Death of the critic? Tim Sherwin thinks not.At the end of 2006, readers of Time Magazine were presented with a metallic, mirrored surface under the headline ‘Time Person the Year 2006.’ It transpired that the winner was ‘You!!’ The move was met with a mixture of delight and contempt; a huge debate was sparked across the States about the title that had in the past been held by the Queen (1952), two popes (1962, 1994), and Mahatma Gandhi (1930). Some thought their decision represented the increasingly potent means of expression and influence ordinary people are gaining in the computer era. Others just thought it was tacky.Tacky or not, accurate or not, the choice highlights a current crisis in the world of criticism. The internet is heralded as the ultimate democratic medium. There are thousands of web sites on which it is not only possible to read dozens of different opinions of books, films, music etc, but through which it is supremely easy to add your own voice to the debate. When we decide to see a film, we no longer have to resort to the newspaper to discover information. We certainly don’t have to resort to a hefty encyclopaedia to enlighten us about general knowledge – and last minute tute queries. The information is already out there, easily accessible. Evidence even shows that the average margin for error on Wikipedia is only slightly higher than in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, since its rigorous programme of self-editing has rectified many of its teething problems. As the internet becomes a more acceptable medium to more people, critics – amateurs with laptops – are taking over from ‘Critics’ – professionals with notepad and pen. So these Critics, with a capital ‘C’, must be dead, or at least dying.But that is far from the case. Every major newspaper, every major magazine has its store of professional Critics, whether they are analysing books, movies, TV, or any other cultural phenomenon. Indeed when James Wood, a highly respected and feared literary Critic, moved from The New Republic to The New Yorker earlier this year, he seized the headlines. He is kingmaker in the American literary world: a big fish in a big pond. And what he says makes waves. The ability of any Critic to seize such publicity is revealing in itself. Yet the case of Wood doesn’t highlight the position of the Critic, so much as reinforce something we are continually told about our era. It is the era of celebrity.Successful criticism seems to come mainly from famous Critics and writers. In this sphere, as in any other, big names sell. Thus we find publications on criticism from Orhan Pamuk (Other Colours), who has recently cashed in on the fame from his Nobel prize and the controversy surrounding his being charged with insulting the nation of Turkey. V.S. Naipaul’s recent work A Writer’s People, an acerbic and highly opinionated deconstruction of the books that shaped him as an author, was guaranteed success with his huge fanbase. The same is true of the American John Updike, a critic and novelist who churns out books at an alarming rate, and his latest work of general criticism, Due Considerations. What all these works have in common is the fame of the author, and the breadth of their scope. Rather than focusing on a single work or genre, they aim to criticise widely. To give us an impression, not only of what the author is deconstructing, but of the author himself. By getting to know about our top authors’ and thinkers’ opinions on diverse topics, we feel we are getting to know about them. They are a glorified form of autobiography. They appeal to our desire to know more about these great names, but coyly, through their favourite works of art: the heavy-weight equivalent of the celebrity exposé. So to find true criticism we may need to look beyond what Naipaul read growing up in Trinidad, or what Clapton listened to the first time he got high, and delve into the back sections of newspapers and magazines. The culture section, in fact. How self-referential.What we find here is the same in miniature. We recognise fewer of the names, although Critics like A.S. Byatt do crop up from time to time, but the focus on the self, on the Critic, remains. Considering the power they wield concerning the success or failure of a new play or album, much of what is written tells us more about the reviewer than about what is reviewed. ‘I thought’, ‘I noticed’, ‘How I reacted’. The reviewers in print media more often than not follow the patterns set by more glorified authors. That is, after all, what most of them want to become. Big names. So maybe the democratic, or at least technocratic, vision of internet criticism is safer and more accurate, as well as cheaper and more accessible. It is very often the case in newspapers and magazines that the ego of the Critic overwhelms the criticism.But here we see the failure of internet criticism too. It is true that there is a certain amount of democracy. Anyone, actually anyone – and there are some crazy opinions out there – can add to the debate. And shape it too, as we famously saw with Snakes on a Plane, and the publicity hype surrounding Cloverfield. In both these films the producers decided, rather than to create something and see how people react, to find out what was wanted, and make that. The Critics, in the case of Snakes on a Plane, weren’t impressed, perhaps feeling that their territory was being encroached upon, but the critics, who had helped shape the finished product, were delighted. And they came out to support their baby in droves. But the reason that people write on these websites, that people want to become critics, is the same as that of their more dignified brethren. They think their opinion matters. We all do. We all want somebody to read what we are writing, care, and have their own thoughts and opinions modified. The only difference, with the increasing globalisation of media, is that more people can do it, and we can’t always know with what authority they are speaking. That is the danger, and the promise, of the technological age.In his Nobel Lecture, the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky said that reading is ‘the conversation of a writer with a reader, a conversation, I repeat, that is very private, excluding all others – if you will, mutually misanthropic.’ The same may be said of any cultural enterprise. Even in a theatre or cinema, surrounded by people, or on the dance floor at a gig, buffetted by sweaty fans, the final result, the ultimate communion, can only exist between you and the play, the film, the music. And the only way someone can change your mind is to present their own feelings and impressions of the same experience – their own internal, ‘mutually misanthropic’ communion – and try and affect what you think. In this way art, any art, is at once an intensely misanthropic enterprise, one which requires beyond anything a ‘self’, and a supremely humane enterprise, in which you not only connect with the author, screenwriter, or musician, but everyone who has ever engaged with the same piece of art, and everyone who ever will.From this impulse, then, stems the desire to become a critic. This combination of self-obsession, that there is only really you and the object of your criticism, and of the desire to connect with other people, to spread your views and help underline the merits and failings of what you are talking about, is the spark that lights the fire under any aspiring Critic, or critic. All the internet has done is to allow more people to do this more often. It hasn’t fundamentally changed the nature of the game, from the scholarly disputes over Virgil in the first century AD to the café-house debates and rise of literary magazines in 18th Century London salons. We still want to read critics. And we often turn back to the ones we know and recognise, from magazines we read and books we love. The internet has widened the pool from which we can draw, but our love of familiarity, and our need to connect and debate the arts which we care about, means that critics, and Critics, will never die.