Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The New Value of the Critic

The critic is a creature that has probably existed since man first learned to tell stories. In the glory days of journalism critical response could make or break authors, artists, playwrights, films, and any other form of art or entertainment. This had an ugly side of course. Critics too often viewed themselves a defenders of the culture and far too often they tried to determine the course of the arts. In doing this they stopped being individuals who shared opinions and became dictators of taste culture. As they did this they lost a lot of credibility. Books, films, and music often flourish in the wake of critical approbation while those lucky enough to be lauded by the critics were avoided. In fact an overwhelming favor with the critic could be seen as a reason to be cautious. Films and books loved by critics could often be pedantic, tedious, and dull. At the same time the films and books that people enjoyed might be mocked and derided.

Then print journalism began to suffer in the digital age. The professional critic was often a casualty of budget cuts. At the same time retail websites began to allow consumers to post opinions the product’s page. This diminished the critics influence further because now everyone was playing the game.

The new digital age gives us a world of new opportunities. First with the rise of the internet and now with social networking authors, musicians, artists, and others have the ability to create and distribute their material in new and exciting ways. Once it would have been nearly impossible for me discover some indie musician in another part of the country, or the world. Now someone recommends them, I can go online, check out some samples, download a track or a whole album.

While musicians were some of the first to take advantage of the internet’s potential authors were not far behind. The rise of self publishing platforms and ebooks has opened up venues that would have been hard to imagine twenty years ago. Prior to this new technology a person had to either get a publishing deal, or self print through a “vanity press.” Of course publishers could only afford to support so many new books and authors, and books, unless very popular, would often go out of print. It might be possible for a self published author to place books in a local bookstore, but there was little or no chance of taking a book like that into a national marketplace. Of course it was also a financial risk because an author would have to print thousands of copies with no guarantee of ever selling them,

With ebooks and with print-on-demand options from CreateSpace, Lulu, and many others it has become possible for anyone to be published and distributed worldwide with little or no expense up front. This is a wonderful boon for those who might be good writers, but will never end up on the bestseller list. Now they have an international audience.

Unfortunately with the good comes the bad as well. Some authors are not published by major publishing houses because they simply haven’t been discovered or because their book isn’t quite commercial enough. Others are not published because they really aren’t that good. In fact amateur is quite often a better word than indie for many of these writers. Some of them have good ideas, they simply do not currently have the skills necessary to write a really good book.  Most of the time the writing comes across a bit juvenile. It feels more like a high school writing project than a book. I always hate it when I come across this, because I often like the plot ideas, the execution is simply lacking.

So what does this mean for the critic? I believe that the critic is once again a necessary part of the arts and entertainment. After all, someone needs to wade through the jungle of material that is out there. While I believe the critic to be necessary I also believe that the critic needs to be aware of the limitations of the job. First and foremost the critic should be a reporter, and not try to be a shaper of culture. After all, a critic is simply a person willing to share an opinion. Critical opinion has been as wrong as it has been right over the years.

As critics we need to enjoy what we do and we need to view our jobs as sharing that love. Sometimes negative criticism is necessary, but it should be viewed in a helpful, not a harmful manner. An acerbic wit might be fun to read at times, but in the end it does not help the reader. After all, works that are now considered by many to be great literature suffered scathing reviews from the critics. We should remember that the primary responsibility of the book critic is to help the reader to find a book that is enjoyable to the reader. The secondary responsibility is to help authors to improve in their craft. A gentle nudge will often gain more in that area than a biting attack.

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