The critic stumbles
Last week, I saw an extraordinary play on Broadway. It got the longest standing ovation I've ever seen in a theater, and Alan Cumming deserved every minute of it. The New York Times critic, though, didn't like the show.
What's the point of his review, then? Clearly the audience, discerning in their own right, disagreed. Do mainstream critics exist to tell us what to like, to warn us off from the not-so-good, or are they there to punish those that would dare to make a piece of work that doesn't match the critic's view of the world? Perhaps the critic is saying, "people like me will have an opinion like this," but of course, there just aren't that many people like him.
Have you noticed just how often the critics disagree with one another? And how often they're just wrong?
And yet we not only read them, but we believe them. Worse, we judge ourselves, contrasting our feelings with their words. Worse still, we sometimes think we hear the feared critic's voice before we even ship our work out the door…
For me, the opinion of any single critic is becoming less and less meaningful as I choose what to view or engage with. And the aggregate opinion of masses of anonymous critics merely tells me that the product or content is (or isn't) mass-friendly. I'm far more moved by the insistent recommendation of a credible, raving fan than I am the snide whispering of some people who just didn't get it.
The math is simple: no matter how big a critic's platform, what moves markets are conversations. And we are far more likely to have conversations about something we're raving about than something we didn't like (because when we don't like it, our friends never experience it and the conversation dies). The win, then, is creating raves, not avoiding pans.
Every single book I've written has gotten at least a few one star reviews on Amazon. Every one. The lowest possible rating, the rating of, "don't bother reading this, in fact it never should have been written." Not just me, of course. Far better writers, writers like Fitzgerald, Orwell and Kincaid have gotten even more one-star reviews on their books than I can ever hope to.
No one has ever built a statue to a critic, it's true. On the other hand, it's only the people with statues that get pooped on by birds flying by.