Kevin Smith, Critics and the unreliable narrator

I like (most of) Kevin Smith’s movies. I download his smodcasts. I follow him on Twitter. But his recent dust-up over critics not reviewing Cop-Out favorably is a highlight of a general misconception about criticism in general.

And it is something that I have also suffered from in the past. It is something that is hard to work out of the system once it has found a home. Above, where I mentioned “not reviewing Cop-Out favorably” I had begun to type “not liking Cop-Out” before realizing how charged that sentence is and how it reflects the same ignorance Smith appears to have, at least momentarily, suffered from. It doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, matter if critics like a work. There’s been more than a few books, movies, music, etc. that I’ve enjoyed on some level while also believing that they are likely quite crappy with little redeeming value or meaning. Sometimes I just like some mental junk food.  So, despite my enjoying something, I would still stand up and say, “Yeah, it’s crap. But I enjoyed it.”

The thing is, if you’re trying to honestly criticize something, that “Yeah, it’s crap” part has to be there. For instance, see my recent post about Laura van den Berg’s collection of short stories. I liked a LOT about the collection. I say I liked a lot about it. In the end, though, when everything gets tallied up and conclusions have to be drawn, though, I also had to say that I thought it had serious shortcomings that it did not overcome.

It’s this duality that I think is lost in the argument between critic and artist. The artist sees someone “not liking” their work when “like” really has very little to do with it. This understanding of the role of a critic is made worse by misunderstanding of terms a critic uses that an artist, frankly, may never need to know even if they employ a technique the critic perceives.

Which appears to be partly what happened on this blog recently over a review of Pekar’s The Quitter. In a comment to a follow up blog, attempting to illuminate the use of “unreliable narrator” there was a mention of The Screwtape Letters. Which struck me as odd.

It has been years since I last read The Screwtape Letters and, recently, I haven’t had time to go back and entirely re-read it. But I have scanned through it, I’ve scholar.googled it and did a quick glance through some lit journal searches. My immediate recollection was confirmed. The Screwtape Letters is not an example of an unreliable narrator. While why Screwtape isn’t an unreliable narrator is important, it’s not pertinent to this blog. What’s pertinent is that this mistake was made. This isn’t to single out that individual commenter but to use it to illustrate something that is likely fairly common – a genuine language/process gap between the critic, those whose work is the subject of criticism and the audience for whom that work was created and for whom the critic is writing.

The language and backgrounds for becoming a “critic” and becoming an “artist” are inherently different. Many artists have the words “self-taught” somewhere in their biographies. And it’s my opinion that this isn’t just a brave thing, to have struck out to master a craft with little or no fall back plan or option, but a necessary thing for many artists as I’m not sure that all that is necessary to be an artist can be taught or accrued in a classroom. Or maybe that’s just the romantic idealist in me wanting to see the artist, at least in some way, as the woman for whom inspiration must strike to allow them to forge their timeless works. A critic, however, almost certainly has to be in a classroom through necessity. There is simply very few other options for being exposed to the work of other critics, for gaining any sort of understanding of the field, than without the aid of classes and instructors who are already learned of the lay of critical land.

So maybe it shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise when the two sides lock horns over what one writes about the other. It has to be all but inevitable. The training for each can come from wholly different directions, employing language and terms in ways that are wholly different from what the other side employs. Sure, each side can (and do) try to bridge that gap but it’s a gap I’m not sure is always bridgeable. After all, a critic does come off very much as a judge and that’s the sort of eye that no one likes to fall under.

But what role does the audience play in this?

Part of me wants to tie this into our current political climate where intellectualism has become a dirty word.  Language has an inherent political context. Nearly everything said or written can find itself twisted and appropriated for all sorts of purposes. I think it becomes clear that the term “critic” is slipping from our lexicon, too easily associated with “criticize” and all of the negative connotations that word can find itself lugging around. Instead we see this term “reviewer” being bandied about.

And what’s the job of a “reviewer?” Well, it seems their job is to simply review. Now, there are certainly aspects of that word that lends itself to serious critical work. The daily/weekly articles written for movies, plays, books, etc. have long been called “reviews.” In the military the term “review” also has a serious charge to it, a formal retrospection into an event for the purpose to lay a judgment of. Looking into my Webster’s New World College Dictionary, however, and those sort of definitions appear no sooner than fourth under the heading “review.” The first three definitions are far less formal that use phrases such as “a looking back” or a “general survey, report or account.”

Going away from the dictionary, considering personal connotations to the word review, and what I come up with is an expectation for an informal recounting, which is even more relaxed than a “general survey.”

To think of a movie review now, you would almost come to expect a simple recounting of plot with some very basic or rudimentary thoughts about the movie but nothing that would be overly critical (or overly praising). A “review” of Transformers could simply be

It’s a movie about robots fighting other robots,  and some people get involved. It looks pretty on the screen and is, at times, really loud.

I get the impression that is the sort of thing expected of movie reviewers now. Something lacking in actual criticism since it is something that isn’t really implied as part of the process any more. And it’s here where maybe literary criticism is shielded in a way that movie criticism isn’t. While there is certainly a TON of movie criticism, a large number of people who write passionately and knowledgeably  about the movies are burdened with the title of “critic” or “reviewer,” titles that either immediately draw ire or inspire confusion as to role.

Alright, I’ve gone on long enough. Part of the whole Kevin Smith Thing is, I’m sure, just bruised ego. It’s natural. But I think another part of it is the shifting of expectations of society and how language has shifted with those expectations. Maybe we no longer expect a reviewer to be critical and get somewhat put off when they are. When this difference of expectations is met with even greater differences in language, the fire becomes an inferno as one perceives the other as chucking gasoline rather than turning on the hose.


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