Nathalie Petrowski: Quebec from a critic’s-eye view
For more than four decades, Nathalie Petrowski, BA 76, has been a staple of Quebec’s cultural landscape. As a journalist, critic, columnist, screenwriter and novelist — and occasional lightning rod — she has represented many things to many people.
Petrowski began her career in 1975 as a journalist, and sometime critic, at Le Journal de Montréal while still completing her degree in Communication Studies at Concordia. She quickly moved on to Le Devoir where she wrote for the culture section, before finally joining La Presse in 1992, where she “retired” a year ago (more on that below).
Petrowski has a handful of books and screenplays to her name, including the novel Maman Last Call, which she helped adapt into a Genie-nominated film.
The title of her recently published memoir, La critique n’a jamais tué personne (“criticism never killed anyone”; Éditions La Presse, 2019), is a tongue-in-cheek reference to her reputation as a fierce critic with a sharp wit — a reputation she admits is not entirely unearned.
We sat down with the multitasking, multi-talented and multi-opinionated Concordia alumna to get to the bottom of who, exactly, is Nathalie Petrowski?
Which of your many roles do you most identify with?
First and foremost, I’m a journalist. I’ve been a journalist for 40 years. It’s true that when I was a journalist, I did all sorts of other projects. I wrote screenplays, I wrote books, I wrote for a newspaper. I write — that’s what I do — I’m a journalist and writer. My mother was a cultural journalist at Radio-Canada and at some point in her career she quit writing to work in television and it was a painful experience for her. I told myself that no matter what, I would never stop writing. It is my foundation, my anchor, my raison d’être. I’m still a journalist because a journalist is a way of looking at the world and asking questions, so that hasn’t changed. I’m going to be a journalist until I die — even if I don’t have a place to write, I’m still going to be a journalist.
You are perhaps best known as a critic. What led you to this field?
Despite my mother’s career and my father’s — he worked for the NFB [National Film Board of Canada] — I fell into journalism by accident. But I fell into criticism quite naturally because it’s part of my personality. My parents are two people who are very opinionated and I grew up in a household where everybody was expressing a lot of opinions. So it was a natural thing to do, to criticize, to have an opinion, even if it was a little harsh.
You had a reputation as a fierce critic. Was it deserved?
Yes and no. It’s true I had a reputation for being a harsh critic and it followed me my entire career. I was 22 years old, a young woman and I came full of opinions — and I wrote with a certain style, so that hurts even more. I was very idealistic. I liked rock and roll and I didn’t like any of that other syrupy stuff. I didn’t make many friends and I made a lot of enemies.
So yes, I did write some harsh reviews, but I did so much more to defend, praise, celebrate and discover artists than I did to bring anyone down. So it’s a bit unfair to only retain the image of the mean critic.
Yes, it’s true that there were a few artists whose egos I offended, but what do you want me to say? As the title of my book says, criticism never killed anyone!