When critics become entertainers
Have we reached the point where we find critics more interesting than their subject?
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Friday 12 June 1998
A thrilling moment all round, I suppose, for historians of the post-modern condition; the day had arrived when the conditions of employment of a mere critic, a commentator on the slick fictions of Hollywood, was judged interesting and important enough to follow the day's events in Westminster, Washington, and Kosovo. Evidence, as the intellectuals would say, that everything nowadays is just film.
Is criticism important? Have we really reached the point where we think critics are more interesting, more valuable than what they write about? Can anybody seriously suppose that, if Herzog or Kiarostami died tomorrow, the news would be judged significant enough to make the main evening bulletin? Of course, in part, this is just the usual self-obsession of the BBC, its curious belief that the public has the slightest interest in its labour disputes or gives a toss what happens to Radio 3.
But we are fascinated by critics; even the humble book reviewer can have his work picked up and chewed over by a number of regular columns. At the other end of the market, a fair number of critics - Brian Sewell, or Clive James in his TV-reviewing days - become effortlessly, and unremarkably, more famous than their hapless subjects.
The last time, I suppose, I watched Barry Norman's review of the week's movies, it was called something like Film '78, and he was in an armchair tweedily chirruping "Apocalypse Now - and why not?" Tuning in the other night, nothing much had changed, and it was frankly pretty hard to imagine anyone listening to these views, and taking them seriously as criticism. He seems an amiably avuncular sort of chap, with a sweetly wooden way with the autocue. And, unlike most film critics, he hasn't, over the years, come to loathe the very idea of going to the movies.
The trouble is, however, that his views only have the superficial appearance of rational criticism. The other night, he started pretty badly on A Thousand Acres by somehow forgetting to tell the viewer that it was based on a famous novel by Jane Smiley, and proceeding in the following remarkable vein. "Now, A Thousand Acres is, if you can imagine such a thing, King Lear transposed to a farm in the American MidWest. Actually, the idea's not at all bad - it's the execution that's wrong ... What in Shakespeare's hands was a classic tragedy, whose central character was an object of pity, is transformed into a glumly downbeat story of yet another dysfunctional American family, as if we haven't seen enough of those."
This sort of thing, which makes less and less sense the more you think about it, is very much his stock in trade. It will do no good to say that it isn't really criticism, still less anything resembling rational analysis, just someone paid to sit and say, "I didn't much like it." The fact is this is exactly what we want critics to do.
The noble profession of Johnson and Coleridge has passed into a branch of the entertainment industry; the secret of the success of this kind of criticism is that it is not intellectual, not analytical, and it confirms us in our belief that anybody at all could be a critic.
Barry Norman is massively popular and successful - he has a tabloid nickname, he has a famous catchphrase. And it's not because he's particularly remarkable or interesting in what he says, but because he's so ordinary. He is a figure of strange critical authority who confirms us in our belief that there is no such thing as critical authority, that some day we, too, are going to be paid to express our tastes on Sky TV.
A couple of weeks ago, I happened on a food programme in which three restaurant critics were cooking for restaurant chefs. The chefs were predictably unimpressed by the results. But the programme makers missed a trick by not asking them to write a column about the meal, thus giving Matthew Fort a chance to be as snooty about Anthony Worrall Thompson's prose style as the chef had already been about the critic's chicken sausages.
The assumption is that being a critic requires no especial ability to write, no particular expertise, and, even, no particular intelligence - and this is so evidently the case that it doesn't even need to be tested. I say assumption, but it's a bit more than that; it's the way we want things to be arranged. And, as Mr Norman would say, why not?
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