assign value to cultural objects but ought to sustain “whatever vivacious interest there might be” in culture as such, through the lively intelligence of the prose. Reviewing a book deploring the state of criticism half a century later in the New Republic, the critic James Wolcott similarly celebrated “the virtuoso individuality that makes book reviewing a more interesting activity than, say, raking leaves”, and “the thunder and illumination of which book reviews are capable”.

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The idea that criticism is a form not merely subservient to the works it is discussing but parasitic of their aesthetic qualities was put most perversely by Oscar Wilde. Matthew Arnold had defined the job of the critic as “to see the object as in itself it really is”, which Wilde answered with a provocation: “the primary aim of the critic is to see the object as in itself it really is not”. “To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticises.” Wilde’s quip – mischievously toppling the more common-sense perception of the critic as “a discount knockoff of a real writer” in Wolcott’s phrase – takes the autonomy of the reviewer to insouciant extremes: the artwork is merely a disposable inspiration for the critic’s own creative endeavour.

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Wilde’s hyperbole does clarify an ordinary truth: that the twin aims of criticisms – to guide towards pleasure and to provide it – can at times pull even the scrupulous, self-effacing reviewer in opposing directions. As a review takes shape, it begins to develop its own needs, to issue its own demands. It wants to make some sense, to stop at a specific length, to flow and cohere, to raise a smile or an eyebrow, to conclude neatly. In the critic’s desperate efforts to answer these calls, the object can get left behind, drift out of view, or be subtly caricatured or distorted. But what’s known as the maliciously ad hominem “snark” – as distinct from what Clive James called “the legitimately destructive review” – is perhaps the more egregious example of the desire to be impressively mean getting the better of fidelity to the object. Bad reviews, James warned, can be “too enjoyable”, “someone else’s mediocrity” proving an unmissable “opportunity to be outstanding”.

If this sort of meretricious savagery is partly the result of excessive regard for one’s audience of readers, might re-admitting the banished author help to temper the critic’s excesses? Not to bear in mind the author’s ego (or their influence), but to allow yourself to remember that you’re writing about a work not produced by an alien but another human member of this cultural world. Mars-Jones’s fantasy of the artwork as arriving from another reality may be helpfully disinhibiting, but imagining the author reading what you’ve written may enable a less compromised kind of second-guessing. Not: am I being nice? But: have I been just? Will this author recognise their work in my portrayal of it?

For Mars-Jones, “nothing could be more natural” than enmity between reviewers and their victims. Perhaps this is true. But there are other possible spins on the relationship. “A critic,” the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan said, “is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.” It’s an intriguing metaphor: on one hand, this is the critic as jealous parasite, pontificating about something they themselves have no idea how to do. On the other, a driver without a sense of direction (or even a sense of destination) is not much use (except for joyrides). One constructive reading of the image is that the driver (the artist) might be grateful for or needful of a navigator (the critic) so they can focus on the driving. Then the critic-artist relation would be less a zero-sum combat – the critic preying on the artist’s creative energy, or aggrandising themselves by acrobatically putting them down – than a mutually advantageous collaboration, a driver and navigator headed somewhere together.

Such a vision of the artist and critic as reciprocally at work at shaping taste may not satisfy Rogen – it won’t take the sting out of criticism. But it may take some of the ego out of the equation. Everyone craves recognition, but the point of making art, or even reviews of it, is not to be garlanded and enriched but to say something to each other about the world, and so to advance as a culture – to get somewhere different, perhaps new.

Then again, if real driver-navigator relations are anything to go by, the collaboration is perhaps always prone to sour. And of course Tynan’s metaphor implies a false equality: in reality, the critic surely exerts only the slightest of navigational influence, if any at all. The history of art is the history of the underrated and overlooked, as well as the overblown and over-sold. Most people never get to make all the meaningful work they were born to make, or never find an audience for it if they do. For every lazily opportunist book or film puffed in all the newspapers, there are several masterpieces about which barely a word, good or bad, is ever printed. This is the far more damaging disease shrinking our culture, and in such circumstances, the ruthlessly critical deflation of bloated mediocrity – more a protest than an intervention after all – will always be an endangered species worth protecting.

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This article appears in the 22 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Banks on the brink