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September 19, 2003

Criticism and Me

Friedrich --

A visitor writes to ask why I don't use this blog to do more criticism and reviewing. Well, she hints that she's interested. Kinda. In any case, I've decided to use her very sweet note as a taking-off point.

Major Self-Absorption Alert here; coming up are ruminations even the long-suffering Wife would have a hard time faking an interest in.

Anyway. One very good reason I don't use the blog to do criticism or write reviews is simple: the world doesn't need more critics or reviewers. What's the point in adding another opinion to a world already awash in them? I do know, by the way, that one reads critics and reviewers for other reasons too -- for their ideas and observations, their points of view, their personalities, their writing chops.

But my main reason is this: because I see writing reviews and doing criticism as a profession. I'd be happy to write reviews or criticism if someone were paying me enough money to make it worth my while. But no one's offering.

Between you and me, I've managed to get myself paid a few times for doing reviews and criticism. I didn't luvluvluv the experience, as some people seem to: lots of work and little money, and the thrill of seeing my opinions in print wasn't overwhelming. So I was never driven to pursue a professional post as a reviewer. And, yes, it's a field that, in some ways, is like many others: not untainted by politics, networking, positioning, egos, and even a little backstabbing.

Back in more naive days, I confess that I made the mistake of writing a fair number of essays and reviews "on spec" (ie., writing what I felt like, unsolicited) and sending the results around in hopes of getting them published. Gosh, I was just so good and smart that they'd have to publish me! I think one of those pieces managed to find its way into print. I worked on it for weeks, got paid 50 dollars, and felt lucky to get looked at by a few relatives. I was writing criticism as though it were poetry, and wound up getting read that way. The rest of my spec pieces, on which I worked just as hard, still sit in a file-cabinet drawer. Never again.

But why, why am I dwelling on the money? What about the art of it? Where's the love?

Well, I'm perfectly happy with the idea that criticism and reviewing are literary forms in their own right, if rather specialized ones. I enjoy reading critics and reviewers, and admire the good ones. I once asked the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami for his thoughts about critics and reviewers, and he said something I found interesting. First he took a very long Haruki-pause, then he said something like (his English was terrible): "Well, I think they're writing their own kind of literature, as I'm writing mine. The difference is that where I mostly use what I gather from life, they're using what they gather from art." To my mind, a wise way of viewing the field.

I question (for myself, anyway) whether it makes sense to do criticism for its own sake. What the whole issue boils down to for me is pleasure; doing criticism or writing reviews is one of the very last things I would ever, ever choose to do with my spare time. Woodworking, poetry, painting, dance, and even making Imovies all seem to me like plausible hobbies. Reviewing and criticism don't, though they're a nice way (if it works out for you) of making a living while being a writer.

Is reviewing really such a chore? And what's a critic's "job," anyway?

Depends. But it may well involve some or all of the following:

  • Covering a field -- ie., keeping up to date, knowing what's being buzzed about, keeping in contact with knowledegable people, seeing a fair amount of what's being done.
  • Being entertaining (critics are entertainers too).
  • The professional-writing basics: describing, evoking, analyzing, etc.
  • Wrestling your work through the publishing process: pitching, selling, deadlines, editing, copyediting ...
  • Establishing and maintaining a presence. Ie., provoking, opinionating, writing well ...
  • Acting as a consumer guide.
  • Acting as an artists' advocate.

There's more to it, of course, but that's enough for now. My point is that I can't see volunteering to do much of the above for free. Can you? Swapping viewing, reading, and listening tips? Sure. Having fun with writing and thinking? Yup. But the rest of it?

My least-favorite part of playing the reviewing-criticism game (to the very small extent that I ever did so) was "keeping up." I found it agonizing to be forever chasing around after what's happening now. As you've pointed out, one of the major pleasures of being involved in the arts is exploring not just the contemporary world but other times and cultures as well -- you can take part in conversations that occur across four dimensions. I found that "keeping up" cut into that pleasure dramatically.

So, as far as I'm concerned, it's a job. (Admittedly a much neater job than, say, working as a customer-service rep. But still.) Hey, an example. A friend who'd just landed a post as a pop music reviewer said to me: "Wow, free CDs! Cool! Of course, then you've actually got to listen to them." He lasted less than a year, done in finally by tedium and an unsympathetic editor.

