Is criticism useful? This is a question I used to ask myself a lot, which I’ve started pondering again lately since creating this blog. It’s a question asked often in graduate seminars on the theory of this or that, but it’s also a question asked every day by ordinary, everyday people, in many different forms. It’s a topic I happen to hear a lot about in my own life, completely apart from my blogging or writing activities.
When I debate a friend or family member about which movie we’re going to see, I’ll say, “Not that one – the critics hated it,” and the response is almost always, “Who pays attention to critics? I never agree with them.” My friends claim not to find criticism useful, whereas I find it so useful that I always consult reviews before seeing a movie or buying a book – but not so useful that I don’t also take everything I read with a grain of salt. That is, I find criticism very useful in a limited way.
“People respond to stories the way they respond to music, which is to say viscerally . . . “
Nowadays, of course, everybody’s a critic, with five empty stars available for your convenience, not only for every movie or book, but for every single thing you purchase or consult or use or visit. But it’s always been true that everybody’s a critic. Before the internet took over, back in the day, I would tell my friends who scoffed at my need to check out reviews, “Please – every time you put down a book or walk out of a movie and say I liked it or I didn’t like it, you’re a critic. So why sneer at someone who not only wants to tell you about it, but wants to explain him or herself?”
Criticism by word of mouth is, in fact, a big deal for movie studios, who can see a movie fail within days based on nothing more than what people tell friends, family, and acquaintances. And if a movie is successful, it’s hard to imagine that word of mouth didn’t have something to do with it, even if reviews in newspapers and magazines didn’t. So it seems to me that criticism is not only highly useful, but inevitable and as natural as breathing. People respond to stories the way they respond to music, which is to say viscerally, and they always know what they like as much as they want to tell you about it.
Having said that, I admit there’s a difference between checking out professional reviewers’ opinions and asking your best buddy what he or she thinks. There’s a difference, in the information you’re trying to glean when visiting Rotten Tomatoes, for instance, between glancing first at the tomatometer, and then at the popcorn box. What am I really looking for, I asked myself recently, when I consult both of these different kinds of ratings? And whose opinions do I value most?
“What an accomplished reviewer can give you is context – and that’s a good thing, even a fun thing – but it’s only an afterthought.”
To test this question, I started thinking about the numbers involved: If 90 percent of the critics liked a movie, but only 10 percent of moviegoers did, would I go see the movie? Probably not. Conversely, if 90 percent of moviegoers liked a movie, but only 10 percent of critics did, would I go? The answer is, I would be slightly more likely to go. What this suggests, of course, is that I value the general public’s opinion more highly than the critics’.
This was a revelation, although it shouldn’t have been. My purpose for starting this blog, after all, was to write a regular person’s take on stories, for the consumption of regular people. It’s nice to be intellectually challenged by a movie, but I also want to feel good when I leave the theater – i.e., catharsis must happen, or something like catharsis. The movie might have been sad or scary, and I might have suffered through the course of it – crying or even missing half of it peeking through my fingers. But as long as as I feel good when I leave – having had a good cry or a good scare – I’m happy.
So being challenged is fun, but for me, leaving the movie or closing the book with a satisfied feeling in my heart is of paramount importance – and the average consumer (I think) is more likely to give me a feel for a good story experience than people who know all about movies, or know the subject of the book so well, they have a PhD in it. So I’m the kind of critic who likes to think of myself as Juliette Binoche – that is, eating a peach with juice dribbling down my chin, answering Ralph Fiennes offhandedly when he asks me if I know a thing about Herodotus: “I don’t know anything.” What an accomplished reviewer can give you is context – and that’s a good thing, even a fun thing – but it’s only an afterthought.
People criticize critics because, they say, critics teach because they can’t do: they lash out in helpless resentment because they can’t write a novel or create a film to save their lives. Many critics, it’s true, can’t do those things – or can’t do them especially well – but in my view, being a critic is the next-best thing to being an artist – it’s far above being anything else. People, in general, can admire a work of art, or contemplate a well-made story, or dance to a piece of music, but a critic is just all over the thing, embracing, kissing, tearing apart, consuming. That’s how great the love is, and how much pleasure the act of criticism gives.
Filmmakers often tell stories of their earliest childhood movie-going experiences, and I share some of those, but the memories I cherish even more are the times my family or friends would follow up a movie with a ritual trip to the local diner and, over burgers and sodas, relive the experience of the movie, sharing laughter, deep thoughts, and personal opinions. None of this rises to the level of art (the only critic who’s ever managed that, in my opinion, is Roger Ebert), but as long as a reviewer gives the consumer a sense of what it’s like to experience a work, without revealing too much in the process, that reviewer has done her job. The usefulness, in the end, is what matters.