Everyone's a critic

 

There was a time when newspaper reviewers were all-powerful, making or breaking everything in their paths. But, with the rise of social media and the popularity of blogs, has the critic been made redundant, asks MICK HEANEY

IN 1992 Colm Tóibín encountered the power of the critic for the first time. He awoke one morning to find The Heather Blazing, his second novel, favourably reviewed in the books section of the Sunday Timesby a just-published author named Nick Hornby. “This was before he was Nick Hornby,” says Tóibín.

The review came as a pleasant surprise to the Irish writer, who did not expect his novel, an “intense tale set in antediluvian Ireland”, to attract good notices from outsiders. In the weeks that followed, Tóibín came to appreciate the impact a high-profile review could have on a book’s fortunes. “That review made a difference,” says Tóibín. “It made my publishers sit up and think, Maybe if we market this guy, we might have something.”

Nearly 20 years later, Tóibín’s experience seems like a sepia-tinted snapshot from a bygone age. It harks back to a time when a handful of critics at national newspapers were the main arbiters of literary taste, seemingly able to dictate an author’s career with the upward or downward flick of a thumb. A similar situation prevailed in other spheres. In theatre, visual art and even popular music, a clique of influential figures writing in a few publications set the cultural agenda.

These days the primacy of the old-fashioned critic is in tatters, shredded by that great leveller: the internet. The lofty pronouncements of this intelligentsia have given way to a more egalitarian conversation. In giving everyone a level playing field on which to voice their views, the blogosphere has made the amateur aficionado at least as influential an online presence as the professional reviewer.

The rise of social media has enabled networks of like-minded fans to bypass central critical outlets, helping shape opinion in a viral, grassroots fashion. As newspapers have migrated on to the web, the one-time bastions of influence have ceded control, as readers can instantly debate and dissent online. Now it is the public that largely defines the cultural landscape, not a self-appointed elect.

This waning of old-media authority is apparent throughout the artistic world, regardless of scale. On Broadway the U2-scored musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Darkhas played to nearly full houses, despite being almost unanimously trashed by American reviewers. The coverage of the show’s mishaps and delayed opening, vigorously dissipated throughout the web, has caught the public imagination more than any adverse review.

Less dramatic but more far-reaching has been the rise of new outlets that have shifted the focus of attention away from the traditional channels. Book blogs, often dealing with genre fiction, have built up hitherto untapped audiences and are eagerly courted by publishers. Then there are the websites, particularly in the music arena, that effectively cut out the middleman altogether, allowing users to listen to music and make up their own minds on the spot. The rock writer holding forth on the next big thing is now an endangered species. Just as the record industry has been eviscerated by the web, the ascendancy of such interactive sites seems to presage the wholesale redundancy of the critic.

“I think when the media was very concentrated a single critic had a powerful role to play,” says Eoin Purcell, blogger and editor of Irish Publishing News. “In some sense that hasn’t changed, but the location has. The blogger may have taken over from the newspaper critic.” And it is not the just the location that has changed: the tone has, too. If the ancien régimehad an elitist air it is because critics unabashedly tended towards the highbrow.

“The traditional newspaper review has much less weight now,” says Tóibín. “There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when the British Sunday newspaper supplements had the most extraordinary writers appearing in them. You’d see reviews by Anthony Burgess, one of the greatest novelists of the time, week in, week out. Even in the way they covered theatre and classical music there was a whole sense of weight.” This seriousness started to slip before the internet took off. “About 20 years ago the supplements’ focus moved towards entertainment instead of the heavy arts, as though someone said, ‘We have to lighten it.’ ”

Given its inherently populist quality, the web intensified this shift. The most popular literary blogs, for example, tend to concentrate on genres once ignored in review sections. “That’s a really big shift that has happened in last five years, especially in Britain and America,” says Purcell. “There are a few influential bloggers who are now highly courted by publishers, especially in science fiction and fantasy. These niches were perhaps not served so well in the traditional media but are getting more attention now they see there’s an audience.”

This new focus on genre fiction is a testament to the internet’s ability to open up new audiences, if not to its highbrow credentials: where once the books pages were populated by heavyweights such as Burgess, now we have online reviewers rejoicing in names such as King of the Nerds. Irish blogs have yet to gain such widespread purchase, though Purcell cites Declan Burke’s site, Crime Always Pays, as an example of the internet highlighting genre fiction on the local literary map.

The rise of social media means information about artistic endeavours can be dispersed directly, attracting new audiences without having to go through the interlocutor of the arts pages. “We use Twitter and Facebook to publicise shows,” says Enrique Juncosa, director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, “and what that does is create a younger audience for us.”

