“Restaurant star ratings; in-depth album reviews; Twitter threads on the latest film releases: many of us are both consumers and producers of content about what we buy, where we visit and how we live. But what does it take to build a career in journalistic criticism?”
On June 4 2021, Rachel Aroesti, a freelance journalist who writes about popular culture, and who has previously written for publications such as the Guardian, gave UCL students an interactive masterclass on how to be a critic. Talking to us about criticism in the public sphere for a general audience, Aroesti used the term “contemporary British newspaper critic” to describe her role, emphasising the specificity of the job she does. Breaking down her job, she explained what exactly critics are for.
Most obviously, critics are a consumer guide, recommending things or warning the general public off things, helping people to “spend their time and money well”. Aroesti also emphasised the role of critics as entertainers; as well as reviews offering a window into an experience that might not be available to everyone (such as a pricey restaurant or West End show), criticism should be engaging enough to be considered as entertainment in its own right. Breaking down the binary between criticism and entertainment, Aroesti reflected on her experience growing up reading NME, joking that often the criticism was more entertaining than the original creation in question. Controversially, Aroesti went far enough to consider the critic as an artist, referring to the debate in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Critic as Artist’, which spurred contemplation about the relationship between the artist and critic — that’s if they can be divisible — and to what extent criticism is self-expression. To the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, poetry was the “criticism of life”, epitomising how art and criticism can not (and, in my opinion, should not) be thought of as inherently opposite.
Speaking of the joys of criticism, Aroesti expressed the satisfaction of advocating for art and culture that she loves. Most critics start off as fans, making it obvious that they’d want to champion things. However, at the same time, Aroesti talked of the “critic’s duty” to “police” some work, using ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’ as an example — infamous for its emotional abuse of participants involved. Critics essentially call out harmful things that are being sold to the public — they hold art and businesses accountable.
Aroesti then moved onto discussing (ironically!) popular criticism of critics — the negativity unfortunately bound up with the role of the critic in our current moment. She directed us to a tweet by Samuel L Jackson in 2012, in which Jackson condemned the critic A. O. Scott for writing a negative review of ‘The Avengers’ film. Jackson later defended his attack by claiming that Scott “intellectualised” the film and thought too deeply about it — a classic example of viewing the critic as being ‘too serious’. However, nearly ten years on, Aroesti believes that things are changing, partially attributing this to podcasts. The granular detail that podcasts go into, and their microscopic way of considering pop culture, proves that people are thinking thoroughly about entertainment, and there’s an appetite for contemplating what we consume. Aroesti then approached the ‘critics as failed artists’ myth — one that attempts to (unhelpfully) erect the boundary between critic and artist, ignoring figures such as the writer Philip Larkin, who was Jazz reviewer for the Telegraph. We then considered other myths such as critics being hypocrites, unqualified to judge others, and nasty or negative. I find the latter the most alarming, considering public discussion about the quality of art is what typically enriches it and fosters progress. Without talk and debate, there is little improvement.
What interested me most during the masterclass was Aroesti’s emphasis on ‘conscious criticism’ — a term I hadn’t encountered before. She explained to us the need to be aware of power dynamics in the industry, such as the hierarchy between critic and artist. For example, critics are often vulnerable to attack when critiquing an industry, cultural zeitgeist, or individual’s work. Artists are able to mobilise their fanbase by interacting with critics, sometimes leading to swarms of online trolls heading in the critic’s direction, highlighting the disparity in power. The privilege of power functions in the opposite way too. Criticism is always interacting with society, power structures, and the harmful dynamics of the internet, and a critic can significantly aid or harm artists’ livelihoods. Aroesti talked about how Jay Rayner, the Observer’s restaurant critic, announced in September 2020 that he stopped writing negative reviews during the Covid-19 pandemic because eateries were so financially precarious. People complained, mourning his guidance and characteristically scathing reviews. However, Rayner’s acknowledgement of the impact of his words on people’s survival is fascinating. It’s a reminder of the power of criticism and the power of the critic, whose influence extends far beyond a page or screen.