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Dear pretentious critics: Here's why we don't like you

On Writing

Dear pretentious critics: Here's why we don't like you

Stephen H. Provost

How do you decide what movies you want to see? Do you read the reviews? If you do, you probably have one of three reactions: You might go to the movie if it gets a good review, you might decide to ignore the review altogether, or you might wind up doing the exact opposite of what the critics recommend.

If you’re in the third group, chances are you’re not acting that way just to be rebellious. You’re doing it because you’ve figured out that the critics’ choices usually don’t jibe with you own.

The same principle holds true for music, literature and any other form of art. Often enough, critics and fans enjoy the same things, but in other cases, their opinions diverge — sometimes sharply.

Critics tend to look down their noses at art they consider derivative or clichéd, saying to themselves, “Hey, I’ve seen this before. Why should I waste my time on seeing it again?”

Just yesterday, I wrote an entry here that touched on the importance (among other things) of originality in writing. I’m not one of those people who’ll see a movie several times or reread a book, no matter how much I enjoyed them. In fact, I’ve never read a novel twice in my life. Been there, done that. Hearing a song too often can turn it from catchy to cloying. Watching a movie repeatedly can put me to sleep.

But, hey, that’s me. There are plenty of people who enjoy hearing the same song over and over, rereading their favorite novels and watching the DVD of their favorite movie time and again. The Wizard of Oz became a yearly tradition on broadcast television in 1959, and the same treatment is given to holiday films such as Miracle on 34th Street and White Christmas during the holidays. So, there’s obviously a big appetite for this.

One thing these movies have in common is they’re accessible: They tell stories in such a way that a lot of people can relate to them.

The problem with many critics is they think accessibility is a bad thing. Bands that put out songs with a lot of hooks are dismissed as banal or simplistic. Meanwhile, their music racks up huge sales and fans flock to their concerts.

When it comes to major awards, they’re seldom, if ever, bestowed upon “genre” movies or novels. Academy Awards for Best Picture aren’t given to science fiction, fantasy, horror or comedy films. It "just isn’t done.” Similarly, you’ll never find Stephen King or J.K. Rowling in the hunt for a Nobel or Pulitzer Prize for literature.

Does this mean their work is unworthy? Millions of readers will tell you otherwise.

This doesn’t seem to matter to the critics. Many of them appear to thrive on the notion that they’re somehow “above” public opinion — and strive to maintain this impression by dismissing certain kinds of storytelling wholesale. The irony of doing so is that they’re judging genres based on stereotype, which is itself a form of cliché.

Clichés and stereotypes

What many critics have lost sight of is the difference between art that’s derivative and art that’s accessible. I make it a point to write conversationally so my readers can relax and enjoy what I’ve written. I don’t want to make them work too hard. One of the perks of being an adult is that reading gets to be fun, not the kind of textbook chore you had to endure in grade school.

(Sometimes, I think stale textbook authors and self-important critics emerged from the same mysterious protoplasm — that gooey muck that spawned F. Murray Abraham’s character, Professor Crawford, in Finding Forrester.)

Accessible writing isn’t simple-minded. On the contrary, it’s deft. I like to make my readers think. I’ve written books and articles on philosophy, for Pete’s sake. But that doesn’t mean presenting people with such a pretentious, confusing mess that it’s impossible to make heads or tails of it.

Despite what many critics seem to think, art can be accessible and original at the same time. It can be intelligent and fun. A good mystery can make you think and enjoy yourself at the same time. (Not coincidentally, mysteries are another popular genre that’s on the outs when it comes to consideration for major awards.)

Is it any wonder that some people choose to ignore the critics or even use critical disdain as an excuse to check out a book or movie? People don’t like being excluded. When their favorite film or novel is dismissed without a second thought, they don’t like that much, either. The people who do the dismissing will lose their credibility — regardless of their expertise or sense of self-importance.

The word “discriminating” can carry two different definitions: “selective” or “dismissive.” Too often, critics cross the line from the former to the latter, and in doing so render their opinions irrelevant.

That’s my critique. Take it or leave it … but either way, go have fun.