Neil Macy

Being Critical

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends."

I recently watched Ratatouille, which is a movie about someone having an unexpected talent, but struggling to have that talent be accepted because of where he comes from. Or, on a simpler level, it's about a rat that wants to be a chef.

That quote comes from the story's food critic character, when he has cause for introspection near the end of the film. It's widely quoted, and for good reason: the web makes it very easy to have our opinions heard. And as the quote says, it's fun, for some reason, to both read and write negative criticism. People can write negative blog articles or fire off quick, critical tweets, and have them be received by the target of the criticism and also the wider world with incredible ease.

A big part of being a critic is passing practical judgement. There is also moral judgement, of whether something is right or wrong, or inappropriate, but often the most harmful negative criticism is that something "just won't work" or "isn't worth trying". This is also the hardest criticism to justify, as you're essentially saying that you can predict the future, and that's where I feel this quote comes into its own.

Whenever something new appears, people always want to be the first to say why it will fail. Why it is unworthy of the attention that it is getting. Why the fact that it breaks existing traditions means that it will either crash and burn, or is somehow inappropriate. It's rare to see that encouragement of a new idea of which Anton Ego speaks. For some reason, people are more comfortable with the idea of criticising something and being wrong when it succeeds, than supporting something and being wrong when it fails. Possibly because failure is more common, so it's easier to be right.

That's why, with so many people being so naturally inclined to say something will fail, "the new needs friends." Of course it's important to exercise critical judgement; to study something and understand what makes it weak. But it's also important to understand what makes it strong, and to support it in evolving, in changing or removing its weak points in favour of its strengths. Whether as a stakeholder or as an interested outsider, there's far more value to be had from positive, constructive criticism, and support of new ideas, than to be had from being right if and when something struggles.

Published on 3 November 2015