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Over winter break, The New York Times published “Why Criticism Matters,” a series of beautifully written, passionately argued essays by today’s leading literary critics about why their profession remains relevant in the information age. Though the series was openly inspired by Alfred Kazin’s 1960 treatise, “The Function of Criticism Today,” the works could not be more different. Kazin proposed a bold, progressive approach to arts criticism, claiming that the best critics “[work] toward the future.” They “suggest new possibilities for art” and “welcome new writers.” Kazin felt that many of his contemporaries did not live up to these goals, but the values of his essay was liberal, in the best sense of the word.
The same cannot be said for The New York Times group, whose contributions, though enlightening and variegated in their approaches to criticism, share a reactionary defensiveness of the necessity of their work. Culture may change, they argue, but the value of literature and literary criticism can only endure in its present form, or at least a minimally modified version of it. Their panic is easy to understand––in general, journalism has lost its glamour and its profitability, and arts criticism has been tarnished more than any other branch. To the extent that the masses have a unified opinion about the genre, it seems to be: “Hey, I could do that.” And they have—some of them, quite well—leaving professional critics in a financial and creative lurch. Although this situation has led the Times critics to defend a specific (and soon to be outmoded) set of reading practices and the critical apparatuses that accompany them, their pessimism is misplaced. The changes that arts criticism is enduring will ultimately allow more people to engage more deeply with culture—but not without growing pains.
Amid this ruckus, the student critic finds herself in an untenable position. On the staff of The Crimson’s Arts section, we like to think of ourselves as semi-professional critics. We get advance copies of books, music, and movies; we strive to hold our copy to professional standards. “Why Criticism Matters” was circulated on our listserv, and many of us sympathized with the authors. We were on the same side as them. Yet, for all our pretensions, the Arts staff has more in common with the customer critics on Amazon.com that Katie Roiphe ’90 skewers in her Times essay, quoting a particularly unfortunate review of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom.” Roiphe writes, “more than ever, critical authority comes from the power of the critic’s prose, the force and clarity of her language.”
Yet, graceful writing has never been solely the prerogative of the professional critic, and if money is the primary motivator behind creating beautiful prose, I daresay the writer is doing something wrong. To be hired, would-be professional critics must complete internships for free or a pittance, or write for “amateur” publications like The Crimson. And even after “making it,” professional critics often write pro bono. The popular literary and film blogs, The Millions and The House Next Door, were both started as side projects by professional critics. Woebegone professional critics like to flatter themselves that they are fundamentally different from amateurs assigning stars on Netflix, but to draw such a divide is fallacious at best and at worst, politically problematic.
The rise of amateur arts criticism certainly has its disappointments: Finding worthwhile discussion of a new book or album means ignoring the increasingly loud white noise of uninteresting material—irrational, indulgent, poorly written. But ultimately, the “crowdsourcing” of arts criticism is good for the arts and good for consumers, even if it means that there are fewer niches for paid critics.
As Sam Anderson observed in his exceptionally pleasant-natured Times essay, content aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic mean that professional critics can no longer afford to rest on their laurels. The consumer report mode of arts criticism is obsolete, but this applies as much to amateur critics as it does to professionals. If anything, amateur critics are more affected by this competition than their paid counterparts, because they are not backed by a well-known media outlet. The old boys’ club of arts criticism is dealing with an infusion of meritocracy, and it will be stronger for it.
These changes do not just affect the people who write criticism. In a decade, the critics that readers love and trust will look very different. They will have day jobs. They will come from around the world; they will elevate new canons and offer fresh perspectives on old ones. They will not live in New York; they will not have been born privileged; they will have no connections to the literary establishment. Accomplished, articulate tastemakers will not disappear, but diversify—and in doing so, matter more, to more people, than ever before.
Abigail B. Lind ’12, a Crimson associate arts editor, is an English concentrator in Currier House. She edits the Books page of The Crimson.
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