Don’t Hate the Hater

Like them or loathe them, critics serve a purpose, if only to warn the reader of what lies ahead.

November 21, 2011 8:05 am by

Dear God. I’m watching Arjun Rampal teach a boy how to do stand-up comedy. How this

Critics have had mixed reactions to 'Twilight: Breaking Dawn'.

is supposed to convince the “hater” that Rampal can act is anybody’s guess. Now, Rampal has dared the boy to knock back his glass and finish the drink in a gulp. This drink, incidentally, wasn’t a tequila shot but a flirty pink concoction in a margarita glass. What’s the punchline? While the boy downs his drink, Rampal fools the boy into thinking he has emptied his glass. Ultimately it is revealed that Rampal didn’t swallow; he spat the drink back into his glass as proof. Great. There’s a masterclass in acting.

I don’t watch much TV. Love 2 Hate U is the first show I’ve watched in a while and the reason I turned on the TV is because I like the idea of someone confronting their critics. Ideally, it should deflate egos and force critics to justify their opinions. So far, that hasn’t happened on this show. However, Rampal did admit on TV that he “didn’t do drugs … that much”. Maybe the show won’t be so bad after all.

The British theatre critic and writer Kenneth Tynan supposedly had this line pinned above his desk: “Write heresy, pure heresy”. Tynan’s guiding principle is usually seen as a reminder that it’s more fun to read stinging critique than it is to read praise. Take Peter Bradshaw’s review of Breaking Dawn: Part 1 in The Guardian and then Manohla Dargis’s take on the same film in The New York Times. Dargis seems to have enjoyed the film. Bradshaw, on the other hand, didn’t see the film as much as suffer it, and his review is a joy to read. Among other delightful Bradshaw pieces are his critiques of The Incredible Hulk and RocknRolla. They’re outstanding not because Bradshaw voiced a negative opinion, but because he articulated the flaws he saw in the films. (Doing so in Hulk-ese is sheer brilliance.)

Criticism implies thought and analysis. Hating is a much simpler affair. It’s an emotional response and doesn’t demand reasoning. Writing heresy, as per Tynan’s directive, is critically complicated. First, to go against the grain, you must know the grain. So, in order to make your argument convincingly, you need to have some knowledge of the medium, its conventions and its history. Then you have to be ready to burn bridges. Ask my poor husband, who has frequently had to smile sheepishly and get himself a fresh drink mid-conversation because the person he was talking to suddenly got a murderous glint in their eye as they asked him, “Your wife is Deepanjana? The one who hated my book/show?”

There’s no point trying to explain I was doing my job. No one likes to have their work rubbished, especially when it is as intensely personal an effort as literature, film, music and art can be.

When you create something for the public domain, you must be ready for opinions; negative ones in particular. However, this doesn’t mean you have to like it. Criticism stings like hell. From personal experience, the rants of haters are easier to stomach than the reasoned opinions of critics. The only thing that hurts more than someone saying “I didn’t like what you made/wrote” is hearing out someone who says, “This is why I didn’t like what you made/wrote.”

In an ideal world, a critic’s responsibility is primarily to the reader. If there’s constructive criticism that an artist can glean from the piece, that’s a bonus because reviews aren’t written with the artist in mind. They’re written as bridges between a work and its consumer. They should entice, explain and warn the reader. However, these days, we’re constantly told that critics are pretty much useless. Reviews have no impact upon the kind of earnings that a work will make. The entire literary establishment baying for Chetan Bhagat’s blood hasn’t led to a dip in the sales figures for his books. Visual artists gain stature because of the prices they can command, rather than an art critic’s opinion of their work. One of the most profitable animation film releases in India has been The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. How many of you bought tickets because of a review?

More often than not, those interested in reading criticism are the people who made the work that is being criticised. They read with the hope of finding praise, appreciation and understanding in the article. No one else is interested, apparently. So if readers have no time for reviews, should the critic’s responsibility be to the artist? Should we be diplomatic instead of heretical if the only person who cares about the critic is the artist? And if we don’t, will we end up being clubbed with haters and appear alongside Arjun Rampal on Star World?

Deepanjana Pal is a journalist and the author of The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma. She is currently a consulting copy editor at Elle magazine.