I can see writing reviews for the love of it -- maybe at 16, crazy about rock and roll and Japanimation, and high on being able to use website software. Even so, most of the people I see online who are reviewing or doing criticism strike me as either rehearsing for a job or living in a fantasy world -- imagination and hope are playing big roles in their lives. Many people seem to enjoy daydreaming about being a critic or reviewer. Harmless, I guess, if strange to me, knowing as I do a bit about the actual field. But good for them, hope they're having fun, and hope things work out.

What is cultureblogging to me? (I did give a Major Self-Absorption Alert up above, didn't I?) A pleasing combo of things: an arts-going diary. Exchanging emails with a buddy. A way of meeting, conversing with, and comparing notes with interesting acquaintances, visitors, and friends. Above all, it's an amateur activity. And here's the question I wrestle with as an amateur: If I'm going to write about culture and the arts for no pay, and on my own beloved spare time, I'm going to have to do it in a way that makes the effort rewarding on its own terms. How to do so?

You'll notice (should anyone be paying attention, which I do not, repeat do not expect anyone to be doing) that even my most review-like postings aren't purely reviews. I deliberately mess 'em up a bit. I bring in oddball and personal stuff, or I frame what I've got to say with something outrageous, thoughtful, or provocative. (Or so I hope.) Why? Well, because I hope to give readers something different than what they'd find in the newspaper. But also because it keeps Unpaid Me active, happy and eager to blog again.

I don't know about you, but I find the flexibility and immediacy of blogging a godsend. The publishing process, so to speak, is a snap. The ease (and lack of editing, god knows) allows for whimsy, freewheelingness, carrying-on, ranting and mischief-making, as well as earnestness and sophistication -- blogging software is a great tool for an arts-gab hobbyist. It's open-ended and flexible; it'll do pretty much what you want it to do.

A big part of my life, like yours, consists of strolling through the cultural sphere; also I happen to enjoy musing out loud while I do so. That's a lot of what life in the arts-and-culture-and-media world is for me -- noticing connections, picking up signals, rhapsodizing, wondering about this 'n' that, giggling, mocking, as well as (occasionally) ranting, or driving home some point or other. I've got no proof for this, but I suspect that this is a decent description of what a life in the arts-culture-media worlds is like for many people, at least on a good day. Plus getting to compare notes -- what could be better? So I've chosen to make my blogging an extension of what the arts life already is for me.

Reviewing and criticism? Like I say, make me an offer.

Then, of course, there's Will Duquette (here) and his band of merry reviewers (Jane, Deb, Felicity -- hey, where's Felicity these days?), all of them evidently placed on earth to disprove all of the above. They're brainy, eager, clear-headed and good-natured, and they're doing it all for love -- in Will's case, even writing a novel for the pure pleasure of it. Good lord. Well, I'm hoping I can get away with using them as exceptions that prove a few of my rules.

Best, and eager to hear your ruminations on the blogging/reviewing/ criticism topic,


PS: Oops, my addled late-night brain failed to recall Tim Hulsey and his blog My Stupid Dog (here). Tim's a terrific writer and thinker about the arts, and -- good gosh -- he sometimes chooses to put his reflections and responses out there in the form of essays and reviews. I can't explain it, seems weird to me -- but there it is, and it's topflight. And why doesn't someone hire him to make professional use of these gifts?

posted by Michael at September 19, 2003


Heck, I always steered away from doing reviewing because you're so much better at it. But, like you, I also feel that the best blog posts are the products of original thought, as best as that can be managed given the constraints of time and, er, the amount of original thought I can actually produce. It's fine if a movie or a play or something else sets you off, but just reacting to one as an end in itself is a little too derivative, somehow. It's sort of like doing blog postings which are just extended quotes from really good books (that you didn't write)--dirty pool, somehow. I mean, that's how it seems to me, but no criticism intended of anyone else's practice. Blog on, dudes.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 19, 2003 06:17 PM

I've never done any reviewing so am entirely unqualified here. If it feels like "work"---by all means get paid! But as a consumer of reviews, I find that a lot of the most interesting ones are only ones that have meaning AFTER I've seen the work in question. Like, I never really found Pauline Kael's reviews useful in figuring out if I wanted to see a movie. I loved reading them afterward to help me sort out my thoughts about them. But in those days, there was no interacting with the reviewer, like you can on a blog, so it was quite solitary. There was no "comments" section. But BEFORE I see a work or movie, I find "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" to be as useful as a long thoughtful analysis.

