“Poets aren’t the only unacknowledged legislators of the world; great critics write the text as well.”
That quote from the San Francisco Examiner is pulled from the back cover of Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies, and it’s a sentiment that I’ve imcidentally been mulling over for some time now. While artists and creators of original, imaginative content are justly-lauded for their efforts, sometimes I feel that we give our critics shorter shrift than they deserve. For the most part, I don’t think this is intentional; we’ve just widely accepted the narrative that artists are the parents, birthing and breathing life into stories where there was none before, and that critics are the teachers, hardened disciplinarians grading these beloved stories on a limited pass-fail spectrum, without having any of the knowledge, experience, or appreciation of what it takes to immaculately conceive a work of art. That might ring as a bit over-exaggerated, but I suspect that the public majority essentially views both of these professions in a light not very far removed from this.
But to continue our parent-teacher metaphor, the ultimate goal and responsibility of every good critic for me has always been just that: to educate. This might take the form of the critic educating the reader about the subject being discussed or, in more telling cases, educating the reader about the critic herself, and thus educating the reader about the reader. Whether their tone is scholarly or irreverent, the good critic is an opener of doors and a pointer of paths and, like the teachers from our own lives who most inspired us, they provoke our imagination and stir our passion before standing back and allowing us to cross those thresholds and take those roads wherever we may.