Critiquing the critics

Great piece in the April issue of Harper’s Magazine titled “Like This or Die” by Christian Lorentzen. He’s a critic taking aim at the soggy state of criticism, and his article is by turns scathing and amusing and devastating.

After noting that “clichés are pandemic” in newspaper book reviews, Lorentzen says “Endless lists of book recommendations blight the landscape with superlatives that are hard to believe.” (Guilty as charged: The New York Times and New York magazine.)

He goes on:

The basic imperatives of the review — analysis and evaluation — are being abandoned in favor of a nodding routine of recommendation. You might like this, you might like that. Let’s have a little chat with the author. What books do you keep on your bedside table? What’s your favorite TV show? Do you mind that we’re doing this friendly Q&A instead of reviewing your book? What if a generation of writers grew up with nobody to criticize them?”

His sentiments remind me of the youth-pandering boosterism of Vulture and the somewhat more adult slavering of Vanity Fair, to name two obvious culprits that more often than not elect fuzzy over fulmination. They are hardly alone in hailing mediocrities like Netflix’s “Bojack Horseman” and “Stranger Things,” floridly overpraised series that reveal a critical desperation to like stuff.

Being honest isn’t the same as being sadistic. “Negativity is part of the equation,” Lorentzen says, “because without it positivity is meaningless.”

More from the article, which can be read here:

What jars is the self-satisfaction expressed by people who should know better. Editors and critics belong to a profession with a duty of skepticism. Instead, we find a class of journalists drunk on the gush. In television, it takes the form of triumphalism: a junk medium has matured into respectability and its critics with it. In music, there is poptimism, a faith that whatever the marketplace sends to the top must be good.”

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The unhilarious “Bojack Horseman” — yet one example of a series overrated by TV critics desperate to cling onto something in the bleak crap-o-sphere.

Getting critical about critics

Good essay at Slate today titled “The Reviewer’s Fallacy,” which includes the subhead: “When critics aren’t critical enough.” When I read that line I let out a resounding if whispered Hallelujah!

The article, by the terrific Ben Yagoda (see his knockout book “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing”), discusses the rankling discrepancy between the opinions of professional critics and regular consumers of books, movies and music, and wonders why so many critics exalt so much art that just plain bites.

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“Critics,” Yagoda writes, “have been charged with being offenders of a few specific types:

  • Over-intellectual nitpickers who blame works for not being what they were never intended to be: the ‘Daddy’s-Home-2’-isn’t-Molière syndrome.
  • Soft touches who’re in the pockets of studios and record labels. Most egregiously, ‘quote sluts’ supposedly craft money notices for the express purpose of being featured in display ads.
  • Chummy logrollers — a perception heightened in the social media age. In a 2012 Slate piece called ‘Against Enthusiasm,’ Jacob Silverman wrote, ‘if you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan.’ ”

I know the types. I reviewed films at a major daily newspaper for 12 years, and, despite some very kind accolades, I wasn’t the most popular guy in town. To many readers, I was a naysayer, a contrarian, a hard-ass (and, yes, an asshole). To me, I was simply honest, discerning, discriminating. When you saw as many movies as I saw — about 10 a week — it gets easy to winnow the wheat from the chaff. Your crap-detectors become sharper, more attuned, and your patience for mediocrity and flat-out bilge shrivels and dies. You get tough. Compromise is the critic’s kryptonite.

“It can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap,” Yagoda quotes sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon as saying, promptly agreeing with him: “It’s inarguable that the majority of what comes down the pike, in any medium, is mediocre or worse.”

As a persnickety reader, finicky TV watcher and choosey filmgoer I emphatically concur with Sturgeon and Yagoda’s furrowed-brow attitude, which is one of frequent disappointment, confusion (people actually like this rot?) and exasperation. Being a Negative Nelly can be a lonely spot. For instance, I’m not crazy about the acclaimed series “Stranger Things.” The stance has made me few friends. I think even the dog is angry at me.

Critics, Yagoda argues, are often suckers. They “fall prey to a sort of hermeneutic Stockholm syndrome. They experience so much bad work that they get inured to it. They are so thankful for originality, or for a creator’s having good or arguably interesting intentions, or for technical proficiency, or for a something that’s crap but not crap in quite the usual way, that they give these things undue credit. You see this in reactions to Coen brothers films.”

Love that Coen brothers dig. Yagoda’s article is well worth a look — the link is in the opening graf of this entry — and includes trenchant quotes about softball criticism from George Orwell and Elizabeth Hardwick, who says — and  “Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns.”