Photo by Leah Newhouse on Pexels.

I started reading this interview this morning, between Anne Helen Peterson and Betsy Gaines Quammen. I still haven’t finished reading, despite being utterly fascinated, but even before I got to the guts of the interview, I was struck by a thought:

In the algorithmised world, the creator is the critic.

This thought is not necessarily happening in isolation; I’ve been thinking about ‘algorithmic culture’ for a couple of years, trying to order these thoughts into academic writing, or even creative writing. But this thought feels like a step in the right direction, even if I’ve no idea what the final output should or will be. Let’s scribble out some notes…

If there’s someone whose work we enjoy, they’ll probably have an online presence — a blog or social media feed we can follow — where they’ll share what they like.

It’s an organic kind of culture — but it’s one where the art and vocation of the critic continues to be minimised.

This — and associated phenomena — is the subject of a whole bunch of recent and upcoming books (including this one, which is at the top of my to-read pile for the next month): a kind of culture where the all-powerful algorithm becomes the sole arbiter of taste, but I also think there is pressure on creatives to be their own kind of critical and cultural hub.

On the inverse, what we may traditionally have called critics — so modern-day social media commentators, influencers, your Booktubers or Booktokkers, your video essayists and their ilk — now also feel pressure to create. This pressure will come from their followers and acolytes, but also from random people who encounter them online, who will say something like “if you know so much why don’t you just do it yourself” etc etc…

Some critics will leap at the opportunity and they absolutely should — we are hearing from diverse voices that wouldn’t otherwise have thought to try.

But some should leave the creation to others — not because they’re not worth hearing from, they absolutely are — but because their value, their creativity, their strength, lies in how they shape language, images, metaphor, around the work of others. They don’t realise — as I didn’t for a long time — that being a critic is a vocation, a life’s work, a real skill. Look at any longer-form piece in the London Review of Books or The New Inquiry and it becomes very clear how valuable this work is.

I’ve always loved the term critic, particularly cultural critic, or commentator, or essayist… they always seemed like wonderful archaic terms that don’t belong in the modern, fragmented, divided, confused world. But to call oneself a critic or essayist, to own that, and only that, is to defy the norms of culture; to refuse the ‘pillars’ of novel, film, press/journalism, and to stand to one side, giving much-needed perspective to how these archaic forms define, reflect, and challenge society.

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