Critics Are on the What Now?, Part II

A follow-up column (to this) merits a follow-up response (to this).

Part 2: Wherein Facts Are Asserted, with Mixed Results

Critics and "Users"

A postscript on the evergreen topic of the role of the critic: in last week’s discussion (Do Critics Matter?), the question of whether or not a critic’s role is to be a consumer advocate became a central focus.

(You can read the comments thread that contains that discussion by following the link above.)

The gist is, more or less, that criticism has a broader scope than generating a recommended what-to-do list for potential concertgoers. Which is fair, and seems right--but the contrariwise statement does not follow.

That is to say: it is not the case that criticism, regardless of its intent, sometimes can and does act as an in-depth account of, say, a concert of which a positive review could be construed as some kind of endorsement This seems plain; even if consumer is not the intent or focus of a reviewer, it happens, in sort of an advanced version of the way that wearing a t-shirt with the name/logo of a product tacitly endorses it.*

But I, apparently, have my fact wrong. What's the fact, Ms. Midgette?

The fact is...

I can't wait!

The fact is that, whether or not we like it, critics are not, in fact, consumer advocates.

Oof. In fact, the fact is that I am disputing that fact, in fact.

But I'm reasonable. What is your argument supporting this alleged fact?

In a private e-mail, one respondent brought up a study I’m well aware of, but that certainly merits mentioning here: a 2007 survey by Goldstar.com (this link downloads a file with the survey results) showed that consumers overwhelmingly turn to websites with user reviews in preference to published reviews in a newspaper.

[reads survey report]

Granted, the people who answered this survey were already using a website to access entertainment, so they were predisposed toward Internet use.

Sure, which means that, according to the Fact Survey there, even people who are very internet-y sometimes still turn to newspapers.

(An aside: Capitalization conventions of the word "internet" (versus "Internet") are inconsistent and confusing, and therefore (in this critic's opinion) bad at being conventions as such.)

Still, it reflects a significant societal trend.

This trend: people do stuff on the internets!

Though I myself am (of course) a regular newspaper reader,...

Of course! I mean, come on. Why wouldn't I be? I mean I have a blog and stuff, sure, but, you know, I read the paper and stuff! Seriously! You guys!

...I often browse reader reviews on Amazon.com, or skim through the ratings on a film website, before making a purchase.

Yes. Sure.

(My standard response to people who are afraid that blogs are going to dilute the ostensible purity of critical discourse...

Uh, what? The "[ostensible] purity of critical discourse" is about as varied as Amazon user reviews. (Perhaps someone should set up a web log or "blog" that examines this "discourse.")

...is to point to the Amazon reviews: people are generally able to tell the serious ones from the stupid ones, and by the same token will generally be able to distinguish the good blogs, like the good newspaper reviews, from the bad ones.)

While I understand what Ms. Midgette's saying, distinguishing "good" and "bad" blogs or reviews is probably not the dichotomy (if any) I'd ascribe here. (Except perhaps Yahoo! movie user reviews. I think you have to have a lobotomy to read those. Or am I confusing cause and effect?)

That said, a longer, thoughtful review is pretty easily distinguishable from "Transformers II wuz best movie EVARS1!! If u dont liek it ur jelluz" in form and content.

This means that a single voice has less and less power to influence consumer habits.

But not no power. Remeber: your thesis (or "fact") is that critics are NOT consumer advocates--not "rarely" or "sometimes."

(When I was at the New York Times, I often heard publicists say ruefully that even a great Times review or advance piece of a Lincoln Center performance no longer actually led to a spike in ticket sales, as it once had done.)

Pity the poor publicists.

(Also, it occurs to me that you could do some pretty amazing things if you can begin a sentence (even a parenthetical one) with "When I was at the New York Times...". "When I was at the New York Times," I'd say, "a gentleman once called me an elitist! I called him a slanderous cur, and threw my monocle at his feet!")

"Look at me! I work for the New York Times!"

Sorry. Anyway:

Certainly, critics are writing for consumers, and we are saying what we think about a production or performance.

Certainly. But...?

But to expect everyone to follow your opinions is unrealistic in this day and age.

Again, we seem to have missed the mark. "Everyone" is a lot of ones. The argument that criticism is NOT in fact consumer advocacy (ever) is not helped by arguments that it isn't much, or less than it used to be, or sort of, or sometimes.

And in fact, such advocacy has never been the role of great critics.

Guh. Never? And, to boot: in fact?

Virgil Thomson, Pauline Kael, Andrew Porter: they’re still read, and still valuable, because they were writing about a lot more than whether or not their readers should bother to buy tickets.

Yes, yes, yes: and no! They wrote about "more" ("a lot more") but not to the exclusion of endorsing or recommending some things, some times. Which again is not absolute. Or, as the Dutch say, a "fact."**



*Unless it's ironic, which is a different matter entirely (can one endorse irony?). Perhaps, though, irony is a sort of criticism, which should be left for another day.

**May not be true, as I don't speak Dutch.


Gustav said...

I kind of liked the first part to this article, but now I'm left wondering, what the fuck is her point?

But to expect everyone to follow your opinions is unrealistic in this day and age.

There was a time when this was true? During her lifetime? Was she once the pope?

Tom Strini said...

Since the topic is critics and relevance, I might as well let you guys know that I'm leaving the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after 27 years. Buyout. A really good buyout. I'm OK with it, and I have a potentially exciting gig on the near horizon. Here is a my blog post about it:

I should be up and running with the new thing in September. Google mem, OK?

Sator Arepo said...


Dang! Hope to hear from you both critically and meta-critically. Unfortunately, I cannot offer you a paid position (in either department).

Best wishes, and stay in touch &c,