What”s a Critic to Do?

January 7th, 2008 by Bob Bly

Playwright Edward Albee, author of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” has some harsh criticism for critics.

“Some critics cater to existing taste,” says Albee. “What they should be doing is trying to improve it.”

It seems to me that opinions as to the function of critics vary, and there are basically 3 schools of thought as to what a critic should do:

A) Let you know what he, the critic, thought of the movie, play, book, or record.

B) Help you determine whether you’d like it and should spend your time and money to read, see, or hear it.

C) Help you improve your tastes so you CAN enjoy a higher level of art (as Albee seems to think).

Which do you think is the critic’s role — A, B, C, or something completely different? And why?


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63 responses about “What”s a Critic to Do?”

  1. Kevin said:

    I believe the critic ought to elaborate on why he or she liked or disliked the piece in question and try to educate the reader of the critique to elevate the reader’s knowledge. This way, the reader may judge the critic’s expertise and whether the critique is credible, as well as whether to spend money and time on the specific entertainment. In this way, all three objectives might be achieved.

  2. Kristi Holl said:

    I think a good critic accomplishes all three objectives, at least most of the time. I have found, though, that I have to find (usually by trial and error) the critics that I most often agree with before I will spend money to see what they recommend. Tastes vary so much. There are certain critics who recommend books and movies, and I know I will love them too. Other critics will recommend books and movies with a 5 Star rating, and I nearly always hate what they’ve chosen. I’ve learned which critics I can trust to steer me to things I will personally enjoy.

  3. Joel Heffner said:

    According to the dictionary a critic is “a person who expresses an unfavorable opinion of something.” My own thought is that a critic is meant to be interesting so that folks will want to read the newspaper or view the TV review.

  4. Stacey Mathis, Copywriter for the Parent Market said:

    I think a critic’s job is to (a) analyze and interpret so that we have more insight, and (b) be a filtering mechanism, merely b/c most people don’t have unlimited money, time and energy to see, read, eat and imbibe EVERYTHING and visit EVERYWHERE.

  5. Lori said:

    Frankly, I think a critic should do all three. I think there’s a fine line they walk, however, between what they want to say and what sells in the media. I’ve never been a fan of pandering to numbers and ratings, yet isn’t that how critics gain their celebrity – through that very controversy that sells?

    I think Tess Gerritsen (http://tessgerritsen.com/blog) has a handle on it. She posted a quote this week on her blog about critics, which I think every struggling writer should keep in mind.

  6. Tracey Minella, Copywriter said:

    Having previously written a restaurant review column for three years on Long Island, I think A and B are a critic’s job. If C results from it, all the better. But taste is so personal. Who is to say that anyone’s taste needs to be “improved”?

    My job was to give you the information and my opinion, but only you can decide if the place suits your current taste–or if it sounds like something different you may want to try.

    I think critics need to be credible. For example, I never reviewed a seafood place because I don’t like seafood. To have done so would have been inappropriate.

    If a credible critic delivers enough detail in an entertaining way, readers can make an informed decision. (And, by the way, “Two Thumbs Up–Way Up!” is NOT sufficient!)

    Why can’t that chicken and ribs lover just enjoy his meal without someone trying to get him to eat caviar?

  7. Lou Wasser said:

    Here’s a cautionary tale about critics.

    Two years ago, my friend Fred and I had just finished our fifth class in an advanced screenwriting course offered by a noted Hollywood screenwriter at UCLA Extension.

    In keeping with our weekly routine, I was all set to drive Fred home. But he was so excited by the encouragement our instructor had given him about his screenplay (a thriller set in Europe), he insisted on first stopping for a celebratory drink at a local bar.

    I had to get up the next morning, and since I don’t drink and drive,I begged off.

    Unfortunately, the night didn’t end too well for Fred. He called the next morning to tell me that, upon leaving the bar, he was held up at gunpoint.

    The robber had demanded Fred’s wallet as well as all the cash he had on him.

    The robber then looked at the briefcase Fred was carrying, and asked him what was in it.

    “Please don’t take that,” Fred begged. “It can’t possibly be of any use to you. The only thing in that briefcase is a screenplay I wrote for a class at UCLA. And my computer just crashed after I printed it out. It may be the only copy I have.”

    “I’ll take the briefcase too,” said the robber.

    Although Fred felt lucky to get away with his life, he was mortified over the probable loss of one full year’s creative work.

    Needless to say, the police were unable to help him.

    About a month later, Fred called me to tell me the very unusual end to this story.

    He had just that morning received a package in the mail with no return address. The package contained the screenplay that was stolen from him. (Obviously there was no money, credit cards or wallet in the package).

    As he thumbed through the screenplay, Fred noticed some unusual things. Some of the pages were bent at the corner, others were paper-clipped, and yet others bore what seemed to be coffee stains.

    Whoever stole his screenplay that fateful night seemed to have taken the trouble to read it.

    And here’s the amazing thing. About five pages into the screenplay, there began a series of red-penciled comments — comments which appeared throughout the entire work.

    “Delete this scene,” “unrealistic dialogue,” “more motivation needed here,” “this character needs more development…,” etc.

    Fred was appalled. Then after I calmed him down, I even persuaded him to feel a bit amused.

    Why, we both wondered, would a common thief go to this trouble?

    Together we reasoned through the entire series of events step by step.

    Here’s the best explanation we came up with:


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