Discussion: What Makes a Great Critic?

“The great artist is he who goes a step beyond the demand, and, by supplying works of a higher beauty and a higher interest than have yet been perceived, succeeds, after a brief struggle with its strangeness, in adding this fresh extension of sense to the heritage of the race.”—George Bernard Shaw, The Sanity of Art

The Awl’s Maria Bustillos wrote a fascinating piece on the art of critique, with specific focus on literary criticism versus popular criticism. From “What Makes a Great Critic?”:

It has ever fallen to critics and journalists to create new ways of looking at new things, to relate the message of art to audience. The artist (or the scientist, or the politician) is necessarily absorbed in his own craft. The critic’s concern by contrast is the audience, which includes himself. He’s the citizen, the moviegoer, the diner, the art lover. He fashions his own experiences into a kind of bridge to new places we might not otherwise have cared (or maybe even dared) to visit. He creates or extends the shared experience that is the real purpose of culture.

Or maybe the critic just says the expected thing, seeing the movie or reading the book from the establishment point of view, making no personal connection either with the work or with the reader. Nobody remembers or really engages with such writers at all, but they are “safe” for establishment purposes and they can be trusted to not get into any snafus with Warren Beatty (as Kael once did). George Bernard Shaw once described this timid, conformist mentality perfectly, pointing out that there is always a change-resistant establishment against which the undeceived and openminded critic must fight.

It only gets better from there, with Bustillos contrasting the efforts of great critics against one another and popular literature and literary thinking, and is a nice history of literary critique to boot. Take a minute to read “What Makes a Great Critic?” on The Awl, and then come back to discuss it with us.

What do you think, LitStackers? Does a healthy knowledge of literary core automatically equal a great critic, or are other, less scholarly factors at play?

We want to hear what you think!

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