I will grant that there are many people who have greater expertise than I in many areas. I have no doubt about that. What I question is their right to tell me what I am “supposed” to like, enjoy, appreciate, or why I am “wrong” for not agreeing with them. I would think that I am the only one who is competent to make that sort of decision for myself. I do, on occasion, read the comments of some “critics,” especially regarding movies or books which seem as though they might be of some interest to me. I think I do this to see what is said about them and to glean what I can of the subject matter, storyline, etc., in order to determine if I might wish to look further into that item. But I rarely make a purchase decision based solely on a “critic’s” commentary.
I think I’m at least as likely to be influenced by the subject matter, or by discovering a work by an author, or other artist, whose works I have enjoyed in the past, or by the recommendation of a friend or family member whose opinion I trust. For the most part, though, I don’t place a lot of importance on “the critics” because I have found that far too many of them seem more interested in telling me what I am “supposed” to like and why, if I don’t make the same judgements they do, I must be some sort of unlettered boob who is incapable of making a valid judgement. Now, I will acknowledge that I MAY be an “unlettered boob,” but I do feel that I am the only one capable of truly knowing what I like and I don’t much care to be told that I am “wrong” because I don’t agree with someone else on what is, in fact, a matter of opinion.
Here are a few stories of encounters I have had (usually not literally) with critical judgements with which I disagreed or just didn’t understand.
A tour of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I played in Omaha recently. Okay, it’s a story I know reasonably well and I’m pretty sure that I have seen the classic movie at some point (on TV?), but I don’t think I have ever seen this show onstage. We do have a copy of the movie Anna and the King, but I am not sure I have ever watched it. Now, I think I would have enjoyed seeing this touring production, but I didn’t get to it, for a variety of reasons. Still, when the local arts “critic” goes on about how the “clash of cultures” and topic of “tolerance/intolerance” make it “relevant” today, I’m neither encouraged, nor impressed.
Yes, these topics do impinge on this musical, but what I think of when I consider this show is a story of two very different people from very dissimilar cultural backgrounds coming to grips (in their own ways) with their attraction and affection for each other in spite of their many differences and how they come to acknowledge that affection in their own ways. Much the same could be said to be true of Victoria and Abdul or Driving Miss Daisy, both of which deal with similar situations and clashes of cultures.
My point here is that I think these are all stories about two people and their relationships, not some sort of “politically correct” diatribe. That’s probably because I tend to see theatre pieces (scripts or productions) in terms of the stories being told, not just as socio/political commentary. If the socio/political stuff turns you on, that’s your right, I suppose, but I think that the stories of the characters come first, the other stuff is simply carried along with those things. Rogers and Hammerstein worked a lot of social commentary into their musicals, but I don’t think Carousel is just about spousal/child abuse, nor is South Pacific just about racism, nor The Sound of Music just about the evils of Nazism.
In the same way, most (all?) of Shakespeare’s history plays (and some of the others) touch on the nature of monarchy and the requisite qualities of a desirable monarch, but I don’t think that’s why Will wrote these plays. The stories of the rise and fall of English kings from Richard II to Richard III (and beyond) are pretty interesting just as stories. The ideas about monarchy arise out of the stories which are being told, I believe, the stories were not created to make the points (they ARE history, after all, even if “approved” history). And I think that stories lie at the center of the theatre.
I see that some people have taken the new movie I, Tonya to task for “skating” over the truth of the story about the rivalry of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. Now, based on what I have read (and I have made some [admittedly small] effort to track down the “truth of the story”) the facts other than several obvious ones readily available and mostly concerning the outcome of the Kerrigan attack don’t seem to be easy to establish. The stories of the various characters (and they appear to be the best sources we have) disagree with each other in too many ways and we don’t have truly objective sources for the most part in any event. Yet an “Arts critic” has such deep insight as to state that the movie “skates” over the truth, when it seems difficult to impossible for a normal person to determine beyond a reasonable doubt (the legal standard) what the truth, in fact, is. It must be nice to have such immense powers of insight! And that’s to say nothing about the fact that I, Tonya is NOT being presented as an historically accurate documentary, at least in anything I’ve encountered.
The same critic (I believe) gave The Greatest Showman a less than strong review because it doesn’t make the point that P.T. Barnum was an absentee father, a poor husband and exploited “different” people for his own profit. This in a review of a MUSICAL! I don’t understand why he didn’t take to task the fact that it’s somewhat unlikely that Barnum’s life included various characters breaking into song every so often at appropriate emotional high points. It’s a MUSICAL, for Pete’s sake. If you don’t understand the inherent differences between a musical and “real life,” you have no business setting yourself up as having any expertise about the theatre. Barnum probably WAS most (if not all) of the things this critic accused him of being, but that’s not the story they chose to tell. It wasn’t intended as an historically accurate biography, it’s a musical movie. If you still don’t understand how this might be of importance, see Something Rotten!, especially a little number called “A Musical.”
