The reason for this is pretty much the same straightforward reason a lot of us still use terms that people outside our own circle might find off-putting or even offensive (like queer, for instance, or tranny): I just think it’s just the best word out there to describe me.
The change came about earlier this year, when the Guardian asked me to write about criticism for their new 60-Minute Masterclass series of ebooks. The series is meant to appeal both to general readers and to those with an interest in pursuing the subject vocationally. That got me wondering: could I with a clear conscience recommend criticism as a career path?
After all, opportunities for regular paid reviewing gigs grow fewer by the year. In many ways, it’s never been harder to make a living thinking and writing about art and culture. Yet I love what I do and count my blessings every day that I’m able to do it. So, I challenged myself, what’s the appeal and is it worth others following?
My conclusion was pretty simple. For me, criticism isn’t a career. It’s a vocation. I feel like I’m on a mission to imbibe, investigate, challenge and, most importantly, champion culture that I think has a chance of making the world a better place. (In my case, that happens to be cabaret, moving-image, queer and DIY culture.)
I do it by trying to make arguments and connections that convince other people I’ve got a point, even if they don’t know the work I’m talking about. It might be through reviews, features or interviews; panels, classes or shows; photos, videos or tweets; even academic research. They’re all part of the same critical enterprise – the same mission.
That mission feels all the more important right now because art and culture are on the defensive these days. If they can’t generate economic growth, the rhetoric goes, what are they good for? I think they’re good for fostering understanding, empathy and love. I think they are the sound of society talking to itself, understanding itself, becoming itself. Art and culture are not optional extras or escapist entertainment but the heart of human experience.
The critic’s role is to contribute a thoughtful and constructive voice to this ever-changing conversation – and to help new voices join in. The most exciting, potentially revelatory work is often young, weird and fragile; it never has an easy time of it, but today the terrain is especially harsh. The critic can help clear a path for it, give some support, forge connections between the newcomer and the existing environment with an eye to enhancing the bigger picture for everyone.
It feels like a duty, a privilege and a pleasure all at once.
These are the sorts of things I ended up talking about in the ebook. I also pass on some extended insights from other critics, including Lyn Gardner, Mark Cousins, Donald Hutera, Jessica Winter, Maddy Costa and Steve Bennett.
And I give plenty of tips on how it is indeed still possible to make money from criticism – though I don’t claim to offer a magic formula to get rich off it. I wish I had one. If I can cobble together a living doing it, great. If I have to take on other gigs on the side, that’s okay. It’s not about a payday. It’s about doing work I find enjoyable, interesting and rewarding, geared around trying to understand, encourage and inspire readers, artists and audiences to increase the love.
That’s what being a critic means to me. And that’s why I have critic pride.
Critical Writing: A 60-Minute Masterclass by Ben Walters is now available from Guardian Shorts. Get the ebook at half price until the end of July 2014 with the code author50.