Posted by: annette on September 19, 2003 06:34 PM


Hey, thanks for the kind words.

Your post brings something home to me--I'm not entirely sure myself why I write reviews. At first, I suppose it was an excuse to muck around with a website. There's still an element of that. I guess vanity plays a role, too; it's fun to think that people are reading what I'm writing. But that doesn't explain why I write reviews in particular.

I guess the answer is two-fold. First, I like the mental exercise of figuring out how best to express myself in words. Being goal-oriented rather than process-oriented, I can't just sit down and write; I need a topic. I'm constantly reading, so books give me a constant stream of topics. Second, I like to talk about what I've been reading. It's the sort of conversation I've always engaged in given the right company--but the right company isn't always available. (Jane's the right company, and she's always available--but as other parents will understand, conversation isn't always possible. :-) So in my reviewing, I'm really just engaging in a one-sided conversation with other interested parties.

And now that I've got MovableType, it's not quite as one-sided as it once was, which is very cool.

Posted by: Will Duquette on September 19, 2003 06:50 PM

Oh, regarding Felicity--I really don't know; she left a post on her blog last August 4th that she was paying a visit to Chicago, and she hasn't posted anything since. I really need to send her some e-mail when I get home.

Posted by: Will Duquette on September 19, 2003 06:53 PM

I like reviewing, but I don't think I could do it if I thought very many people would care to read it. I do quite a bit of reviewing on my own weblog, partly because I'm pretty certain no one will read it, and partly because it gives me a good excuse to write about something besides myself -- frankly, I don't like to talk about myself very much. Mostly, though, it's so I can figure out what I think about something. (Did I like it? Why or why not? I never really know until I write it down.)

Anyway, if you already have pretty clearly focused opinions on art and culture, you don't need to write reviews -- for yourself or for others.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on September 20, 2003 05:03 AM


Some interesting points. I also don't do much straightforward criticism/reviewing on my blog, because, well, I think I should get paid for it. Rather than reviewing stuff on my blog, I tend to write appreciations of stuff I like, recommend stuff I think other people would like, and complain about various crap that I've come across.

However, I have to say I've been extremely lucky, as far as my comics reviewing goes: I'm under no pressure to "cover the field" (my editor seems to appreciate that I'm out of the arts comics loop) and I have the freedom to choose what I want to write about. This allows me to concentrate on what I consider the "meat" of reviewing, which can be a lot of fun, but still feels like a job. (I still can't imagine doing this as my only job, even if I could afford to).

I really do like the job-aspect of reviewing though. It's nice to have the structure of a set topic and word count, and to know, more-or-less, who the audience is going to be. I still haven't gotten completely used to the more free-form style of blogging: I sometimes look over a post, wonder if it would make sense to anyone but me, and then, usually, say "aww, screw it", and post it anyway (it's my blog after all).

Regarding the Murakami quote, I think good critics gather as much from life as good artists. However, part of the critic's job is to make the role art plays in life explicit.


Posted by: J.W. on September 20, 2003 10:21 AM

Good criticism is hard to find. Outside of the movie reviews here and on other blogs, which are good because they're so personal, the only good reviewers imvho are Roger Ebert and Lisa Schwarzbaum. I've not found a book reviewer who is consistent, especially in today's pomo wasteland. (Aside: has anybody else noticed the trend in recent "serious" fiction where all or most of the characters are adulterers, and that cheating is kinda the new cool? What's up with that garbage?) Rock/pop criticism has always blown, and blown hard. Seems it attracts the majority of the weenies and the malcontents who don't like anything but their old scratchy vinyl copy of the second independent release that the band sold from the back of their van.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on September 20, 2003 12:29 PM

FvB -- Yeah, like you, I like personal responses to the arts, I like info about them, I like fresh thinking about them. And (like you) I don't see any need to frame any of that as reviews or essays. What's wrong with making interesting chitchat, for instance? Although good point: nothing wrong with framing it as essays or reviews either.

Annette -- That's a really good distinction you're making between reviews that are useful before making a decision and reviews that are more interesting and useful to read after seeing or reading or hearing something. I've never seen that pointed out before, thanks.

