10 September 2016

On the whole "critic like eunuch" thing

On a recent Twitter Q&A promoting his new novella, author Suketu Mehta referred to critics as “eunuchs.” The full quote was: “a critic is a eunuch in a harem: he observes, he comments, he judges, but he does not practice.”

I only came to this a day late, puzzled by all the “eunuch critic” jokes circulating on my timeline, and so I Googled it to see what had happened. Turns out Mehta was paraphrasing author Brendan Behan (who was born and died many decades before Twitter was even a twinkle in its founder's eye. Or, probably, the founder was even a twinkle in his founder's eye). Behan said (and has been quoted by petulant artists ever since): “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves.”

Say whaaaat?

I'm not here to talk about Mehta's new book (which I read), but about our peculiar, particular relationship with critics. By “our” I mean both People Like Me, fellow writers, and creators, but also People Who Really Love A Certain Thing And Feel Personally Insulted If You Don't. You see it all the time, admit loving Pearl Jam over the Doors to someone with a Jim Morrison poster over his bed, admit that you can't see the point of Salman Rushdie's latest to a person who has grown up worshipping at his altar, admit that Deepika Padukone leaves you cold to someone who wakes up early on the actor's birthday just to be the first to post “HBD [birthday cake emoji]” on her Instagram post.

Because it's all very well saying art for art's sake, and that people shouldn't take it personally. Art is only art if you are able to take it personally. If the creator is able to slip into your skin and whisper to the back of your brain, if by looking at it or reading it or watching it, you feel transported and also, vitally understood. If not, then you're left a bit cold. You understand what the thing is trying to do, but the efforts of the piece are too obvious, like an eager date. After years of writing books, sometimes I have problems with casual reading—when is a book is trying too hard, I can tell. I can see the strings. A critic can almost always see the strings.

In today's connected world, everyone has a voice. And, what's more, everyone's encouraged to have a voice. Authors beg you for reviews: “find me on Goodreads! On Amazon! Say you've read me!” Filmmakers ask for retweets, musicians ask you to share their page. Critique my art with your thumbs-up, critique it by pressing on all the stars. And yet, despite practically begging for these reviews, anything less than four stars and the creator is crushed. I see restaurant owners “defending” their business almost every day, from internet reviewers, I see people block people who disagree with them. We're begging for opinions but only ones that are great. You can keep your bad opinion to yourself, thanks.
And so real critics, that is, people paid to criticise, experts, if you will, are a bit thin on the ground. Why would you want to read one reviewer's opinion when you can read 700 of the masses? So, a eunuch in a harem? Probably not, although it is tempting to dismiss your meanest reviewers as someone who watches all the sex but doesn't have any. Instead it's the harem itself, turning to you, the prince, and watching everything you do, before whipping out their screens to record their opinion of you for everyone to see.  

(a version of this appeared as my column on mydigitalfc.com)

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