Interview With A Critic

“Why are you talking to me,” the critic
asked me as soon as I began.  I am not
someone particularly worth talking to,
he seemed to suggest with every word
or phrase that he said with considerable
reluctance and diffidence.  “Those who
can, do.  Those who cannot, teach.  Those
who cannot teach, sell.  Those who cannot
sell, preach.  And those who cannot preach,
critique.  And I am a critic, who speaks
often unpleasant things about the sorts of
creations that people invariably love.  So
why do you want to ask me something?  All
I have created comes from commenting on
the works of other people.  I have not
contributed anything new to the cultural
conversation.  I am at best like the ivy that
grows on venerable red brick buildings, a
parasite that may have witty lines or some
sort of insight that can be appreciated, but
if you want something of use to other
people, something that can stand the test
of time and be well-regarded by those who
want something positive, then ask a creative
person what they want to create in the
future.  Do not ask a critic, for all I create is
commentary about what others have first
made already.  The only voice I have is the
voice in someone’s head that what one is doing
is not good enough, and that one has to do
better if one is to be remembered, if one is
to last.  Is that enough?”


When I was a child I remember watching the animated television show, “The Critic.”  On that show there was a recurring theme where the critic, who was a single father of a generally sweet and decent son, felt greatly discouraged about how poorly he was liked.  One episode even had people viewing the critic as being less popular than Hitler, and I am sure that the episode was controversial but I was too young at the time to be aware of it.  Be that as it may, I have always found myself living in two worlds.  On the one hand, I am a creative writer myself, whether one looks at articles and poems and plays and novels and sermonette (or longer) messages.  But much of what I have written, both in terms of the sheer volume of writing as well as the writings of mine that are the most interesting to others, are critical writings where I show myself as a somewhat curmudgeonly interpreter of the books and messages of others [1].

So as a poet, I am also cognizant of the fact that I am a self-aware critic.  At times, as one might imagine, being a critic sometimes hinders my work as a creative person.  It is somewhat easy to critique something.  You read something or listen to something, you weigh your response to it and how it fits along with your worldview and perspective, and you weigh in on it, whether you like it or dislike it, appreciate it or abhor it, and hope that someone cares about your opinion.  Sometimes one finds one’s positive commentary serving as blurbs in order to sell what one has critiqued.  At other times a mixed or adverse criticism ends up attracting a swarm of upset readers and even the presence of hostile threats of legal action.  But other people only have to deal with my critical voice on an occasional basis.  However much they may be irritated or bothered by it, I simply do not have time to be a continual critic on any one person given the sheer volume of works that I pay attention to on a regular basis.  On the other hand, I have to deal with my own critical voice when it comes to my own creations on a continual basis, and that is less than ideal.

I suspect this is not a common problem.  One of the reasons, in fact, that I tend to be less than enthusiastic about receiving criticism from other people in any aspect of my life is that I tend to feel as if I get enough criticism already from myself to have met any reasonable quota of critiquing.  Other people, of course, find it easy to critique for the same reasons that I do–it takes a lot less effort to review something and to add a few cents worth of one’s own to an existing creation than it does to create something from scratch.  It usually takes me a couple of hours to read something or an hour or so listen to an album or a couple of hours to watch a movie, for example, and another half an hour or so for me to type up a review on it, and it takes months or years for such things to be created, in general.  This imbalance of effort, moreover, means that one can critique a large variety of creations, far more than one could create from scratch in the same time.  This is why some people (not me, sadly) make a living as being critics, because there is much to critique and it takes far more time to create something than for someone to critique and review it.

So what, to address the question of the poem, is the value and worth of a critic?  To be sure, critics have worth.  I would not receive free books in the mail and in e-mail if criticism was not valued.  To have a work noticed and appreciated, to have it recommended for some audience even if one did not find the book to be personally enjoyable, is it self worthwhile for those who create and market original works.  We can adduce the nature of the worth of criticism by the fact that a movie studio once invented a fake critic to provide puff piece reviews and positive copy for their often terrible movies.  Even the negative criticism one receives from critics can be useful in that adverse criticism can be attributed to malign motives or the general negative point of view of critics, so as to encourage consumers and viewers and readers and listeners to like something because critics hate it.  This may account in part for the popularity of such drivel as the Michael Bay Transformers movies, a desire to like something because it is hated.  As a critic, I can certainly relate to that.  And so, I think that it is not necessary for a critic to be diffident about their worth.  The worth of the critic is as perspective and context and indeed even a gatekeeper (sometimes an ironic one) for greater popularity and success of a given creation.  Given that creations are part of a great conversation, critics provide thoughtful examples of the audience of a work talking back to it and keeping the conversation moving along, and that is worth a great deal to those who create in solitude and speak out against the enveloping silence.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Interview With A Critic

  1. Tyler L Smith says:

    there is too much literature in the world to read it all, and so a thoughtful critic helps to sift the wheat from the chaff. i enjoy reading but am not so fast at it as you are and so i find it helpful to get opinions on a work before i commit time and effort to understanding it. but i also have an aversion to open ends and so once engaged in reading a book i have great difficulty in abandoning the story unfinished. so i like to know before i begin what value if any there is in starting.

    • I’m glad you appreciate thoughtful criticism (which I hope I provide to the books I read). I really don’t like leaving books unfinished either. I have a strong desire for closure.

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