I recently re-watched a film I’d loved as a kid only to be shocked at how bad it was. What had I been thinking? Well, I was thinking like a kid back then. Now, I’m thinking like an adult. So which perspective on the film was the right one — the kid who was totally, blindly, immersed in the movie or the adult whose aesthetic tastes have been refined?
Sadly, the adult in me won out. Which left me yearning for the eyes of a child.
Nowadays, anyone can be a critic — kid or adult. On our recent vacation (in which we sampled multiple eateries), my wife was so enthused about one specific restaurant that she vowed to return to the hotel and write a review. True to her word, she proudly posted her first ever restaurant review. From my perspective, both the review and her giddiness were rather childish. In a good way.
So I’m thinking we review too much like adults nowadays. It’s the downside of democracy. Everyone’s afforded an opinion. And, my, how seriously we take our opinions.
C.S. Lewis addresses this balance between art critique and art appreciation in his Experiment in Criticism. Lewis suggests that being a critic of books is actually a hindrance to good reading. Or to put it another way, being too adult keeps us from enjoying many a good book. He writes:
I doubt whether criticism is a proper exercise for boys and girls. A clever schoolboy’s natural reaction to his reading is expressed by parody or imitation. The necessary ingredient for all good reading is to get ourselves out of the way. We do not help young people by forcing them to keep expressing their opinions. Especially poisonous is the kind of teaching that encourages them to approach every literary work with suspicion. It springs from a very reasonable motive in a world full of sophistry and propaganda we want to protect the rising generation from being deceived, we want to forearm them against false sentiment and muddled thinking. Unfortunately, the very same habit that makes them impervious to the bad writing makes them impervious to the good. (emphasis mine)
This idea that the prerequisite “for all good reading is to get ourselves out of the way,” seems crucial to art appreciation and, subsequently, a good review. There’s a sense in which we must submit to the story before we can rightly critique it; we must approach a piece first, not as a judge, but as an open-minded observer. A child, if you would. In fact, Lewis suggests that the worse thing we can do to a young reader is to force them to “keep expressing their opinions.” He describes this as “especially poisonous.”
Of course, this grates against many current academic trends. For instance, deconstructionism, as it concerns literary criticism, asserts that before we can fully interpret a piece we must recognize certain preconceptions, understand the author’s “filter.” We can’t “get” Huck Finn until we understand Twain’s culture and politics. We can’t appreciate The Lord of the Rings until we grasp Tolkien’s Catholicism and his experience in the British Army. Yet, while understanding an author’s worldview and cultural milieu may illuminate aspects of her story, that approach ultimately militates against Lewis’ concept of submitting to the story. In other words, we must become more adult in order to “get” the story. This, according to Lewis, is poisonous.
But there’s another problem. Understanding the “rules” or nuances of a given medium are essential to appreciating that medium. It’s as we understand language and grammar, pacing and character development, that we can best appreciate a story. Studying musical theory can make one value the great composers. Learning about cinematography and camera work has not detracted from my love of film. In fact, it’s made it grow. But does this too fly in the face of Lewis’ assertion?
Perhaps, as Lewis says, we should not approach art, first, as a critic. Children need to read Narnia without the baggage of their parents’ “interpretations.” Nevertheless, weighing those interpretations and appreciating the critical elements of art, can be a crucial element to its enjoyment. All of which makes me wonder — Does art critique have to be an obstacle to art enjoyment?
Either way, it’s still a dance between seeing through the eyes of a child or an adult. In some ways, it’s impossible to rightly critique a piece without surrendering to it. Being overly critical can keep us from appreciating a film or book. But being un-critical makes us gullible to all kinds of propaganda, and leads to the proliferation of mediocrity. And bad movies.
Reviewing like a kid means putting aside the critical elements — not ignoring them, just getting them out of the way long enough to resist “suspicion.”
Still, the more our “review culture” encourages people to “keep expressing their opinions,” there will be no shortage of reviewers who are too big for their britches.