Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The critic's dilemma

Whether it's books,plays, film, or television, writing reviews is great fun. Not only do you have an ironclad excuse to put your feet with a novel, you get share your opinions about it with others in a way that doesn't involve cornering hapless victims If you're lucky, you might even find a market for your critiques and actually get paid for gassing on about how wretched Michael Bay's editing is.  If you're really lucky you'll become an influential critic who guides public tastes.   Then with mere taps of the keyboard you'll be able to destroy careers, blacken reputations, plight lives, and drive honest struggling artists into the arms poverty, despair and suicide.

Yeah, I'm tellin' ya.  Good times.

But reviewing isn't all comps and free advance copies.  There are pitfalls as well and not all of them involve being on the lookout for infuriated authors brandishing horsewhips.  The main one is when the critic's strength becomes a weakness.

In order to review competently, the critic must be familiar with his subject.  This is because reviewing is more than conveying the critic's impressions of a work.  The reviewer goes a step further by bringing to the table an expert knowledge of what he's discussing.  He hasn't seen a few movies, he's seen thousands.  He hasn't read a couple of novels in a particular genre, he's swept the shelves.  And that viewing and reading wasn't passive.  It was done with an informed eye that understands the medium, the genre, the topics, the technique, and the business so that he has an intimate understanding of what works and what doesn't and why.

Here's where the paradox comes in.  All this knowledge and experience provides the critic with a privileged insight into the work in question.  Unfortunately, it can also act as a barrier.  Reviewers who have read everything under sun regarding a particular genre might be experts on it, but they also run the risk of becoming jaded experts. They may forget the innocent pleasure of killing a rainy afternoon by popping in a video or curling up with a good  book.  They may not be able to appreciate that the average audience member may not have seen every single variation of a romantic comedy and have not become blasé about them.  It's the sort of mindset that begins to crave novelty for its own sake and if you aren't careful you'll end up becoming the sort of reviewer who gives two thumbs up to turgid, unwatchable arthouse pictures because they're "different" or praises "Poona the **** Dog" because it has an obscene title.

Another danger of the over-informed critic is that the reviewer may become obsessed with theory or technique and everything else is lost to view.  It's easy to forget that the mechanics of putting a story together are a means to an end rather than an end in themselves.  A film or novel or teleplay that exists solely as a showcase of technique belong in a classroom, not running about loose among the general public. A review that bangs on about stunning technique in a boring story would commend a toolbox for its tools.

Theory can be an equally sticky trap.  Literary or film theory has its place, but if a reviewer gets to obsessed with theory, it becomes a masonic handshake; a way of separating the bourgeois outsiders from the in-the-know club members.  "You find this piece incomprehensible? Then clearly you aren't au fait with Gendensky's post-modern modernism of the subjective ironic"  isn't a review, it's a membership card.   Theory should be used to illuminate a work, not act as a secret decoder ring to make it comprehensible to the select.

Finally, there is the danger of familiarity breeding contempt or worse, having just the contempt in the first place.  The  worst reviews possible are those written by someone who hates the genre under discussion.  This could be codified as the Critic's First Law:  Never review a genre that you have no liking for.  There was once a Seattle-based theatre critic who despised Shakespeare and every time he had to review a production of the bard his copy was 75 percent sullen grumbling about how much he hated the playwright and all his works. Needless to say, his reviews were never helpful nor interesting.

I don't except myself from this rule.  I, for example, cannot abide modern vampire stories and I only bought a secondhand copy of the Twilight DVD because I love how well the Rifftrax boys eviscerated it in one word (Llllllllllllllllllladies!).  For that reason, I'd be a very poor person to review the genre.  Subject it to vitriolic rants, yes; reviews, no. 

However, don't get the idea that I'm saying that you shouldn't review works you hate.  I'm referring to genres or mediums, not individual titles.  If you loathe a particular book or television series, go to town on it; draw blood, take no prisoners.  If you can save one person from wasting the price of a ticket or an evening's reading time, then it's all worth it.

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