Everyone’s a Critic

by John Boland

Book clubs are everywhere and if they encourage people to read good books and to analyse and articulate their thoughts about what they’re reading, that’s undoubtedly a good thing – just as Socrates assured us that the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined book is probably a waste of time, too.

The only problem with book clubs – not to mention blogs and those “reader’s reports” for Amazon – is  that they encourage the notion that everyone’s a critic, that if you can put together a sentence (or even if you can’t), your views are just as valid as those who write professionally about books for newspapers and magazines.

It all comes down to judgment, of course, and the point about professional critics is that the best of them carry the authority they’ve accrued through studying their preferred subject, reading widely and carefully and then formulating opinions based on the taste and discernment they’ve acquired through their painstaking devotion. Also (though this shouldn’t need to be said), they must write well, too, in a style that the reader finds engaging.

Everyone has their own style, of course, and it’s not really definable, though readers know it when they see it. The great cricket and music writer Neville Cardus defined style as “a natural easy expression which is not anonymous,” which is as good (and modest) a description as I’ve come across. Certainly my critical heroes – from Shaw, Pritchett, Orwell and Tynan to Ian Hamilton, Clive James and David Thomson – have a “natural easy expression” which is anything but anonymous and which you read for the sheer pleasure of their prose.

They also have discrimination, so that whether you agree with them or not they encourage you to evaluate and perhaps re-evaluate your own responses to the book or music or play or movie they’re writing about. In other words, everyone’s not a critic, or at least not a critic to which you should pay heed.

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