Critiquing basics for armchair critics

SINCE the dawn of blogging, a full spectrum of critics, from armchair experts to celebrities, has flocked to the free platforms allowing free-rein to quite publicly appraise, rate and critique popular culture.

But it’s a singular form of writing, the role of the critic, one in which angels should fear to dabble.

If anyone’s of a mind to heed a few tips on how to critique (and I am really not anticipating there are too many who will pause before hitting the publish button on their thoughts) here are my ideas on what makes good criticism.

If you don’t have anything nice to say …

Mother said it best – be nice. The best way to give something zero stars is to give it no oxygen whatsoever, but so often snippy critics will revel in blasting something which has every right to take its place in cultural history. Unless life (via some bizarre cultural Interpol) forces you to review something you don’t like, just forget it and move on to something you are more keen on.

Artists who can, do, artists who can’t, critique

Whilst an audience is an essential part of any creative process (art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, right?), being a reader or viewer does not necessarily qualify anyone to be a critic. Like cleaners, who routinely get the blame for office thefts, so critics are blasted for being amateurs who never ‘made it’. The smart critics know this and critique accordingly – either as an extension of their own arts practice (think Clive James) or from decades of experience in the field they’re critiquing (think David Stratton).  The first time I was required to review a play, the knowledge of the passion, time and energy required to ‘raise the curtain’ every night made me look for positives. Anything else would be hypocritical (note the appearance of ‘critic’ in that word).

Watch for spoilers

Critics need to adhere to this maxim more than the average punter. You might have loved the third-act turning point in the latest movie, but if you tell everyone the outcome, they ain’t gonna get a surprise when they go, are they now? If you’re a critic and you’re not sure what a third-act turning point is, read my post about the storytelling basics.

It’s not about liking it

So you didn’t like the play, the movie, the book, the whatever, that doesn’t mean others won’t love it. It’s my assertion that if you put your cultural dislikes into print, you’re only going to end up looking snippy and unhappy. To critique something means to put it in context, to observe what came before it, to attempt to see what makes it unique, even if it doesn’t succeed as a piece of art in your estimation.

They’re not hanging on your opinion

It’s tempting to emulate the great critics – those who could ‘close the show’ on Broadway. But that world is long gone, subsumed by the international opening weekend for new movies, the lack of geographic boundaries on the internet, and the end of paid work in the mainstream media for all but the big-name critics. The social media is where word of mouth, the oldest form of criticism, is happening. It’s free, fast and beyond the control of artists. If you get any attention in that mass of distraction, don’t flatter yourself that your opinion means anything. Try to leave the medium better than you found it, even just a little.

Critics also get rated

WRITE REGARDLESSBritish actress Diana Rigg compiled a collection of the most famous reviews given to actors, as far back as Ancient Greece, in her book No Turn Unstoned, which she subsequently turned into a one-woman show. Critic beware – you’re not immune from getting slated yourself.

An extract from Write, regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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