Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Everybody wants to be a critic

I remember when I started reading The Crimson White as a freshman, and how the first section I would always flip to would be the entertainment section to read reviews of the latest movies, games, CDs and books.

I dreamed that one day, it would be my turn to get paid to see amazing movies, like that “Watchmen” movie they were still trying to get the green light on or the “Transformers” sequel that could only benefit from borrowing plot elements from the 1980s animated movie. And, thanks to CW Editor Amanda Peterson, former Managing Editor Will Nevin, a team of excellent writers and everyone who read our work, my dream came true.

However, it wasn’t what I expected.

“Increase local arts and entertainment coverage and reduce the presence of reviews,” the job description said when I applied. I’ll admit I haven’t always done the best job of following the job description. There have been days when the only story we’ve had for arts & entertainment has been a lonely column or a pair of reviews.

More often, however, we A&E writers had weeks where just one film got reviewed, with the occasional game and CD, out of dozens of available releases. We spent the rest of the section covering events from Neil Gaiman at the Bama Theatre to the Homecoming concert that didn’t happen.

As much as I loved covering the big stories, the reduced focus on reviews felt strange at first. As the year went on, it made more sense to me. Here are two reasons why.

First, I began to consider that, with the advent of the Internet, the age of the professional critic might be over in a matter of years.

Think about the democratic system in our government, and how it trickles down to everything we do. When Neil Gaiman couldn’t decide whether his first reading at the Bama should be funny or creepy, for example, he asked us to vote by show of applause.

So, why would entertainment criticism remain an oligarchy? Review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic currently aggregate reviews from a select few.

We can’t be far, however, from an aggregator so accessible that millions vote on what the best in entertainment is. It wouldn’t be the best system, for reasons I’ll get to in my second point, but it seems a likely future to me. It’s already been said that “everybody’s a critic,” and I usually trust the reviews of people I know on Facebook more than I trust the pros. Isn’t that why you read The CW’s reviews — to hear from students just like you?

Secondly, let’s assume for a moment that the future I’ve described never comes, and professional criticism remains the way it is. Looking at film alone, Metacritic uses reviews from 25 newspapers and 21 other publications. Most of the rest of the country’s 1,408 newspapers (as of 2008 – surely it is an even smaller number now) don’t have the budget to hire a professional film critic, pulling their reviews from these few papers instead.

What separates those who make a living at criticism from the ones who don’t? Certainly, talent is important, but I think an equally important consideration is time.

The best critics sink days into getting to know the catalogue of the medium they review inside and out. They don’t mistake “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” for a great movie because they’ve seen infinitely better ones. They don’t gush about Ke$ha only to be told, “You don’t know who Vivian Girls are. Your argument is invalid.”

They have to build authority for themselves, or no one will trust their opinions. That’s a detail a million-“critic” aggregator would almost certainly miss.

I have known a few students who have found some of the time to cultivate this encyclopedic knowledge, but even those who came to The Crimson White mainly to review things have adapted to assignments where they had to report on local events. Why?

There are too few professional criticism jobs to break into the entertainment writing business using only criticism and columns. You need the reporter’s skill set to get your foot in the door. You may not even get to write entertainment stories at first. Even Roger Ebert began his career at the Chicago Sun-Times as a feature reporter for a year before he got to use the skills he built in college as a reviewer.

In that way, The Crimson White’s arts & entertainment section this year was intended to prepare its writers for the job marketplace. After I graduate, I won’t be surprised if this desk changes again, and that’s OK. Everybody wants to be a critic, and you shouldn’t doubt that you have it in you to join the pros.

Just be prepared, and be patient.

Steven Nalley is a senior majoring in English and the arts & entertainment editor of The Crimson White. He graduates in May.

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