education philosopher

What Gives Someone the Right to Be a (Literary/Social/Cultural) Critic? Nothing!

Posted in Philosophy by KevinCK on July 2, 2011

After a long, unintentional hiatus from posting on my blog, an unforeseen question has beckoned me back to write a post. The question (not really in my area of interest, but fascinating nonetheless) is this: what gives someone the right to be a (literary, cultural, social, etc) critic?

The question was posed on a Guardian Books Podcast (available from itunes) called “Life, Death, and Literary Critics” (2/4/2011). Toward the end of the discussion about what literary (and other) critics do and their importance, one listener comment asked what exactly gives someone the right to be a critic?

The answer one critic gave – the only answer given on the show, which is a shame as it seems wrong – was something like “knowledge of one’s subject.” Why does that seem wrong? To me, “knowledge of one’s subject” seems, at best, to be a necessary condition for being a critic, not a sufficient condition. In order to be a critic, it may be the case that ONE necessary trait to have is knowledge of the subject one is critiquing. But one may have knowledge of a subject, but not be a good writer, or not have very good taste, and it seems to me that many would be reluctant to call that person a critic. It also seems to me that knowledge of one’s subject isn’t ALWAYS a necessary condition for being a critic; one can have fair knowledge of one’s subject but have really good taste, instincts, and be a good writer, and be a critic, where someone with great knowledge of the subject, but lesser instincts or taste, would not.

To be honest, the obvious answer I recall practically blurting out during the podcast in response to “What gives someone the right to be a critic?” is…nothing – nothing except having the urge and follow-through to offer a critique. And if one is lucky (or offers a product that others find value in), one’s status as a critic will become stronger the more others appraise you to be a legitimate critic (using whatever criteria they want to use).

Part of the problem, I think, is that when we ask “What gives y the right to x?” we are really asking something like “Why is x entitled to y?” Indeed, that is the sense in which the listener seemed to be asking “What gives x the right to be a critic?” So, if the question is whether anyone can be called entitled to be a critic, I think the answer is a pretty obvious “no.” Now, we can ask why James is entitled to be a teacher in the state of Maryland, or why Josephine is entitled to practice psychiatry in the state of Wisconsin, but in those cases, the answer is largely because they have jumped through the (justified or not) hoops that gave them the license which thereby “entitles” them to be a teacher or doctor. In fact, the word “entitle” is pretty much a legalistic term that means roughly “to have been given the title,” and that is precisely what a certification is  – a title that grants and “entitlement.”

But a critic? There is no certification for that. One can be an English major, or a political science major, but whether one is entitled to be a critic doesn’t seem to be dependent on whether one has gotten a certain title as much as whether one’s writing performs the role of giving a critique (and whether others who read the work concur that the writing does that). So, no one is entitled to be a critic; one must earn the title in the way one earns the title “recording artist” or “poet.” One earns the title by performing the role that people in those categories perform.

But, we can object, not everyone who scrapes together the money to record their songs in a basement studio REALLY is a recording artist. Well, in a way that is correct and, in a way, incorrect. In a literal sense, they are a recording artist because they have recorded artistry; just like anyone who has collected baseball cards was, at that time, a baseball card collector. But if the question is whether the basement-studio singer is a SUCCESSFUL recording artist or is acknowledge to listeners to be a good recording artist is another question – related but different.

Now is where I’ll suggest that maybe the listener’s question was phrased wrong: rather than “What gives someone the right to be a critic?” maybe the better asked question is: “What conditions must someone meet to be considered a critic by others?” Not, “What gives someone the right to be a recording artist?” (answer: enough money to record artistry) but “What conditions must someone meet to be considered a critic by others? (answer: talent, good material, a product others want to listen to).

This is where I think it simply comes down to consensus. You are a critic if you offer a critique, and you are a critic to others when others consider your critiques worthy of being read and acknowledged as good critiques. I am sure this might drive many batty, as it is very relativistic beauty-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder kind of stuff. And many will object that x may be considered a critic because they have a blog that is read by others, but they really don’t have a good grasp of what they critique, have poor taste, etc. So, am I saying they are REALLY a critic? Well, yes. Objections like this generally come down to saying “Well, I judge their work to be unworthy and wish others would do the same. To me they are not a critic. I wish they were not held as a legitimate critic in others’ eyes either. And if they saw it may way, used the critieria I used, or had the knowledge I have, they wouldn’t see that person as a critic. Therefore, they are wrong to see that person as a critic, and the person would not be seen as a critic but for the fans’ mistakes.”

But it doesn’t erase the fact that if we asked of this blogosphere critic ‘What gives them the right to be a critic?” The answer would basically be that the fact that they offer a critique that some people find useful makes them a critic to those people.

And honestly, I think that is the best we can do… unless we can find some really good sufficient conditions that are strong enough to trump my subjectivistic theory. If we can find an instance where, say, someone has millions of fans who view that person’s work as good criticism, but we came up with a theory of sufficient conditions for criticism strong enough to really show that, despite being called a critic by millions, they are really not a critic at all, then the theory would be disproved. (But in reality, I think any such theory could be reduced to the theory’s inventor coming up with THEIR OWN standard for how they judge who is a worthy critic arguing that everyone else should just adapt that same theory also, and that anyone who doesn’t is wrong.)

So, I think it was a shame that the question “What gives someone the right to be a critic? was badly answered. I think the answer given may have been intuitive to some critics, who really do not want their status as critics to be wholly dependent on a market process, and their work as something more than products that depend on appealing to consumers even before imparting a superior knowledge. But, I just think my answer is more convincing.


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