As I write this I am listening to Unity Band, an instrumental jazz album which secured Pat Metheny his twentieth Grammy win. My boyfriend, Chris, took me to a Pat Metheny concert once. Chris was excited about the performance so I was too. I liked the albums Chris played in the car; I used to run a café that hosted a Sunday jazz brunch; I’ve been using jazz to help me write for almost a decade. I thought I liked jazz.
I do not like jazz. I like the ambiance of jazz when I am doing other things like going on road trips, making pancakes, and writing. The three hour—yes! three hour—performance by the Pat Metheny Unity Group was the most painfully boring three hours of my life. It was worse than my eleventh grade AP European history textbook.
But this was my problem. Even while I was struggling not to claw my eyes out, I recognized that the Unity Group was talented—that they were doing interesting, even amazing things with their instruments. I played the French horn for almost ten years and could, on a technical level, understand that this was great jazz. I could also understand that throwing myself off of the balcony would be a cruel thing to do to the innocent jazz enthusiasts below.
All art is subjective. That doesn’t mean that all art is good. That doesn’t mean that your personal taste is the same as good taste. It gets all soggy when we try to define things like “good” and “taste” and “art.” Which is why we have critics. Along with the academics and the public, the critics top the unholy trinity of cultural gatekeepers. Sometimes they’re right, more often they’re misguided, and only a fool would base their consumptive habits solely on the word of the critics.
But that’s not exactly true. When I look up movies on aggregate sites like Metacritic, I usually side with the critics. If a film receives above a 90% score, I agree it’s a great film. And if a movie receives below a 10% score, I agree that it’s a stinker. But when it comes to the films in the middle, the 11%-89% movies, I sometimes aggressively disagree with the critics. There’s my personal taste and subjectivity at play.
I’ve read a migraine’s worth of articles about literature from critics across the English-speaking world. Every month there’s some new piece warning us that literature is dying or already dead (and it’s usually published in The Guardian). With the rise of adolescent fiction as a marketable genre, we’ve seen a rise in controversial articles disparaging the books being written for teenagers and the adults who unabashedly enjoy those books. We’ve seen critics passionately decry the state of modern criticism and we’ve seen other critics fervently accuse those first critics of mental deficiency. What a headache!
Here I am, facing the blank page every day. As you’ve already seen from my discussion of inspiration, I tend to think of myself not as an agent of creativity, but as a medium. I may only have the luxury of feeling this way because my career is in its infancy, but I don’t much care about what the critics say or think when I sit down to write. While Pat Metheny’s Unity Band received rave reviews and accolades, I refuse to think that’s why Metheny makes music. I saw the joy on his face as he plucked that funky, 42-string, Pikasso guitar. He was in the moment, creating, and loving it.
Critics exist to tease out the intricacies of modern literature. Or they’re there to tell us what to think. Or maybe they’re just put here by a cranky, vindictive god to eternally frustrate me. Search me. It’s fun sometimes to get wound up by a critic’s furious words. But ultimately the creation of art is entirely separate from the criticism of it. As Charles Baxter says, “Literature is not an instruction manual.” It would do the critics’ blood pressure well to remember that.