Tuesday, July 18, 2006

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So you want to be a critic....

Within every blogger (and commentor) lurks someone who yearns to be a paid critic. There are perils to this profession, however -- though the peril depends on the subject matter of the criticism.

In The New Republic, Ruth Franklin points out the difficulty of penning a pan:

[I]f "nice reviewing" has attracted few explicit defenders, a number of today's critics nonetheless seem to share a tacit understanding that it is somehow indecorous--what used to be called bad form--to come out and say that a book is bad. Peck's critics generally lambasted him not for the substance of his judgments, but for his unwillingness to play by what they determined to be the rules. "If you're going to be in it for the big run, you have to act responsibly," intoned Sven Birkerts, whom [Dale] Peck had criticized precisely for his tendency to be overly generous in his criticism. (Birkerts did not elaborate on what he meant by this, but presumably, if you're "in it for the big run," whatever that means, you will inevitably run into some of your subjects at cocktail parties--or, worse, they will someday review your books.) John Leonard, in a scalding review of Hatchet Jobs, Peck's collected essays, in The New York Times Book Review, laid out his own idea of literary etiquette in these guidelines for "responsible reviewing": "First ... do no harm. Second, never stoop to score a point or bite an ankle. Third, always understand that in this symbiosis, you are the parasite."

Leonard has never been able to abide by these rules himself. What critic could? And so his review of Hatchet Jobs is typically full of gleeful jibes and personal attacks. He concluded it with the following story:

Many years ago the editor of this publication asked me to review John Cheever's last, brief novel, "Oh What a Paradise It Seems," after he had already been turned down by half a dozen critics who knew that Cheever was dying but thought his new book a weak one and didn't want to compromise their supreme importance with a random act of kindness. It never occurred to me that a thank-you note to a wonderful writer, a valediction as it were, would get me kicked out of any club that I wanted to belong to, so I immediately said yes. At the time, besides that review, I wanted to write a message to those preening scribblers who thought they were too good for lesser Cheever. On a card, in small caps, I would have said what I say to Peck: get over yourself.
This self-aggrandizing little anecdote nicely illustrates the hypocrisy of "nice reviewing." The Cheever review with which Leonard is so pleased was actually a masterpiece of obfuscating generalities and flaccid platitudes that are immediately transparent to anyone with half a talent for reading between the lines. Such studies in opacity are hardly unusual. Just look at Robert Stone's recent notes--I can hardly call the piece a review, since it coyly refused to offer any assessment at all--on John Updike's turgid new novel, also in the Times Book Review. The theory behind Stone's affectation of neutrality was articulated in his interview with the editors, presented on the Book Review's inside front cover, in which he remarked that "the vocabulary of dismissal is something we've seen too many times. We don't need another exercise in that."

I doubt that the "preening scribblers" Leonard derides thought they were "too good" to review Cheever. I suspect, rather, that they were trying to show that, Orwell's pessimism notwithstanding, it is not impossible to review novels for a living without committing the sin of pretending that a bad book is a good book. For the reviewer's obligation is neither to the reader nor to the author, but to himself--and it is wrong to compromise one's integrity even for the sake of generosity. Who is served by Leonard's and Stone's dull and unconvincing pieties? Not the reader, who, if he is so naďve as to take them seriously and actually read the recommended book, will surely be disappointed. Not the publishing industry, since, as Orwell pointed out, if readers are disappointed in novels often enough, they will stop buying them altogether. And certainly not the author, who must be canny enough to deduce the truth himself--or, in the case of Cheever, is subjected to posthumous humiliation at Leonard's supposedly noble hands. If these are the rules we are supposed to play by, I'm with Dale Peck.

On the other hand, if book critics fear being too harsh in their assessments, A.O. Scott points out in today's New York Times that there is a bigger fear for movie critics -- being irrelevant:
“Dead Man’s Chest” [is] a fascinating sequel — not to “Curse of the Black Pearl,” which inaugurated the franchise three years ago, but to “The Da Vinci Code.” Way back in the early days of the Hollywood summer — the third week in May, to be precise — America’s finest critics trooped into screening rooms in Cannes, Los Angeles, New York and points between, saw Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s best seller, and emerged in a fit of collective grouchiness. The movie promptly pocketed some of the biggest opening-weekend grosses in the history of its studio, Sony.

