“How do you get to be a critic?” It’s a question anyone who writes about any art form gets from time to time. At RogerEbert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz has 10 pieces of “Advice to young critics,” focused more on being a good critic than being a successful one. (For every critic, there’s a different story about how to get into the industry, and since the industry today is not what it will be tomorrow, the only real answer is to keep throwing stuff out until something sticks.) I don’t have much quarrel with his suggestions, which are:
1. Watch a lot of TV and movies.
2. Learn about TV and film history beyond your date of birth.
3. Write for at least two hours every day, even if you don’t publish what you write.
4. If you have a good idea or observation, write it down immediately.
5. Always make your editor’s life easier, not harder.
6. Read about history and psychology.
7. Avoid rhetorical echo chambers.
8. Write just a little bit about the filmmaking.
9. Just write, damn it.
10. Be the best you that you can be.
(Click through for his explanations, of course.)
But since every writer’s list is bound to be different, here are some of my own (a few of which, I’ll admit, are just Seitz’s rephrased in the way I like to think of them).
Don’t quit your day job. Ask most working critics what advice they’d give to a young aspirant, and as often as not you’ll get a variation on “Do something else.” It’s gallows humor, mostly, from the bowels of an industry where if you’re lucky enough to have a job you have little guarantee of keeping it, and if you do you’ll end up buying drinks on a regular basis for friends who’ve just lost theirs. But it also reflects the fact that writing is hard, and making a living at it is harder, and trying to do both at once can be almost impossible. As a young writer, it’s good to be flexible, even hungry (although if you see that word in a job description, RUN); you may end up loving a kind of piece you’d never have thought to write yourself. But you don’t want to end up churning out uninspired piecework to pay the rent because it seems more “pure” than balancing writing with a more traditional (read: easier) career. Some of the best writers I know have so-called “day jobs,” and others copy edit manuscripts or fine-tune grant proposals on the side. The goal should be to do good work, not scrape out a living being mediocre.
Being “clean” is more important than being good. The best writers are both, but in the long run, editors (and I include myself) will take writers who are pleasant to work with over difficult divas every time. Those people who seem to be published everywhere even though their writing’s so-so at best? You can bet they don’t miss deadlines or file copy that’s full of typos. I’ve been amazed at the number of times in my career I’ve been praised for turning in pieces that are more or less ready for print, which seems like the equivalent of when actors praise their peers for always being on time and knowing their lines. It shouldn’t be a compliment, but apparently it is.
Know your art form, not just the one you write about. In order to get published, you need to know the state of your medium: What a given publication runs and what they don’t, and so on. But in order to be good (let’s leave “great” out of it for now), you need to know what’s already happened, and not just what’s happening now. The great writers I know can speak as passionately about James Agee or Otis Ferguson as they can about David Denby or Armond White. It’s very hard to write better than what you read, so read the best as often as you can.
Have a life. Watch as much as you can, and read as much as you can, and write as much as you can, and then stop: Take your significant other out to dinner, and talk about anything but movies; hang out with friends who don’t know Siegfried Kracauer from Cap’n Crunch; take a walk around the block, at least. Great artists take their inspirations not just from their forerunners or their peers but the world around them, and they tell stories and make pictures for the purposes of showing us how they understand that world. In order to understand how art intersects with life, you have to have a life to begin with.