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Tuesday 15 January 2019

The critic is dead

Five stars and unmissable? Panned and unwatchable? Box office numbers show that reviews are just an opinion – and probably not yours

By Catherine Nixey

The evidence is clear. Michael Gove was right. The public have indeed had enough of experts. And, in particular, of critics. Take the film Bohemian Rhapsody. It was panned by the press, derided as “a slog”, “interminable” and “so-bad-it’s-funny kitsch”. But it triumphed at the box office, taking more than $600 million in its first two months and becoming the highest-grossing music biopic ever. Aquaman (“a laborious, slow-moving and dripping wet film”), meanwhile, sits comfortably at No.1. Bird Box, another turkey according to the experts, has taken off on Netflix. The critic is dead.

And as a former critic I’d say: good. Most of ’em deserve to die. And don’t go feeling too sorry for them either. They don’t need your pity. Because – and this is the root of the problem – most critics couldn’t care less what you think. This is not to say that they are unaffected by the judgements of others. They are. Just not yours. Instead, the opinions the critic really cares about are those of their fellow critics.

Sandra Bullock in Bird Box

Not without reason. We can and do pretend that culture has inherent worth, but we are lying. A film or a book or a painting has no real value until it is given one. It is the critic’s unenviable job to have the first, nerve-racking crack at guessing what that value might be. Is this edgy young artist the new Basquiat? Or just rubbish? Tough call. Cultural criticism is like a game of guess the weight of the pig, except the weight of this pig changes depending on the guesses offered. Win this game – in other words guess in line with your critical chums – and you look clever. Lose too often and you lose your job.

Jason Momoa as Aquaman

And being a critic – being a good critic – is hard. Not hard like mining is hard, or being in the SAS is hard. But certainly not as much fun as it sounds. Watching something, and thinking about what you think of it as you watch it is tricky. Schrödinger’s critic; your thoughts shift as you observe them. Watch a film as a reviewer and you don’t simply enjoy it. You wonder instead: am I enjoying it? Am I enjoying it now? And now? And now? And, God help me, what the hell am I going to say about it?

Because mostly, what you want to say about a film or a play or a book is: “S’all right”. But that doesn’t fill 650 brisk words. Virginia Woolf observed that the problem with critics is not just that they have to make their conclusions too fast. It’s that they always have to make conclusions. And most probably – because editors like such things – to make thunderous conclusions. The critic, she wrote, “is driven by force of circumstances and some human vanity to hide those hesitations which beset him as he reads”. In other words: they fib.

Critics don’t just fib about how much they like things. They also fib – delicately, and probably fibbing to themselves before they fib to others – about what they enjoy. Any fool can enjoy something that is enjoyable. It takes a great mind to relish a painfully tedious film like The Master, or a TS Eliot poem, or whatever horror has just won the Booker.

So the critic poses – and the consumer is baffled. The consumer watches the five-star film – and doesn’t like it. They read the prize-winning book – and are bored by it. They start to doubt their own judgement. As Larkin, a writer so good he was beyond criticism, wrote, they are “bullied into giving up the consumer’s power to say ‘I don’t like this, bring me something different’.” And now, finally, the viewers and the readers are resisting the bullies. Well, good.

Still, one might argue that you need critics. Surely you need world experts in a particular branch of culture to adjudicate on that culture. But do you? It might flatter the vanity of editor and reader alike to deploy a critic who can adjudicate between Riccardo Chailly’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth and Herbert von Karajan’s pop at the same. But that is not how most people consume culture. Most people are not choosing between Chailly and (allowing for the fact that he’s dead) Karajan. Far more probably, they are choosing between Chailly and nipping to Pizza Express with their beloved.

Critical ratings should reflect all this. First, they should always be honest. And second, instead of bland stars, implying that we live in an antiseptic world in which culture alone is consumed, ratings should plug into life. Films should be rated from “Barely worth the bother of the babysitter” to “Even better than sitting in front of the fire with a glass of wine and a nice Agatha Christie”. Now that would be a critical judgement you could trust.