For the second time this summer, then, my colleagues and I must face a frequently — and not always politely — asked question: What is wrong with you people? I will, for now, suppress the impulse to turn the question on the moviegoing public, which persists in paying good money to see bad movies that I see free. I don’t for a minute believe that financial success contradicts negative critical judgment; $500 million from now, “Dead Man’s Chest” will still be, in my estimation, occasionally amusing, frequently tedious and entirely too long. But the discrepancy between what critics think and how the public behaves is of perennial interest because it throws into relief some basic questions about taste, economics and the nature of popular entertainment, as well as the more vexing issue of what, exactly, critics are for....

Are we out of touch with the audience? Why do we go sniffing after art where everyone else is looking for fun, and spoiling everybody’s fun when it doesn’t live up to our notion or art? What gives us the right to yell “bomb” outside a crowded theater? Variations on these questions arrive regularly in our e-mail in-boxes, and also constitute a major theme in the comments sections of film blogs and Web sites. Online, everyone is a critic, which is as it should be: professional prerogatives aside, a critic is really just anyone who thinks out loud about something he or she cares about, and gets into arguments with fellow enthusiasts. But it would be silly to pretend that those professional prerogatives don’t exist, and that they don’t foster a degree of resentment. Entitled elites, self-regarding experts, bearers of intellectual or institutional authority, misfits who get to see a movie before anybody else and then take it upon themselves to give away the ending: such people are easy targets of populist anger. Just who do we think we are?

UPDATE: Of course, there are worse killjoys than being a critic -- try the academy for that.

posted by Dan on 07.18.06 at 11:08 AM


There is a general problem that is called "movie critic's disease" in my household. It comes from having a much higher and more intensive level of exposure to something than does the general public. If you see ten movies a week and have to write reviews, basic notions of diminishing marginal utility suggest that you will value novelty and nuance in a film compared to someone who watches one movie a week. Hence you will go gaga for art films and won't be impressed by a good car chase or fight scene.

Similarly, it's my impression that musicians and critics are more favorably disposed to jazz, on average, than are civilians. This is because jazz often breaks out of standard expectations about time, melody, form, etc. relative to pop and rock genres, and so provides novelty and nuance for jaded listeners. I'm pretty sure the same thing goes for poetry and fashion, too--stuff that's weirder or more subtle or harder to understand will appeal to the over-exposed critic more than something "classic" that's closer to what's been done before.

The problem is that quality and novelty of this kind are likely to be imperfectly correlated, no matter what you mean by quality--popular appeal, Aristotle's poetics, fomenting class struggle--so that jaded critics may be uniquely unsuited guides to what is "best" in their domain.

posted by: srp on 07.18.06 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

Just because a popular movie gets bad press doesn't mean the critics have diminishing marginal utility. I do not believe that most critics are overly swayed by novelty in judging *every* type of movie. I see on average eight films a week and I judge them according to the genre. Simply put, if it is a horror movie, did it scare me? If it is a comedy, did I laugh? If it is an art-house movie, did it provoke me? I don't demand pioneering film-making from, say, a Wayans Brothers movie. That would be absurd. So, for the summer blockbuster, I simply ask, was I entertained? Did I get swept up in the swash and the buckle? Did I feel like an over-excited kid? Now, Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and Superman Returns bored me to tears. I don't think that's because I am being elitist or dismissive of a tried and tested formula. They were just too long, narratively weak, and cannot compare to the glory of say, Raiders of the Lost Ark or even Pirates 1. I am as happy to see a movie with fast cars, beautiful people and cool stunts as the next guy...but even trash can be high quality!

posted by: bina on 07.18.06 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

Hows Tufts?

Eat at soundbites yet?

posted by: JG on 07.18.06 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

Maybe this seems too counter-intuitive, but just a movie is "popular" doesn't mean people actually like it or think it has artistic merit. Da Vinci Code being an excellent case in point. People who loved the book felt compelled to see it, other people wanted to be part of the event or the water-cooler talk. Now how many of those people really loved the film? How many of them have a desire to see it again? Will the critics who panned DaVinci code look smart in 20 years? I bet they will. Critics who panned "Shawshank Redemption" clearly missed something that the mainstream audience found, I'm not sure that's true when you're talking about big budget "events" like Da Vinci Code or Pirates. If Scott thinks his job is to tell what movies to see on a given week-end he's way off-base, I think his real job is to provide viewers with some critical benchmarks they can use to make up their own minds.

posted by: vanya_6724 on 07.18.06 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

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