Blog: Writers Before Critics?

by Ken B.

Yesterday (which, at the time of this writing, would be April 24, 2015), we learned of the death of Richard Corliss, who had worked as a film critic for Time magazine since 1980. He was no doubt one of the more renowned, recognizable, and esteemed members of the criticism community, with a decades long roster of accessible, insightful, and clever reviews, such as his for The Crying Game, in which the first letter of every paragraph spells out one of the movie’s biggest plot twists.

Corliss left one of the most social individual aspects of a legacy one can have – coining a phrase. “Drop-dead gorgeous”, now associated with blaring red-carpet escapades, was first used by him when referring to Michelle Pfeiffer in the 1985 film Into the Night. This modicum of trivia made me wonder the question I’ll attempt to answer in this blog post – do critics have a regularly accessible potential for a professional and artistic legacy that stretches beyond just evaluating other art?

I suppose this first requires one to ask themselves if they see criticism as an art form. I’ve never been very sure, as I also hold the opinion that it is difficult for something to be art if it requires some other art for its pure existence. Criticism, using this definition, cannot intrinsically be art, as it requires art to exist before it can. And, as I have mentioned before, critics are often viewed in an inherently low manner. But one facet of the criticism-isn’t-art counterargument has given me pause on my own stance – critics are writers, and writing is more easily considered a form of art.

A mastery of the written word is difficult, and it manifests itself in different ways. Many essayists write flowery academia, showing a level of professionalism that often matches their knowledge of the subject they are speaking on. But others, such as Corliss, have an uncanny conversational style, discussing film consistently and engagingly, but never in a stuffy or boring fashion. There was an informal study (presented as an infographic), possibly of dubious merit, that handed out superlatives to film critics on such markings as harshest, nicest, etc., based on their average scores from Metacritic and other movie metrics. The results placed Corliss as the critic whose reactions most frequently matched that of the general public on a movie, and his writing style reflected that in its everyman, down-to-Earth qualities.

But back to my point – does Corliss’ legacy, or that of other famed critics, stem from the fact that they were critics or they were writers? Or should we not differentiate between the two? Perhaps criticism is just a simple subset of writing – basic journalism with the added step of not only describing something, but reacting to it. One of the things maintaining this site has taught me about critics is that it’s hard to be a good one. Do we often make the mistake of treating ourselves as critics before writers? And does that have a negative impact on the status of our work?

I think that the sign of a truly great critic is that they’ve defied just being a person who writes about movies, music, books, or whatever their field is. When we think of a great critic, we often praise how they wrote, or how they presented, and that is because even if you can evaluate art to yourself to a tee, a vital part about being a critic is that you need the ability to explain these reactions to others in a meaningful way.

And that’s what Richard Corliss did. And that’s what Roger Ebert did. And that’s what James Agee did. And that’s what Pauline Kael did. And that’s what countless other noted critics did, or continue to do. So I’m still not convinced that criticism is an independent art, but of course writing is. And when a critic stops being known solely for their reviews, and also for their ability to master the page in other ways, they have become writers, and therefore artists, before critics, and within there lies how we, as reviews, should approach our criticism – as artists crafting a creation, made in response to something else. Therefore, this article is my feeble attempt at art in response to the passing of yet another noted and scaled artist. I hope it has meaning.

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