Social networks have also changed how the public receives critical opinion. The recent lively exchange between the actor Ardal O’Hanlon and the Irish Timescolumnist Fintan O’Toole over a negative assessment of the Gate Theatre’s production of God of Carnagespilled over from the letters page on to Twitter and sites such as Broadsheet.ie. In the process, all nuance was lost: on the internet the critic has no control over the narrative.

In the field of mass-media entertainment, such as cinema, this alteration has been even more pronounced, with a dizzying array of locations offering news, reviews, previews and gossip. Last year, Total Filmmagazine ran a list of the 600 (yes, 600) best movie sites. In the face of such diversity, the notion of an all-powerful voice in the mould of Vincent Canby of the New York Timesor Pauline Kael of the New Yorkerseems fanciful.

The landscape has been most radically altered in the music world. The process began in the US, during the mid-1990s, when new sites such as Pitchfork started reviewing alternative acts disregarded by US music magazines such as Rolling Stoneand Spin. A decade later, Pitchfork had become the most important online music journal: credited with breaking acts such as Arcade Fire, it is now arguably more influential than its print rivals.

“The critic’s role definitely has changed,” says Scott Plagenhoef, Pitchfork’s editor-in-chief. “The critic still has an importance in terms of reputation, like earning the trust of the reader and being able to contextualise. The main thing that is different is the old role of explaining what the music sounds like. The ability to put up an MP3 changed things.”

Just as digital downloading saw internet users bypass record shops and, in most cases, paying for music at all, so the online posting of songs – be it on mainstream sites such as Popjustice, indie aggregators like the Hype Machine or any number of opinionated niche slots – has circumvented the traditional mediating figure of the critic. Irish magazines like Hot Pressmay still be in print, but they seem caught in a timewarp compared with local bloggers such as Nialler9, who keeps up a steady stream of new music.

But if the anarchic cacophony of the internet has transformed how people access information and opinion, has it really sidelined the critic as a cultural mediator? For one thing, their influence was never all-pervasive. Despite the acres of coverage given to high-end literary works, for instance, the mass market has always been dominated by pulp fiction, bonkbusters and genre fiction. Similarly, in music the rock press derided pop acts, with little effect on their chart placings.

Even when a review had an impact in times past, it was not necessarily in the expected manner. Hornby’s positive notice did not in itself bring a new audience to Tóibín’s novel, and made little difference to sales. “The big impact was at the marketing end,” Tóibín says. “The really significant thing about a good review was that it meant you could make a deal with the bookshop chains.” If the literary critic’s influence has diminished, it is less to do with the more participatory online environment than with the rise of retail chains whose promotions and stock selection help drive reader choice.

A comparable situation holds true in visual art. “What is distinctive in the art world is the power of the market,” says Imma’s Enrique Juncosa. “If you show with a powerful gallery in New York or London, the works become more expensive, even if you have bad reviews.” Where fearsome essayists such as Clement Greenberg once shaped the art scene, they have now been replaced by collectors such as Charles Saatchi.

Such caveats aside, the critic has a role to play. “The old-school media is still important for what we see as the most valuable areas of publishing,” says Purcell. “In niche fiction a good blog review may be enough, but literary fiction or serious nonfiction needs more of an imprimatur from a newspaper critic.”

In some cases, the internet has increased the influence of such traditional figures. With most American newspapers shedding their books sections as they struggle to survive, the remaining critical outlets have become more significant. “The New York Timesis the only game in town in America,” says Tóibín.

Meanwhile, social networking may allow the reviewer to be bypassed, but it can equally increase awareness of critical voices. “What Twitter and Facebook do best is allow you to share a good review with fans, and that can help shift sales, be it hard copies or e-books,” says blogger Eoin Purcell.

And intelligent critical discussion can still thrive in even the most changed scenes, as shown by music sites such as Pitchfork and blogs such as On the Record, Jim Carroll’s Irish Timesblog. “People come to us; we have a good relationship with readers, because we take our time and think things through,” says Plagenhoef. “That’s our strength. Even in digital space we occupy the old-school idea of what the critic is.”

If the supposed primacy of the newspaper review has been challenged by the advent of the internet, the demise of the critic is some way off. If anything, the possibilities of the internet mean such voices now can resonate longer than ever.

“Before the net, it used to be that if you missed an article, you never saw it again,” says Juncosa, formerly the art critic with the Spanish newspaper El País. “I saw some of my reviews online recently and I was quite embarrassed by them. Critics have to be more careful. Reviews only used to last a minute, but now they’re out there forever.”

Much as artists may wish otherwise, the critic is not going away just yet.