Of course, everyone’s a critic these days. It used to be that only professionally snide, hoity-toity snobs got to do criticism – like Anton Ego, the restaurant critic in the animated movie Ratatouille. Look at him, with his arched eyebrow and nose made to look down, his skull-like typewriter and sharp-angled accoutrements, all set to tell you why you’re enjoying your food wrong.
Ah, those were the days. Now, any fule with a WordPress account can hold forth at will and where does it get us? Top ten listicles from slavering fanboys, demanding you agree with them that this or that corporate behemoth is where it’s at. Lawks a mercy.
There’s no question that criticism is in a parlous state at the moment. But it’s also a very exciting time. The descriptions above are obviously grotesque caricatures of critics of the old and new schools – there are innumerable examples of each who have done fine work – but I do think there are great opportunities now for criticism that aspires to be neither aloofly patrician nor eagerly supine.
I see the critic as operating in collaborative tension with artists, not as an opponent but an honest friend. It might sound pompous but I believe criticism is a vocation. I take culture seriously – it is, after all, the sound of our society talking to itself – and hope that by engaging with it in a sincere and thoughtful way, I can be useful to society myself.
So I’m excited about the all-day Guardian Masterclass on criticism that I’m giving on April 27. It’s aimed at people who want to develop their own skills as critics and, for me, it’s an opportunity to try to impart why I find criticism so stimulating and fulfilling. I’m hoping to help those who attend to drill down into their own motivations and capabilities – to develop enthusiasm and knowledge into constructive engagement and open-ended curiosity, and identify ways those things can knit you into a community and – yes – earn money too.
As a first attempt, it is of course an experiment, and I’m expecting to learn as much as I teach. The maximum class size is 16 (hence the pretty hefty price tag of £220), which should guarantee both informality and a real opportunity for collaboration in our discussions and individual attention in workshop sessions.
I’ve also invited Steve Bennett, founder of comedy website Chortle, to come and discuss how he successfully carved out and continues to expand a critical niche based on a subject he’s passionate about.
Tickets are now on sale for April 27 and more information is on the Guardian Masterclasses website. And I’m happy to answer any questions potential attendees might have before they decide whether to sign up: just use the Contact page here.
Oh, it’s also been the excuse for me to make my first PowerPoint presentation, which includes Catwoman, Charles Foster Kane, Ed Wood and the Ku Klux Klan. And my second, which is a top ten list. I have learned to love listicles. Up to a point.
The main gist, I suppose, is that you don’t need any rarefied perch to be a good critic. You need passion, curiosity, a willingness to change your mind and the desire to convincingly champion the things you love. It’s about argument more than opinion; conversation not monologue; being useful rather than sounding off. Yes, everyone’s a critic. But those of us who care about it want to be better ones, and that’s what I hope the Masterclass will achieve.