Will -- I think part of what I like so much about you and your squad is the openness and freshness. You're writing reviews, but you're exploring the world and telling each other about your explorations too. I wish more reviewing had that quality. I'm impressed that you use the writing to figure out your responses too. I've heard this from some other writers, yet find myself incapable of doing it myself. I seem to need a pretty clear sense of where I'm heading before turning to the dirty work of slinging words around. I've got no good way to justify this, and can explain it only as a function of my laziness ...

Tim -- Oops, apologies, I was foggy-brained last night and should have included you among the exceptions. I added a PS on the posting. I know what you mean when you say that writing about the arts gives you a chance to write about something other than yourself -- nice to have a good excuse to get out of your own head, isn't it? Curious though what you mean when you say "I don't think I could do it if I thought very many people would care to read it." Ie., you like performing, just not before an audience? Help me here: my mind is going boingboing.

JW -- Glad to hear you've got a simpatico editor -- and be sure to enjoy him/her while you've got him/her. They're precious. I had some great, friendly editors over the years, but only a couple who seemed to dig me and wanted to see me mess with the usual thing. How do you feel about doing reviewing/essaying with your spare time? Given the lousy pay and the fact that my writing never led to anything -- people liked it, but nothing professional ever opened up -- I got to the point where I had to ask myself, Is this really what I want to be doing with my spare time? And the "nope" answer came mighty fast. Do you have professional hopes where your reviewing's concerned? Good point about the Murakami quote. And I think there are a number of things that can be tweaked in it -- for instance, in my experience, a lot of fiction writers aren't writing primimarily from life, they're writing from other fiction. Still, I like the quote and find it useful. It's actually a nice way to see criticism: as the act of creating a certain kind of literature. Which is more than many people, let's face it, are willing to grant it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 20, 2003 12:48 PM

Yahmdallah -- LOL. (I love these blogging abbreviations -- they're very handy.) Yeah, rock crit's the worst, isn't it? Somebody somewhere (I think it was Tom Carson, who can be awfully smart) made the point that what pop music's really about isn't so much the music as your responses to it. And maybe that helps explain a little of why popcrit is so bad -- the music itself encourages self-indulgence. And given that it's largely music for young kids, what you wind up with is young idiots babbling youthjargon about their own boring inner lives. But maybe there are better explanations for it. How do you explain the lousiness of popmusic crit?

Are there writers about pop music you've found enjoyable? Hmmm (sound of riffling through mental index cards ...)I've liked some stuff over the years, though I don't know whether I could face it for long again. Lester Bangs was fun to read when I was in my 20s ... Nick Tosches, same thing ... Some of the Brits are hilarious -- there's a Marcus somebody or other who writes for the Spectator whose descriptions are great, and who has a general attitude I find simpatico ... Oh, the novelist Nick Hornby is sometimes terrific -- have you run across his popmusic writing? Sometimes in the New Yorker ... Who else? Oh, I know this is heresy, but I've found a lot of Albert Goldman's writing on pop to be brilliant and helpful. He didn't like Elvis or Lennon and was awfully vicious towards them, which he can be dumped on for. But his descriptions and analyses of their music I found pretty terrific. And his early collection, whatever it was called, was great ... But people listening and writing and recommending things these days, in the present tense -- is there anyone worth paying a little attention to? Dunno myself.

As for moviecrit, one of the things that strikes me is what a pickle the movie reviewers are in these days. An awful lot of them are smart, and good writers. But it's an awful time for movies, and for movie coverage. Editors are getting more demanding -- shorter reviews, more feature coverage, longer plot synopses. And the movies themselves generally bite. It just isn't an interesting or happening field right now, the way it was in the '70s when most of these guys and gals got hooked. So they're trying to keep up their interest and say helpful and entertaining things about a field that probably depresses them. FWIW (does anyone use this? for what it's worth?), seems to me that much of what's interesting that's there to be said about movies these days has to do with technology, and with glaciar-like changes changes -- ie., it's interesting (I'm interested, anyway) to talk about digital editing, video, dolby, changes in distribution, etc, and how that may or may not be affecting the product and how we experience it. But that discussing individual movies generally isn't of much consequence. But editors don't like hearing this -- they want something now, something hot and new, and every week. Which of course isn't really happening...

