The Role Of The Critic

Pointing out that Spin magazine recently replaced full album reviews with 140-character tweets, Johann Hari mourns the critic's decline:

When something new and startling comes along, it often baffles us, and we are tempted to drop it, pained, for easier cultural lifting. A great critic can help us to figure out what it going on, and to appreciate it in a richer way. When I saw Terrence Malick's The Tree Of Life, I was sure I had seen something extraordinary, but I felt I had barely begun to understand it. It was reading the body of criticism by terrific writers, such as Dana Stevens and Peter Bradshaw that led me deeper in. As film critic Pauline Kael put it: "We read critics for the perceptions, for what they tell us that we didn't fully grasp when we saw the work."

Think back over the 20th century to see how often this happened. Many readers were bemused by Marcel Proust and James Joyce until Edmund Wilson wrote about them. When Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot opened, the audience was puzzled until Harold Hobson's famous review came out. The first audiences for Osborne's Look Back In Anger were nonplussed, until Kenneth Tynan's review appeared. Arthur Penn's 1967 film Bonnie And Clyde was regarded as a repellent flop until Kael's words alchemised it. More recently, Zadie Smith's writing about Tom McCarthy's novel Remainder alerted us to something new and mind-stretching. If they had not been there, our artistic world – our inner lives – would have been more anaemic.