The Role of the Critic

I still remember the exact moment I realized was not going to be an English Major. Upon entering University, I had aspirations of becoming a game critic, a dream later squashed through a stint reviewing free-to-play online role-playing games (MMO’s) back when only the bottom of the barrel games were free-to-play. At the time though, my mission was to review games and an English Major seemed the logical pathway, seeing as it was a major all about writing and critiquing.

I even had the pleasure of being invited to an English Honours meeting, where students are courted by faculty and extolled the pleasures and virtues of pursuing an Honours Degree in English. Upon entering the small and rather appropriately named Reading Room, I was offered a snack of coffee and donuts, the quintessential staples of the undergraduate diet. I collected my GPA booster on a plate and sat down in a small circle with a few other students and faculty.

I don’t recall exactly how the conversation started, but after introductions the topic quickly shifted onto a recent Shakespeare play Keanu Reeves performed in. While I am the first to admit that I am a massive Keanu Reeves fan, both in terms of his public persona and the films that he stars in, I have exactly zero knowledge of his role in Shakespeare plays.

I was the outlier however, as everyone else at the meeting had seen the play and had something negative to say about Mr. Reeves. Each member took a turn providing a scathing criticism of my idol until my turn finally arrived. All eyes fell on me as the department head calmly asked “what’s your opinion Trevor?”

I bought time by quickly taking a massive bite out of my donut, giving me a solid ten seconds of awkward silence as I chewed followed by another eight seconds as I washed down the mass of carbohydrates with coffee.

Following the extended silence and with no clever response coming to mind, I finally replied “Well, I don’t know about Shakespeare, but I liked him in the Matrix”.

The room returned to silence.

Clearly the other members of the meeting were struggling as much as I had to come up with a response, save that their focus was to formulate a reply that did not highlight the conversational detour I had taken.

The department head broke the silence with “well, in your English degree, you will certainly have a chance to read a great deal about Shakespeare!”

I showed myself out shortly afterwards, accepting that the English Degree was not the path for me.

My switch from English to History was not entirely based on this meeting; it also happened to include the lectures as well. While I enjoyed the passion professors brought to their subject as well as their ability to deconstruct and expand upon literature, the critic in me always wondered where the final score was. In video game reviews, scores are critical to the review process, helping to inform and shape the purchasing habits of consumers. Only more recently have video game begun to explore the role of the critic as a way to enhance the experience of the medium.

At the time I was impatient and wondered why scores and final summaries were absent from to the books we read, pushing me further away from an English degree. That and I still did not like Shakespeare, no matter how much of the bard’s literature I read.

In the subsequent years, my view on the critic’s role has changed. I take issue with how the scores of game critics have suffered from inflation (look for a game with a Metacritic score below 50 out of 100 for a clear example) as well as a limited system of grading that serves as a simple reference tool for consumers determining purchases.

By contrast, my appreciation has grown for the ability of critics to expand upon and explain materials. I recently attended a comic book store and found myself in an hour-long conversation (it was a slow day) with a store clerk named Todd over the deconstruction of the hero and the origins of the anti-hero.

Todd’s enthusiasm was infectious and he asked me questions throughout our conversation about my interests in comics (graphic novels if you want to sound pretentious). After a lengthy discussion, he carefully coinsured immense rows of comics arranged in the same manner albums in vinyl record stores are presented, adeptly navigating content dividers between the books emblazoned with archaic symbols that indicated changes in genre and time.

“Aha”, Todd suddenly announced after a bout of intense searching! “You will enjoy this”.

He held out a copy of James O’Barr’s The Crow. “This books marks a landmark point in the development of the anti-hero”, exclaimed Todd. “It’s also half off” he added, pointing to a red sale sticker.

This man new how to appeal to the bargain-hunting Winnipeger inside of me.

I subsequently bought The Crow not out of an initial interest in the book, but from the interest in the story Todd had created in me. Devouring the book in a night, I reflected the next morning that by itself, I would not have enjoyed the story. The story is intensely dark and focuses on an exploration of guilt and the emotions elicited by revenge, themes that at a cursory glance make for a depressing and rather unfulfilling story. Thanks to the social context and literary themes discussed by Todd however, my enjoyment of The Crow multiplied many times over and I flipped eagerly through the haunting images and disturbing character transformation.

The whole experience made me realize we can all be critics in the best sense of the word. Not as belittlers of others work, but passionate advocates of the hobbies and pastimes we cherish. I am a firm believer that you can get people interested in just about anything if you are excited enough about it. Heck, if I can make insects around a grocery store engaging, anything can be entertaining. So how about you; what gets you excited enough to get others excited? What are you passionate enough about that you want to kindle that passion in others?

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2 thoughts on “The Role of the Critic

  1. One question – is”humerous” (in your blog description) mis-spelled or is that how they spell it in Canada?
    Overall like the blog, just read a few entries tonight. Will poke around a bit more later.

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