Over the years, the definition of what is a critic and what is a reviewer have come to be identical. Even the majority of modern English language usage dictionaries reflect this opinion by using one to define the other: a critic is someone who write reviews, and a review is something written by a critic.
While it’s true that more and more often there is little distinction to be made between the two in the way they are applied in most instances (newspapers, online blogs, magazines, television, and other venues of pop media), it does not mean there is no distinction. It’s only because of the need to supply the users of the dominant popular culture with easily comprehensive opinions (good/not good; pretty/not pretty; or even evil/not evil) that the concept of what we call a review has even come about.
In the Chicago Manual Style’s Online Etymology Dictionary, historian Douglas Harper has written histories of the words, “critic” and “review,” that offer some interesting distinctions.
“Critic” has only been in use since 1583 and was derived from the Greek word ‘kritikos,” meaning “able to make judgments,” and a second Greek word “krinein,” meaning “to separate, decide.” “Critical,” in the sense of “finding fault with something,” didn’t come into use for another seven years.
“Review,” according to Mr. Harper at the same source, has been around for quite a bit longer – since 1441. It was derived from the middle French (as opposed to Old French or modern) word “reveue,” meaning ” a reviewing, review,” and the combination of two Latin words “re,” meaning “again,” and “videre,” “to see,” forming the French “reveeir,” meaning “to see again.”
If we look at some of the ways we still use the word “review” (reviewing the troops, to take matters under review, or to review the facts in a case), we can see the connection to its origins. However, in terms of reviewing a book, play, or film, all it means is to go over again what happened. Unlike “critic,” there is no implication of making a judgment on the item under review or reaching a decision.
Let’s return to the modern day. If we were to look at a typical review, what we are usually offered is primarily a revisiting of the events with a judgment based on those events. How well have the actors performed their roles, or how well has the author created his plot and other information pertinent to the item’s presentation are reviewed and judged in terms of a standard based on contemporary expectations and demands.
The critical element of the process is reserved solely for saying how well an item has lived up to a pre-agreed-upon standard the reviewer uses as a benchmark against which to measure performance. This standard is of course subject to change, dependent on the whim of fashion and the savvy of marketing departments, rendering it almost completely arbitrary and limited as a basis for judgment.
A critic, on the other hand, will spend less time reviewing content and more time placing the item in context with works of a similar nature so there is a basis of comparison for judgment. There is no point in judging a detective novel by the same standards that you would judge a book of poetry, or a Country music CD by those you’d use for an opera. Each of these has their own set of criteria that has been established by precedent over the years, and it is the critic’s job to understand enough about a genre to judge how well an individual piece fits within it.
This is even more important when dealing with pieces that are experimental in nature. A critic has to be able to understand not only what is being attempted, but also how well the attempt succeeds based on the norm that is being broken. A critic has to be able to inform his or her audience about any information that is pertinent to the item being critiqued.
With the development of a popular culture and a corresponding popular press to report on it, a means of validating the work through some system of assessment was required. Since there was no body of work to use as a history for basis of comparison, and fashions in pop culture change too quickly for that ever to be feasible for more than a small percentage of its output, the current system was developed.
Although pop culture has now been around a sufficient time for some forms, Jazz and Blues for instance, to evolve to the point where there is now plenty of history to draw upon, it hasn’t changed the majority approach. The occasional specialist magazine or web site will have a critic who will take the time to inform their audience, but they are the exception and not the rule.
While there is no doubt the review format is by far the more popular of the two currently, if one genuinely wishes to inform a reader of more then just his/her personal opinion, being a critic is the way to go. Although the distinction between the two formats is hardly ever made any more, the difference is obvious.