What has a critic’s approval got to do with your enjoyment? Um, absolutely nothing
Universal Pictures, them of the cosmic name constricted to a disappointingly earthly logo, announced recently that their hundredth-anniversary plans – a yearlong celebration – included the restoration of 13 films, which were “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “The Birds,” “Buck Privates,” “Dracula (1931),” “Dracula (Spanish, 1931),” “Frankenstein,” “Jaws,” “Schindler's List,” “Out of Africa,” “Pillow Talk,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Sting” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The issue at hand stems from the last movie. The book – a flat-out masterpiece, right? Not according to a friend, who groused, recently, that he was halfway through Harper Lee's quietly disturbing chronicle of innocent eyes being opened to a cruel and confusing world, and he couldn't see what the fuss was about, why the book deserved the Pulitzer Prize, and what the people featured in the long list of accolades on the back cover saw that he wasn't seeing. He asked me what it was.
I didn't say anything at first as this is such a vast, unanswerable question, whose answer hinges on matters of taste and patience and about a hundred other qualities that each one of us possesses in varying degrees. His question, in essence, was a rebuke to anyone, especially a critic, who says “This book is great” instead of “This book is great in my opinion.” The latter is an admission of personal joy and discovery, the former an admonition: If you don't like this book, you'd better wear that dunce cap and go sit in a corner with the others who don't get Hemingway and Dickens and Tolstoy.
The history of cultural criticism (art, books, movies, music), or indeed any criticism that deals with intangibles and unmeasurables – like how well an actor acts or how beautiful this musical interlude is, as opposed to how fast a sportsman ran or how many of his election promises a politician kept – is replete with finger-waggers determined to impose their tastes, their knowledge of pearls, on a world of uncultured swine.
This isn't about the critic's function as gatekeeper, making an educated case for permitting a work of art into the canon, but about the relevance of these opinions to the public at large. This friend isn't much of a reader. He probably ploughs through a book a year. And it killed him that he wasn't reaping much pleasure from a novel he landed on after so much scrutiny – the Pulitzer for fiction; all those unending pages of raves; the word “classic” oozing from every pore. It made him feel that the problem lay within him.
The problem is actually with whoever decided, at whatever point in the history of the universe (or Universal Pictures), that what the critic says matters to the public, that his approval is a signal that the book/movie/song is one for the ages, and if he says something stinks, everyone else should automatically clamp a hand on the nose. A critic's role is far more important than simply acting as a two-thumbed consumer guide – among other things, he should put forth perspectives, ignite discussions, which probably matter only to those with a burning passion for the art being considered.
Why should an average reader, who just wants to amuse himself on a flight or a porcelain throne, concern himself with what the Pulitzer committee thought? In the spirit of things, let me extend a hand in solidarity to this hurting friend and admit that I, too, have undergone these bouts of misery from the other side, as a critic not getting something everyone else in the movie-going public seems to get – like “The Shawshank Redemption,” Number One on IMDb's list of Top 250 films ever. Seriously? My vote for Hollywood movie about middle-aged male suffering set to shamelessly stirring music that makes me all gooey inside would go to “Field of Dreams,” but that's not even on the list. So much for my capabilities as a public-taste arbiter.