Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A Critic's Job: So this guy wrote a review that panned the new Harry Potter book, and a bunch of people wrote in to tell him that he didn't know what he was talking about.

So he wrote a reply saying they didn't know what they were talking about.

Now he didn't say they didn't like the book. What he said was, basically, they didn't know what a critic was supposed to do.

Actually, Mr. Kipen (May I call you Kip?), I don't think you know what a critic is supposed to do.

I hope you don't feel too bad about this! This ignorance is contagious, and just about every critic in America seems to have caught it. It's a common misconception, but allow me to set the record straight:

Myth No. 1: Critics decide if a book or movie is good or bad.

Sorry, Kip, but you don't.

Critics see themselves as the gods of Mount Olympus, sitting above the fray of books and films, ready cast judgment upon them with the stroke of the pen (or thumb) and forever relegate them into categories of "good" and "bad." They think studios usher them in regally, like the deities they are, for special screenings of their films, and said filmmakers then sit biting their fingernails waiting for the critic to decide if the years of effort were worthy.

I don't know how to break this to you, but if books and movies were giant, sea-going creatures, critics would be the little organisms that attached themselves to their nether regions. They are not ushering you into screenings like royalty, but they're herding you like a cow, shoving you in with the rest of the cattle, shoving shiny press-packets in your face hoping the shiny objects will keep your attention.

The book or movie would go on without you just fine.

You don't get to decide if the movie is good or bad. In some cases, that debate may rage on for years. In fact, when the work becomes a classic, you may have to find yourself quietly rewriting the review you initially wrote, when you thought you were above it all.

You don't serve the movie one way or the other. Your real responsibility is to the readers of your reviews. They're the ones who go to your review looking for a service. And the service is this:

They want to know if this is the kind of work they would like.

That's it! They hardly care whether you like it or not. They probably don't even know your name, let alone whether or not you're the same guy who wrote the review of the "brainy" indie film you wax poetic about two pages later.

In the case of Half-Blood Prince, a blind, dying monkey who only speaks sign language could have told you, after reading it, that it would be devoured just as voraciously as the previous books were, by people who enjoyed that series.

If it had been some kind of radical departure from the prior books--if Rowling had suddenly attempted to say, write in a way that emulated James Joyce, or if it had become a Naked Gun-style comedy--this would have been a useful thing to point out to the readers, so fans of Joyce who hadn't previously tried the books could give it a whirl, or people who hated the Naked Gun movies could skip this book.

But she didn't. Rowling wrote another book with the same sense of mystery, magic, light humor, and suspense as her previous books.

I won't accuse you of not reading the book, Kip, but I will accuse you of not knowing your job.


Okay, reading this over, I think it comes across a bit harsh. But it's silly to say the books aren't getting "fresher." The series is exploring new areas nicely.

So let me explain the way it's worked to Kip, since I'm sure he's read the whole series (Naturally, mild Harry Potter spoilers follow).

In book 1, we got our intro. Meet the characters. See the school. Learn the games.

In book 2, the characters solidly in place, we got to have a fun adventure in this world.

In book 3, we start getting into the backstory and the mystery. Where did all these people come from? This gives us clues as to where we're going.

In book 4, we get a wider, broader view of the world, by seeing kids from other wizarding schools, but more importantly, the end of this book is where the walls get blasted off the whole thing. It stops being about a little boy at school, and we realize, as we must eventually realize in all epics, that the fate of the world is at stake.

In book 5, we get the start of the heroes reacting to this new threat. Since book 4 changed the nature of things so much, this book has to show us how everyone reacts to that change. It's no accident it's the longest book so far--it had to be, to show the series' new direction.

So now, book 6, the penultimate book, is the Empire Strikes Back of the Harry Potter series. If you related as much to the characters as the regular readers do, some of the things in this book would be agonizing.

Of course, book 7 will be the vindication. The forces of good, from all over Rowling's world, will be in conflict with all the forces of evil her series has given rise to. The ultimate confrontations will, I am sure, have the full force of all six prior volumes behind them, as the climaxes of each of the prior books have been a bit stronger for having been tied to what had gone before.


Rebecca said...

Okay, I didn't read anything beyond the mild spoilers because I haven't read the latest book yet. But I was wondering if you bought the book. If you did, and you and Mrs. Doc have read by the weekend of August 13th, would I be able to borrow it for as long as it takes me to read it (you know I'm a slow reader)? Also, we need to set up a day for me to come over and give you the grill. I'll be in the area from August 7th to the 19th. I figured the weekend would be good, but I suppose it could be a weeknight too. I have some more soap for you too!

Erik said...

Considering I think it was you who let me read the last one, I've got no problem letting you borrow it.

Yeah, I got it for my birthday.

Yeah, you can borrow it.

Yeah, we'll be around. Shoot me an email about the whens and the wherefores.