Vampires and Vitriol: How To Treat a Critic

You may remember that I’ve been actively trying to stop reading like an academic. This week I finally got the long-awaited results from my MA; having spent much of the week trying to convince my parents that as a Master of Arts I can now paint like Picasso as well as write about books, I’ve started to come to terms with the fact that, at least for now, my academic career is on ice. So really, I have no further excuses not to continue my quest to learn how to read for pleasure again.

It’s quite surreal to be ploughing through Cloud Atlas while sorting through books I haven’t read since I was at school, but it’s a pleasant trip down memory lane. A couple of days ago, I even located one of those generic vampires-and-werewolves-caught-in-melodramatic-plot-with-humans novels that make perfect sense to a twelve-year-old.

It wasn’t Twilight, but it could have been. If I’d been born about ten years later, I’d have been perfectly in Stephanie Meyer’s demographic – I’d have instead discovered such dubious classics as the Night World and Vampire Diaries series through Amazon recommendations and bought them because their shiny re-release covers meant they looked just like the rest. I might have even seen the godawful Vampire Diaries TV show without realising how badly it treats its source material.

As it was, it reaffirmed the reaction to the Twilight phenomenon I’ve carried for years – a mixture of ‘been there, done that’ and frustration that Meyer had taken every cliché I remembered, synthesised them into one unimaginative plot with an even lower quality of writing and sold them on. Now, this is hardly new in the literary world, but for some reason, in this one instance it’s more frustrating than ever.

Obviously I brought this attitude into the first film with me, but when a very distressed friend asks you to watch it with them for comfort purposes you can’t exactly refuse. It turns out, however, that you can slightly offend them by failing to restrain your laughter. Between the script, the angst, the acting and the sparkling, I never stood a chance. I’ll get my own personal brand of heroin elsewhere, thanks.

I may not be alone in the anti-Twilight camp, but I fully understand why there are fourteen-year-old girls glaring across the divide at me. Imagine my surprise, then, when Mark Kermode declared himself “a stuffy, bespectacled greying man rapidly approaching his 50th birthday who is looking forward to the arrival of Breaking Dawn: Part 2 this week with as much excitement as I await Steven Spielberg’s reportedly awards-worthy Lincoln. Maybe even more…”

I’ll take a lot of persuading to come round to his point of view, and we clearly differ on the notion of Bella as a role model (though admittedly even I would have paid to see a Cronenberg-helmed Breaking Dawn Part 1). But what really caught me off-guard was the vitriol with which his piece was greeted. Several comments have already been taken down; the ones that remain still contain all manner of personal jabs. Why do people get so angry about these things? And why spend your time broadcasting the fact?

Most of the remaining comments complain about Kermode’s “credibility”, and as until recently I was trying to carve myself a niche as a ‘literary critic’ it’s triggered a bit of an identity crisis. What is a critic? What does a critic do and how?

According to one of the less likeable souls on the messageboard, considering a film’s target market when critiquing art is “intellectually bereft”. “Demographics and ‘market audience’ is [sic] nothing to do with art…”

It’s called the ‘film industry’ for a reason. Art is never produced in a vacuum: it’s the product of pre-existing conditions and circumstances, and even if the artist does the work for its own sake, there is a process by which it reaches its audience. It’s a product in a marketplace, and products are only sold if they can be matched with a buyer – especially when the only films getting greenlit are remakes, franchises and Oscar-fodder.

Though there are elements that can be picked up across films (acting, cinematography, dialogue) it’s patently unfair to judge them by any terms other than their own. You’ll hate Alien if you believe all films should be like Ben Hur. Absolute notions of “what makes great art” only serve to replace somebody else’s assumptions with your own.

The same goes with criticism more generally.  Critics are all too often accused of behaving as though their opinion is more important than anybody else’s. That’s not their intention at all. A good critic – and frankly, a decent person – believes in the validity of their own opinion, but they acknowledge that other people may have conflicting views that are just as legitimate. That’s the point of criticism. To say anything else is to suggest that one way of seeing art and, therefore, the world, is better than another, and if we all go around with that attitude, life gets a lot more complicated and less fun.

Kermode is perfectly entitled to say he likes the Twilight films, just as I’m allowed to say I don’t. But that’s not because he’s a “respected critic”. It’s just because he’s seen them. Everyone who watches a film, reads a book, looks at a painting – in short, everyone who consumes a piece of art – and has a reaction to it is, by definition, a critic. The fact that some people share those responses in The Guardian and some in the car on the way home is immaterial.

And again, it’s wrong to judge a critic’s reaction by anybody else’s standards. If they choose to do something as radical and terrifying as consider a film’s appeal to its audience, that’s their prerogative. High-flung notions of “what makes proper criticism” say more about you than the critic at whom you throw them.

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