By Steve Donoghue
I once worked in a newsroom that had three critics either on staff or on call. It wasn’t a big newspaper, but it served a vibrant little city, so there was always plenty to write about: local theater, visiting companies, classical music, the pretentious revival movie house, all the latest movies, and of course the endless stream of new book releases. We had plenty to keep us busy.
We had so much to keep us busy, in fact, that we couldn’t afford the luxury of specialization. Nobody in the newsroom or in town thought of So-and-So the Theater Critic or Such-and-Such the Movie Critic – although we each had our preferences, any one of us could show up to any task.
Instead of specialities, we were known by our critical styles: We were the Shredder, the Beheader, and the Fredder.
The Shredder, everybody knew, would take up some production – a play, a movie, a book – and gleefully tear it to shreds, usually leaving only bloody scraps. The Shredder was never pleased; right out of the starting gate, he was angry with anything new because he viewed it as a waste of his time and money (we were only comped for a small fraction of what we reviewed, alas – a good deal of it was out-of-pocket, which critics should try to avoid specifically to avoid accruing that kind of resentment). The only up-side of his savagings was a bit perverse: they were so enjoyable to read that they often ended up increasing curiosity in whatever it was he stomped all over.
The Beheader was different. He’d assess his target even-handedly, often finding some things to recommend – but at the heart of his review, every time, was the one fatal stroke, the one core damning observation that instantly killed his subject. The Beheader had an infallible instinct for the death blow, the central thing that was guaranteed to make the reader tell their friends, “Oh, I’ve heard that stinks, let’s avoid it.”
Then there was the Fredder – that was just his name, fittingly. He knew everybody, always went to the after-parties, always got free tickets and friendly phone calls in the newsroom, and – you can guess this part, right? – he never had a bad word to say about anything. His “reviews” were basically enthusiastic, funny press releases. He could always find the elements of anything that you were likely to enjoy, especially if you were willing to overlook a lot.
In that vibrant little city, people never knew which critic they were going to get, but they always hoped for the Fredder. And now, many decades later, in a new century and a new millennia, they’re virtually guaranteed of it.
I was reminded of this last week when a dozen people sent me the link to the same article in the UK’s Economist. At the heart of the article was one undeniable fact: in the shifting world of influencers and social media, “traditional” book review spaces are dwindling – and they’re being increasingly replaced by cheering sections. “Shrunken newspapers have fewer books pages,” the article writes, “so editors tend to fill them with the books you should read, not the ones you should not.” I’ve had plenty of those editors myself, the ones who say, “I’ve got very little page-space and a million claimants on it – I don’t want to waste space on bad books.”
In other words, it’s become a world of Fredders.
The article rightly points out that one pernicious reason for this state of affairs is “the tendency to recruit specialist reviewers,” a practice that fatally compromises a reviewer’s freedom to speak freely. “If you are one of the world’s two experts in early Sumerian cuneiform and you give a bad review to the world’s other one,” the article correctly points out, “it might be fun for 20 minutes – and regrettable for 20 years.”
But the real problem comes from the fact that the editors in question are forgetting – or never knew – the central point of reviewing anything. “What can be forgotten,” the Ecnonomist article goes on, “is that the real market for reviews is not the critic or the author. It is the reader.”
This is entirely right: the Fredder is drastically letting you down. In his eagerness to stay friends with everybody, to see the best in even the dumbest stuff, is betraying the true role of the critic, which is not only to alert the reader to the best that’s out there but also to warn them about the things that look polished and worthwhile (and have real marketing money behind them) but are actually putrid, maggot-infested piles of rotting garbage.
Books WANT something from you, after all. They’re all implicitly asking for your money, or your time, or your attention, or all three. Those aren’t small requests, and friends-to-all Fredder reviews take them too lightly. Nobody wants a friendly watchdog.