Johann Hari wonders if professional criticism is coming to an end, pushed out by armchair critics empowered by social media. If so, he suggests, we would lose a great deal.
Critics do two things according to Hari. They provide “consumer advice,” and they help audiences grasp the deeper meaning of sometimes baffling works of art or literature. The first can be done by citizen critics on Twitter, Facebook, and the comment section of Amazon. The second, however, requires learning and space–something established critics are no longer getting. Magazines are cutting coverage, and where criticism is still published, it is now much shorter:
Kael’s famous review of Bonnie and Clyde was 7,000 words long. Most critics today are lucky to get 700; on Twitter, they get fewer than 700 characters. Indeed, their work is most regularly seen now through online review aggregators, where the words are stripped out and all that remains is a banal star rating.
If criticism is cut from all magazines and newspapers, Hari argues, “all that will be left to navigate us all through a roiling ocean of culture will be unpaid amateurs and advertising.”
I think Hari’s alarm is misguided. While the general trend is of diminishing space, he ignores contrary developments, such as The Wall Street Journal’s expanded book coverage, The Chicago Tribune’s new stand-alone weekly, “The Printer’s Row,” and the recently launched online-only Los Angeles Review of Books.
Why are these newspapers and media companies launching review sections or creating entire publications devoted to criticism? At RealClearBooks (another venture that bucks Hari’s trend), Mark Judge reminds us that reading is a contemplative activity and—via Thomas Merton—that contemplation is a natural (if sometimes thwarted) inclination: “Man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest. That activity, which is contemplation, is immanent and it transcends the level of sense and of discourse.”
Criticism is one means of satisfying this need for contemplation, which is why I think it would take more than Twitter to dispatch of it. In fact, certain technologies, such as Amazon’s Kindle, makes reading long-form criticism easier, as Alan Jacob points out in his excellent The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.
But what do other First Things readers think? Do you still read longer (plus 1,500 words) art, theater, and book reviews? Am I right in thinking these will always be around in some form or other?