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Is Everyone Qualified to Be a Critic?

Friday 4 September 2015

SEPT. 1, 2015

Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Adam Kirsch and Charles McGrath discuss what it takes to pass judgment on the arts.

By Adam Kirsch

Everyone, upon encountering a work of art, has some kind of response. In this sense, everyone really is a critic.

If I were conducting a branding campaign for criticism, the first thing I would recommend is a new name. Just about no one has a good feeling about the word “criticism.” Most of the time, it simply means chastisement; it sounds like what you don’t want to get on your performance review, or from your parents. If you have a critic, that person is likely to be your enemy, and to be critical means to be ill disposed, hard to please or actively hostile — in short, a hater. When it comes to the arts, for many people a critic is someone whose job it is to tell you why you’re wrong to like the movies or music or books you like.

Undeniably, there is a kernel of truth in this way of looking at criticism. Etymologically, the term comes from a Greek word meaning “to separate,” and one of the central gestures of criticism is to separate the good from the bad, the original from the derivative, the important from the trivial. Critics make judgments, and the word “judgmental” is not a compliment. But these judgments aren’t, or shouldn’t be, made according to a rule, the way a judge in a courtroom applies a general law to a given case. In fact, appreciating a work of art requires the suspension of exactly that kind of judgment — the voice in your head telling you whether this book or this picture is done “the right way,” which usually just means the familiar way. The unfortunate critics who failed to “get” radical artists like Stravinsky, or Dickinson, or Pollock, were the ones who applied this Procrustean method.

The roots of criticism lie not in judgment but in receptivity and response. Everyone, upon encountering a work of art, has some kind of response, ranging from boredom or incomprehension to amazement and gratitude. In this sense, everyone really is a critic, in a way that not everyone is a painter or a poet. It requires some special talent to create an artwork, but any conscious person will have a reaction to that artwork. What makes someone a critic in the vocational sense is, first, the habit of questioning her own reactions — asking herself why she feels as she does. Second, she must have the ability to formalize and articulate those questions — in other words, she must be a writer. To be able to say what you feel and why: That is the basic equipment of a critic.

It is in pursuit of this articulate self-expression that a critic finds herself needing to make comparisons and judgments. To explain why a certain novel moves her, she naturally starts wondering about what makes it different from another book that left her cold. Then she begins to ask what features of the book produced this reaction: Is it the handling of plot, or the lifelikeness of character, or the quality of the prose? In this way, appreciation passes into analysis, the next stage of criticism — trying to figure out how a work of art does what it does. And when you have had enough of these thoughtful encounters with different kinds of works, you can claim expertise — which is not a credential or a stick to beat people into submission with, but simply a shorthand for extensive aesthetic experience.

The fact that criticism often takes the rhetorical form of argument should not disguise the fact that its true function is not forensic. Implicit in every criticism is an appeal: Do you feel as I do? If not, why not? Good critics make us think about these questions even when we disagree with their opinions — they do not close down thought and response, but extend their possibilities and heighten their urgency. In that sense, the best tribute a reader can pay to a critic is to become that critic’s critic himself.

Adam Kirsch is a columnist for Tablet. He is the author of two collections of poetry and several other books, including, most recently, “Why Trilling Matters.” In 2010, he won the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism.

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By Charles McGrath

If we insist on taste and discernment, then the number of valuable and useful critics dwindles pretty drastically.

Who isn’t a critic? We are born picky and judgmental, and as we get older we only become more opinionated and more sure of ourselves. Just look at all the bluster that passes for criticism these days on the Internet, where the guiding principle is that everyone has a right to air his own opinion, and that all opinions, just by being firmly held, are equally valid and important. Probably never in history has there been more suspicion of established or professional critics, or more self-­appointed arbiters clamoring to take their place.

How many of these voices are worth paying attention to is something else. If for a start we require that critics know what they’re talking about — that their judgments are actually informed — the field thins considerably, and if we also insist on taste and discernment, then the number of valuable and useful critics dwindles pretty drastically.

A valuable critic is someone whose judgment you can rely on and learn from, which is not to say someone you always agree with. The great critic of my life was Pauline Kael (who deserves some renewed appreciation now that Renata Adler’s famous takedown of her is back in circulation). Like many of her fans, I disagreed with her at least half the time, but that seldom mattered. You didn’t read Kael to learn whether Movie X or Movie Y was worth going to — her passion for movies was such that she believed almost any movie, even a bad one, was worth seeing — but to learn how to think about that movie and how to examine your own feelings about it.

Kael had passionate likes and dislikes — prejudices even — and was not shy about disclosing them. She didn’t see the point of Robert Redford, for example, and became meaner and meaner about him. She also had a stubborn, perplexingly high regard for the movies of Brian De Palma. But unlike so much of what you now read online, hers were not snap judgments. Her reviews were meant to begin discussions, not end them, and among her readers those discussions sometimes went on for weeks. I even knew couples who broke up over them. She would have deplored the way so many critics today have allowed themselves to become mere thumb-waggers, barely able to describe or evoke a work before rushing to a verdict, sometimes delivered so quickly and so emphatically that the reader has no reason to go beyond the first paragraph, or even the first sentence: “This vapid novel, this waste of wood pulp. . . .” Where do you go from there? Such reviews tend to make the same point over and over again, without considering, as Kael so often did, that even an inferior work can sometimes teach us something, and that how you arrive at an opinion is often more important than the opinion itself.

Kael was also a terrific and inspiring writer, one of those critics you’d read no matter what they wrote about. It’s unreasonable to expect such flair and originality from everyone, but in deciding which critics are worth attending to, literary critics especially, we can at least insist on readability — on clearness of expression, some stylishness, and even a sense of humor. Criticism may be a minor art, but it’s an art all the same, and critical writing ought to be pleasing in itself and not just piggyback on whatever work it’s discussing.

It’s surprising how much contemporary critical writing is a chore to get through, not just on blogs and in Amazon reviews but even in the printed paragraphs appearing below some prominent bylines, where you find too often the same clichés, the same tired vocabulary, the same humorless, joyless tone. How is it, you wonder, that people so alert to the flaws of others can be so tone deaf when it comes to their own prose? The answer may be the pressure of too many deadlines, or the unwritten law that requires bloggers and tweeters to comment practically around the clock. Or it may be that the innately critical streak of ours too frequently has a blind spot: ourselves.

Charles McGrath was the editor of the Book Review from 1995 to 2004, and is now a contributing writer for The Times. Earlier he was the deputy editor and the head of the fiction department of The New Yorker. Besides The Times, he has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic and Outside. He is the editor of two golf books — “The Ultimate Golf Book” and “Golf Stories” — and is currently working on an edition of John O’Hara’s stories for the Library of America.

A version of this article appears in print on September 6, 2015, on page BR27 of the Sunday Book Review.

© 2015 The New York Times Company

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