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Stephen Fry on critics

Stephen Fry’s new collection of essays contains a piece on critics. Lifted directly from the Harry’s Place post – hope they don’t mind:

As a child I saw on television a film starring Alistair Sim called The Green Man. Like almost any picture featuring that incomparable genius it contains moments of as absolute a joy as one is ever permitted on the sublunary plane. Watching it made me wriggle with delight, but more than that, it made me want to have something, anything, to do with a world where such pleasures were possible. The film was again shown recently on television. In the listings column of a Sunday newspaper the other week it was described as ‘a thin, ultimately unsatisfactory vehicle for Sim’. Now I would never claim that my liking for the film is definite, de gustibus and all that, but look at the style of this remark. How typical it is of everything that must displease about critics. The vile possessive impertinence of this jumped-up hack referring to the man by his surname, the ex cathedra1 dismissal, the cold contempt, the complete absence of anything approaching enthusiasm or love.

It may be true that critics perform a service, that actors and writers and artists need their egos deflating, that the public needs to be advised about how, where and when to spend their money on artistic activities, that ‘standards’ must be maintained. All the foregoing may be fine and convincing reasons for the existence of critics. The point is that no one would volunteer for this dreadful trade but the kind of worthless and embittered offal that we, by and large, get. What decent person would want to spend a life picking and cavilling? Picture this scene. A critic arrives at the gates of heaven. ‘And what did you do?’ asks Saint Peter. ‘Well’, says the dead soul. ‘I criticised things’. ‘I beg your pardon?’ ‘You know, other people wrote things, performed things, painted things and I said stuff like, “thin and unconvincing”, “turgid and uninspired”, “competent and serviceable,”…you know’.

I think we can guess Saint Peter’s reaction.

The man has a way with words. I’m not convinced there’s any virtue in deflating egos or maintaining ‘standards’, but I definitely agree with the overall point. It would be far more pleasant if critics did their best to enhance my enjoyment of music/tv/film/theatre, instead of extracting joy and crushing it with cynicism and hate. Tell me the stories behind the art, tell me about subtle meanings I might miss, tell me of homages and references and detail. Don’t give me arbitrary film theory, elitist pretension, snide irrelevancies and tirades against the mainstream. I’ll make my own decisions about what I enjoy, thanks. I don’t care what critics didn’t like, I care about what they did, because that makes my life better.

  1. hadn’t heard this before – it apparently means speaking from a position of infallible authority []

2 comments

  1. I am convinced that there is virtue in deflating egos. Once you’ve spent enough time around artsy people you’ll realize that criticism is exactly what some of these people need. It exists in any trade or skill that most people derive great benefit from a coach to help them do things better. Sometimes particularly with young artists they come in thinking that they are better than they actually are, and it is only when you’re told that you’re not that you actually start to improve. Critics can play such a function. Many filmmakers and authours, for example, have cited having been influenced and improved in part by great critics like Pauleane Kael, James Wood, etc.

    I do agree that some critics completely take the joy out of art in general. But there are bad critics as there are bad anything else in life.

  2. I have to disagree with fry on this one, some critics like red letter media may be so cynical and self inflated in their opinions that they dislike everything that doesn’t meet their unrealistic standards, but criticism can be a good thing. an artist may never improve his craft if nobody points out his flaws to him, take evangelion for example, so many people criticised the ending to that series that they created a movie with a more deserving ending that tied the plot lines of the series together, many people disliked batman and robin for devolving from the dark and complex batman into an adam west knockoff, and now we have nolans batman trilogy. Some critics may be cynical assholes that nitpick things to suit their personal opinion , but there is good to be had from pointing out room for improvement.

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