Everyone’s a critic now

A refusal to heed the advice of highbrow cultural critics is nothing new. But when the public can quickly share their own – different – views on Twitter, Facebook, myDigg and other social media, is criticism dead?

Neal Gabler, The Observer 

Boardwalk Empire - filmstill Boardwalk Empire received universal critical acclaim, but after opening strongly viewing figures rapidly declined. Photograph: CAP/FB/Supplied by Capital Pictures

Late last year there was a confluence of critical opinion in America the likes of which the nation hadn’t seen in years. Every single film critic in the traditional media – 350 "best" lists, the ads boast – seemed to anoint The Social Network, director David Fincher’s semi-fictionalised account of the founding of Facebook, as the movie of the year, maybe even of the decade. Every single literary critic in the traditional media seemed to agree that Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom, his saga of a dysfunctional American family, was the novel of the epoch. And just to make it three for three, just about every television critic in the traditional media seemed to genuflect before Martin Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire, an HBO series that depicts the depredations of a mob kingpin in Atlantic City during Prohibition.

This is an extraordinary bounty of greatness in such a short time, though what is really extraordinary is the extent to which critics seemed almost to collude in issuing their superlatives. Could it be they were joining forces to assert their authority at a time when that cultural authority is under siege?

There is, of course, nothing terribly novel about a critical consensus. In America nowadays, critics usually travel in packs, afraid to stray lest they be left wandering by their lonesomes outside the conventional wisdom. What is novel is the vehemence of this consensus, the insistence that these things were not just good but somehow the very best, and the way in which this consensus immediately entered the larger culture. There was a period of a month or so late last summer and early autumn when The Social Network, Freedom and Boardwalk Empire were so ubiquitous that you could scarcely pick up a newspaper or magazine, watch a TV show or listen to a radio show without reading or hearing about them. Even President Obama had a copy of Freedom tucked under his arm to take on vacation.

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