The Death of the Critic

Barthes wrote of the death of the author during the 70s. How this impacted on the text and made the unbound text (see also, Kristeva and Allen). There is a reason for me to point this out. There has been throughout the critical history of poetry and fiction the desire to draw a line back to the poet or author. This for me is not a critical line but subjective opinion. My concern has always been how much of this line has been truly objective, dealing in facts, and how much has been subjective, dealing in gossip.

In the world of writing, it has always been easy for new poets and writers to offend individuals and now thanks to social media, groups. Normally, two people will sort out their differences though conversations, their fists, or in the true English way, smile, nod, ignore and then bitch behind each other’s back. However, social media has a dark side and when groups are offended, often naively, they attack with little evidence and the criticism once founded in something solid and tangible as the text becomes a personal witch hunt. Many poets and writers, including myself, have seen this same, sad story played out time after time. It was once confined within a really good party, that had too much drink, too much opinion and too much ego but egos have grown and been bolstered by the anonymous nature of the internet. Like the hangover after the party, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

I have and still am a critic, being a writer and a poet means I read. Being a reader means I must be able to say whether I liked something or not. Being a writer and poet means I have to say why? It is in my nature to analyse the structure of text. Never come and see a film with me, I will tell you the ending after the first ten minutes. It isn’t rocket science, it’s just an understanding of how film is structured in the West. Trust me, before Lethal Weapon every black cop close to retirement would die in the first five minutes of the flick. Likewise, in any Fleming book, James Bond has to win and in any Rowling book, Potter must never learn anything when he is away from Hogwarts. It is about structure and the world of character and text.

I recently went on a mammoth journey of reviewing every poet in the anthology Lung Jazz. There is over 160 poets in this anthology. The reviews took just over two weeks on twitter. I did these reviews not because I was in it, which I am with the poem In the Mist, but because I believed it was good practice for me as a poet to touch base with my contemporaries. It is often easy to become reclusive as a poet and I have always tried my hardest to keep up to date with who does what, who is publishing and what the news is in the world of writing. It was enlightening, at times hard and on the whole a wonderful experience to review all these poets. All of whom were under 40. I must admit that I am near the top of this bar but we will move on from this for sake of sanity and manners. A man of a certain age never reveals his age to teenagers. They giggle too vocally.

I wanted to do my reviews via social medium and I chose twitter. I have used twitter from the start and I am no stranger to social media from the early forums to chat rooms on the earliest of them all, LinguaMoo (any of you out there remember that one?). It meant my reviews were confined to 140 characters, during which I had to state a viewpoint and mention the book which I did using #lungjazz. The response to these micro reviews was phenomenal, more poets, writers, critics and god forbid, readers, contacted me. I was retweeted and my followers (@bongosherbert) went from a mere 650 to 900+. I had more readers doing this, and more interaction than as a critic for a physical publication. The closest I ever got to this was when I was the restaurant critic at The Big Issue in the North and a local pub put my review up behind the bar just because I liked their sandwiches, the review never mentioned that I mainly liked their beer and that the excellent review owed more to that than the food on offer. Honestly, it could have been a dead horse between two mattresses from a brothel, I was as I fuzzily remember very drunk and very hungry when I was restaurant critic. It comes with territory, and free drink is by definition, free and hungover. This I suppose was the closest I got to recognition, I have reviewed on and off for years, my name has appeared on the back of a number of poets’ and authors’ books but my name isn’t what sells them, it is what I say. Thess bite sized sections from my reviews are often taken out of context and I suspect many critics will say the same.

So what is the role of the critic now? Social media is doing what all social interaction online does, descending from niceties to full on cage fighting, often skipping constructive criticism. This is a concern I have, I have been in conversations where the overall arc of the criticism is whether a book is shit or not. This is not criticism, it is just opinion and often founded on the very essence of the argument, shit. I am not the greatest critic alive, in fact I now refuse to review any book that does nothing for me, I know this is a subjective view but time is short and I would rather give a balanced review than wade in with a one view critical diatribe. It seems to be the norm, due to social networks, that readers think this is acceptable, that we decide for them but that is not the role of the critic. I was always taught that a critic gives a balanced viewpoint, giving their opinion and critical analysis but that the final decision should be with the reader whether to purchase or not. My concern is that this is going unheeded, that we are producing a generation of talented writers through Creative Writing programmes but not writers who may be able to deal with slapdash criticism – criticism that is more akin to punch up than thought provoking. I have been the recipient of good criticism and a victim of witch hunt journalism. The difference between them is that good criticism deals with the text and the latter deals with hear say and subjective opinion. I worry that we are all sliding into the latter and with it we are losing our ability to calmly, objectively criticise.

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