When Dan Brown’s latest book, Origin, came out last October, I confess that I purchased a copy quite promptly. Before I even had a chance to read it, however, I encountered reviews discussing how it was repetitive of earlier works, lacked creativity, was formulaic, etc., etc., etc. Having read it (I enjoyed it thoroughly), I do have to admit that it probably won’t go down in history as a “major literary masterpiece.” Still, I didn’t buy it because I was expecting to be “enlightened” by one of the great works of early Twenty-First Century literature! No, I bought it because I have read the Brown’s earlier novels and enjoyed them as stories. Are they “GREAT” literature? I don’t know and don’t particularly care. I found them well enough written to be enjoyable and worth my time. While, apparently a fair number of “critics” don’t find it of much value, it has been on the NY Times best seller list for 14 weeks and counting. On the other hand, my experience suggests that, at least in the eyes of many “literary critics,” achieving “best seller” status serves as adequate proof that a work is “schlock” fiction and not really worthy of being taken very seriously.
I’ve always found that notion a bit problematic as I have studied enough about literature to know that at least some of what is now considered “important” literature wasn’t written as “great art,” but to make money (which I don’t consider all that disqualifying). There are a number of people I could name, but Dickens comes to mind immediately as someone who is considered to be a pretty good writer, who was also interested in earning a living from his efforts. Shakespeare’s works (at least the plays) were also written (at least I believe) in order to provide Will and his colleagues with material which would attract audiences to their theatre, not just to be “great art.”
Am I suggesting that Brown’s novels will last for a long time as great works of lasting literary merit? Not really, but they have given me (and apparently a good many others) enough pleasure to justify the time and expense of obtaining copies and reading them. That may not make them “great art,” but that would seem to me to justify considering them worthwhile, in spite of the “critics” saying that they aren’t “great.”
A number of years ago, while I was in the Art Institute of Chicago, I ran across an painting which struck me as just a canvas covered with white paint hanging in one of the galleries. I don’t remember the artist, but I do remember looking at this painting in a state of some confusion. Obviously, some critical mind thought it worthy of display as “fine art.” My guess is that “critics” would discuss how the artist had “captured the existential essence of nothingness,” or something of that sort. To me, it really didn’t seem to convey anything much. Does that mean that I am a cultural illiterate? Perhaps. That doesn’t alter the fact that I was not really moved by this work entitled “White on White.” If it speaks to some, that’s okay, but it didn’t do much for me and I can live with the fact that not everyone agrees with me. I still wasn’t impressed.
I directed a production of Waiting for Godot at WCU many years ago (1978?) which was strongly taken to task because the student critic for The Carolinian didn’t feel that the production had the characters adequately express enough “existential anguish” at their situation. I didn’t respond to this review because I didn’t think it was my place. The reviewer was entitled to his own opinion, but I remember thinking at the time (and I still believe) that Beckett’s point was not to express the character’s anguish at what seems to be a rather hopeless, repetitive situation, by to get the audience to see that waiting for someone(thing) to come along to make life meaningful was stupid and to experience a certain amount of existential anguish over our own inability to simply DO something to MAKE life meaningful. Hence, in my opinion, Beckett’s point is not the character’s anguish, but our own. WE (the audience) should feel this existential anguish over our willingness to try to let someone(thing) else create meaning for our lives, rather than to actually do something to try to make our lives meaningful. Certainly, the critic had a right to his opinion (which is, after all, what a review is), but I refuse to change my opinion as to the point of this play, and my production, which I felt was fairly successful. Am I right. For me, yes! Apparently not for him. I’m sorry that he didn’t understand what the production was trying to say, but I don’t think I was “wrong.”
I think that’s the major point I’m trying to make here. While criticism from qualified, experienced folks may be worth paying some attention to, the real key to criticism may be summed up in three simple statements first expressed (I believe) by Goethe.
- What is the playwright (or director, actor...) attempting to do?
- Was it well done? (or, "Did he do it?")
- Was it worth doing?
I belong to a group of Sherlock Holmes fans here in Omaha who get together once a month to discuss the works which feature this character. There is little doubt in my mind (based on a modicum of research) that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote these stories primarily to make money. That is, he wanted them to sell. And, sell they did, although he never considered them his most important work. They are, many of them anyway, still pretty good stories about interesting characters in interesting situations. People read them (they sold) because they were enjoyable to read by a wide range of the public.
Are they really “great” literature? Probably not, but they did, and continue to, provide some pleasure to the readers. The fact is that, in spite of Doyle’s trying to “kill” Holmes off after writing two novels and 23 short stories because he was bored with the characters and wished to do what he considered to be some more “serious” writing, he would go on to write two more novels and 33 more short stories after a hiatus of about eight years. The point here is that one doesn’t have to look too far into Doyle’s biography to discover that Holmes was “resurrected” mostly because he was a popular hit who accomplished Doyle’s goal of making money as an author.
I believe that the stories vary a good deal in their quality. Some are rather repetitive of earlier ones, but most are worth reading, if you like that sort of thing, as I do. Obviously, they were worth doing to Conan Doyle as they solved most of his financial concerns, and it would seem that many people continue to find them worthwhile as they are still quite popular and have been adapted for television, movies, graphic novels and a large number of rip-offs. If one enters “Sherlock Holmes” as the search criteria at Barnes and Noble.com, you’ll get over 4000 hits; Amazon will produce over 44,000 and Google produces over 3,250,000.
Are these “works” likely to be considered “great literature?” Probably not, but they remain VERY popular and the characters are better known than many from much “greater” lit. Does that make them worth reading? You’ll have to make up your own mind. I plan on continuing to attend the meetings of the Omaha Sherlockian Society because I have a good time rereading the stories and discussing them.
And I don’t much care what the “critics” think.