Critic John Simon visits Hunter
Alden Burke—Staff Writer
It is easy to assume that a celebrated critic like John Simon, a man who has granted some fame and others great misfortune, would consider English his native tongue. Born in Yugoslavia in 1925, Simon speaks a multitude of languages, with English being one of the languages that he learned as a young child. With his love for language and his Ph.D. from Harvard, Simon is one of the most well-known critics of the day.
As the 86-year-old greeted the crowd in the Faculty Dining Room at Hunter College, the audience, consisting mostly of people in their fifties and older, set aside their cookies and coffee to give him a warm welcome. Before starting his 45-minute lecture, Simon apologized for forgetting his notes, which he said included “yummy quotes that were obscure.”
Regardless, Simon started off by sharing a piece of advice that he so dutifully lives by: “to reach one’s goal, one has to go beyond.” As a critic, he finds that people don’t always read carefully—they skim through pieces, picking up only what they want and twisting comments to suit their own needs. To avoid this as much as possible, Simon believes it is of the utmost importance to present ideas strongly. When he is making a point, Simon believes he must back it up as if it were the most vital argument he has ever made, because if he doesn’t believe what he is saying, why would anyone else? Even when readers don’t necessarily agree with him on the point he is making, Simon says, “What the hell: as long as it registers, it’s good.”
Simon has dabbled in music reviews, and he is proficient in writing film and book reviews, but he is best known for his critiques on theater. He’s written for Esquire, The Hudson Review, The New York Times Book Reviewand was a film and theater critic for New York magazine for thirty-six years. While he remains well-respected, Simon is also notorious for his contentious style. Although it is necessary for critics to be honest in their reviews, some feel that Simon goes too far, judging actors on their physical appearance more than on their talent.
Contrary to the opinion that Simon relishes negative evaluation, he claimed that writing a bad review is difficult. Perhaps it’s because more attention is paid to harsh scrutiny than praise, especially when people feel it is unwarranted, but Simon says he never takes joy in putting people down, and that he believes there are only so many ways to say something is bad. As a critic taking on different topics for each review, he says it is imperative to keep pieces fresh and interesting.
In order to keep his writings from sounding repetitive and stagnant, Simon retains a strong grasp on language. He shared two things he firmly believes in: what one reads as a child has a heavy impact on one’s writing style, and prose writers should write poetry at some point in their lives. Regarding the first, Simon told of how he constantly read as a child, paying special attention to German and Yugoslavian poets. This would later lead to a phase in his life in which he translated poems to any one of the many languages he knew, which he felt helped him greatly as a writer. Simon also said poetry is incredibly important, for it allows the writer to not only play around with structure and grammar, but also pay careful attention to words.
As a critic, one has to capture a first-hand experience and translate it into words so that those who aren’t exposed to the work can gain an understanding of its true essence. Although it is nearly impossible to truly portray a film, play or piece of music in a few paragraphs, it is the job of critics to do their best, which Simon has strived to do.