How does criticism affect popular culture?

Popularity is slippery, and shouldn't be confused with quality, says critic A.O. Scott.

A. O. SCOTT: Popularity is a great question; it's just an intriguing question. I think especially now in the kind of consumer capitalist culture where taste and sometimes quality is being measured in dollars and in numbers and in ratings and box office and all of that. And sometimes popularity is just taken to be sufficient kind of judgment. It's like well everybody liked that and that movie made a ton of money. Everybody loved that movie. And sometimes those movies that everybody loved actually turn out to be really good or I think they're really good. Sometimes they're not. But the popularity has a funny way of correcting or reversing itself. It's always fascinating to me how when I was a kid every single person it seemed bought this album, "Frampton Comes Alive". And it was like the biggest selling album. I mean I'm dating myself. I'm a very old person, but it was on vinyl. And then like five years later you could not give a copy of that—like no used record store would take your copy of that in trade and just bins were full of it. Everyone was just like, "What? No." And you see that with popular music; you see that with movies.

I mean a few years ago, Avatar made a billion dollars and everyone was going to see it. It even showed up on the critic's top 10 lists. It was just this frenzy about Avatar and now nobody talks about it. It's not even that people hate it, people just don't care about it. So popularity is a weird and fickle kind of index of things. So it's never identical to quality, although sometimes it coincides with it. And I've been particularly fascinated with how judgments change over time and how things that were very popular fall by the wayside, but also how the opposite happens. How movies or books or paintings or music or whatever that was ignored or mocked or rejected at its own moment resurfaces and comes to seem so wonderful and to have such great value. I mean I write a little bit in the book about "Moby Dick", which is just one of my favorite examples of this. Herman Melville was a best-selling author of nautical adventures and he wrote this big philosophically ambitious novel about a whaling voyage and the critics at the time basically rejected it and it was forgotten. He was forgotten. It completely vanished. By the end of the 19th-century there was one copy of it in a library somewhere that was in like the fishing section of the library. And now everyone who studies American literature reads it and it's sort of, by consensus, one of the great masterpieces of the American literary imagination. How did that happen? What was the critical process?

And that is an example of what criticism is and how it works, both at its worst and its best that criticism it was critics who misjudged this book and cast it aside and said this is impossible; this is 800 pages of like philosophical gobbledygook and there's not really any great whale hunting in here until the very end and cast it aside. And then it was critics also who, so to speak, fished it up out of the deep, out of oblivion and put it back on everybody's shelf.

  • Popularity has a funny way of correcting or reversing itself, says journalist and film critic A.O. Scott. It's a weird and fickle index—never identical to quality, though it can coincide with it.
  • Movies like Avatar that are capitalist consumer hits can fade over time. Meanwhile works that were initially passed over can be dredged out of forgotten corners to glory many years later.
  • Moby Dick is an example of how critics can turn the tide of popularity, for better and for worse. First, critics dismissed Moby Dick and it was forgotten until a resurgence of interest by critics many years later. It's now a staple of American literature.

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