To criticise the critic

Critics have never been exactly popular. Zoilus, the critic of Homer, was variously crucified by Ptolemy Philadelphus, stoned in Chios, thrown off a cliff by the Athenians and flung on a funeral pyre in Smyrna. No ancient account says he lived a long and happy life surrounded by friends, family and acolytes. But the digital age seems to have opened a vein of particular vitriol for the idea of the critic. This struck me reading the comments to a blog by Jonathan Jones on the role of the critic. A few examples: “critics always seemed to be somewhat like maggots who nourish themselves from the success of other people”, “of course we need critics because if we didn’t have the useless, pompous idiot brigade, who else would I feel (justifiably) superior to?”, “smug bastard… as matter of fact all critisism manages to do is remove the joy from decent peoples lives”, “critics keep going back to the same pool of vomit”, “Critics, cheesh. Opinions are like arseholes…”.

Hating critics is nothing new. But the arguments against criticism are revealing. First and foremost of these is the idea that only a creator can be a critic: a fallacy that evaporates when applied to other fields. If a chair collapses when you sit on it, you don’t need to be a joiner to know there’s a problem. If you get food poisoning in a restaurant, you don’t need a Michelin star to know there’s something wrong with the meal.

A critic looking for its next book

 The variant of this argument is that all critics are failed creators. That’s a particular problem with book criticism, since the medium of the criticism is identical to the medium of the creation: we don’t expect music critics to write a symphony in response to a symphony. But I’d argue that the critic is a creator squared: just as the writer works in language, the critic operates in language about language.

The traditional images of critics are telling: parasites, urine (“asking an artist what he thinks of critics is like asking a lamp-post what it thinks of dogs), rats, vampires, moths. They’re all images of things superfluous and redundant, something outside the economy and exchange between reader and writer. It’s because criticism is essential that it is sublimated and repressed as something useless. Writing is a public act, and reading is supposedly private. Criticism is the public act of reading. Without it, books are silent and latent.

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