Orwell on being a critic
“The prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job.
“It not only involves praising trash–though it does involve that, as I will show in a moment–but constantly INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever.
“The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about.
“If he is a top-notcher in his profession he may get hold of ten or twenty of them: more probably he gets hold of two or three. The rest of his work, however conscientious he may be in praising or damning, is in essence humbug. He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.”
Steven Poole links to a George Orwell essay on the plight of book reviewers – a piece of writing that also applies all too comfortably to that of the videogame critic. It’s entertaining, harrowing and perspicacious all at once.
This section in particular is interesting:
“None of this is remediable so long as it is taken for granted that every book deserves to be reviewed. It is almost impossible to mention books in bulk without grossly overpraising the great majority of them.
“Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be “This book is worthless”, while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be ‘This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.’
But the public will not pay to read that kind of thing. Why should they? They want some kind of guide to the books they are asked to read, and they want some kind of evaluation. But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse.”
Halliwells is the only review guide that approaches what Orwell is suggesting – by awarding the vast majority of films a default score of zero stars.
It then scales the merits up to the maximum of four stars for exceptional films – a system that irritates people no end to begin with but, upon reflection, is vastly preferable to the alternatives.
As somebody who falls firmly into the camp of reviewers who gets to critique but ‘three or four…he would enjoy writing about’ a year (Ok, probably a few more than that) the idea of leaving the swathes of titles that, in Orwell’s opinion shouldn’t warrant comment, is both appealing and terrifying…