One lunchtime last week as I masticated a lonely calory, BBC Radio 4 announced a discussion on the role of the critic. Ears pricked and finger on the button (they usually have game shows at this time), I attended with the appropriate acuity – only to find that the lineup consisted of a non-specialist critic, a book blogger and a tenured academic. I’d heard enough in ten minutes to switch off, walk upstairs and finish a book.
I’m past getting angry with the triviality of public media and would have forgotten the matter entirely had a facebook friend, a published author, not popped up later that day with a plug for the prog, triggering a discussion that drew in several well-scarred professionals. You may catch the programme here.
OK, let’s separate some issues:
1 The crisis in criticism is not a simple equation of pro vs am. Bloggers have not usurped the role of print critic; at best – and some are pretty good – they have forced the professionals to work harder at their craft, which is no bad thing.
2 The crisis in criticism is a function of identity confusion. Who are critics? What are their standards? What should we expect of them? These criteria are rarely analysed, either in media or academia, and the result is that the critics we appoint in newspapers is often the one with the best one-liner.
3 In a shrinking media industry, critics are under increased pressures to see more, do more, think less. The resultant superficiality accelerates the existing crisis.
4 The internet demands ever-faster responses. That, too, is bad for reasoned criticism.
5 Pay for critics had dwindled to a pittance. Two UK national pay as little as £40 ($60) for a concert review. The correlation between remuneration and simians holds true.
What is needed in these circumstances is more public converasation and a great deal more clarity about the role of the professional critic. I have just kicked off a week of this kind of debate in Australia, which you can read here.
There is an inbuilt media reluctance to engage in navel gazing, a refusal to self-reflect which we justify by saying readers won’t be interested. But unless we strengthen and reinvent the critical function, an important check and balance on creative progress will be killed off and the arts future will be homogenised.
Have your say now, or lose another strand of freedom.