Much more fun to swap tips and thoughts via blogdom, don't you find? I do, anyway... No commercial pressure, for one thing. All of the fun, and none of the potentially awful consequences...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 20, 2003 01:04 PM


I have no professional hopes when it comes to my writing: I foresee maintaining my amateur status for a long time. I do find writing comics criticism to be a fun and challenging way to spend my free time. I'm not as interested in doing film or music reviewing, both of which I tried and found to be a real pain in the ass. Part of this has to do with my comfort level--I feel a lot more "at home" writing about comics than other stuff--and part of it has to do with the field not being very crowded. There's quite a few people out there who are going to write intelligently about the next Neil Jordan movie: not so many who are going to write about the next Warren Ellis comic.

Posted by: J.W. on September 20, 2003 05:53 PM

Curious though what you mean when you say "I don't think I could do it if I thought very many people would care to read it." Ie., you like performing, just not before an audience? Help me here: my mind is going boingboing.

It's partly that I don't consider myself quite "ready for prime time."

Even more, I'd hate to think of myself as a make-or-break kind of critic. If someone were to avoid a film, a play, or a concert just because I made an argument against its merit, I'd feel pretty guilty.

I think that even bad art and lousy culture are worth my time and trouble, if only because they exist. I've spent the majority of my life in places where they didn't exist, and where it was assumed no one would pay attention if they did. On the one hand, you miss out on a lot of the bad stuff; on the other, you miss all the good stuff, too.

So above all, I really want people to see things for themselves and make their own decisions. I'll show you mine, you show me yours. If I had a big audience, I don't think I could be this neighborly, but with a smaller audience everything sort of works out. "Fit though few," as Milton put it.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on September 21, 2003 08:34 PM

You know, Michael, you do excellent criticism when you just write about something you like, like that French gangster movie a few posts back, and forget how much you hate writing criticism.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on September 21, 2003 10:07 PM

Tim -- I don't think there are too many reviewers these days who make or break much of anything, and certainly not movies. Ain't that reassuring?

Personal reflections, Aaron, thank you veddy much, not criticism. Or so it pleases me to think. Thanks for taking a look at the French-gangster posting, by the way. I'd been under the impression it went unread.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 21, 2003 11:22 PM


just because no one comments, and I speak for myself, doesnt mean the post is unread. Usually I have nothing more to contribute and read it for the pleasure of learning something I didnt know before.

Posted by: Deb on September 22, 2003 08:53 AM

I would agree that popcrit (as you call it - sounds like a brand name) is often at a disadvantage because music is such a personal thing. One person's caviar is the next person's fish waste.

Still, the thing that cripples most popcrit is this desire on the part of the reviewer to seem cool. That one impulse seems to outweigh all other concerns such as: did the songs move you?, did you dance?, did you cry?, did you play it again? and so on. The simple fact is that bands that were (are) massively popular in their day with the fans were (are) typically roundly squatted upon by critics, and I feel this proves my point. Led Zeppelin, Journey, Steve Miller, Rod Stewart's solo stuff, and the Eagles are examples of bands that were huge for the public, but which never really got critical raves. The larger reason is that they were tuneful, accessible, and they sold like water in the desert - not cool. But wonderful to listen to.

Movie critics are kinda falling into the same trap, with the exceptions again of Ebert and Schwartzbaum, both of whom could care less if the film they like is cool or not - they often buck the tide of popular criticism. In an "EW" article this week, a director who's clearly too full of himself said his film, "...does stick a thermometer up the ass of society, doesn't it?" Well, no, it doesn't. Betcha his film sucks out loud, judging from that one (er) crack there. And that's the kind of trap I see a lot of the artsy film world, including the critics, falling into anymore. Like the deluded visual artists, they think their putrid little navel gazing (or more accurately, "sphincter gazing") celluloids "wake people up" and "show them things they wouldn't ordinarily see". Which just shows you the level of their narcissism and how little they know about their audience.

I'd like to kinda correct/expand my original post regarding book reviews. I meant to say I've not read many useful "professional" book reviews, because just like movie reviews, I love and rely on book reviews I read on blogs, like yours and Will's - so please keep it up, y'all. Frinstance, half of my current "to read" stack from the library is from one of your old posts (Rendell, Westlake, Perrotta, and Lee Smith). My thanks to all who take time on their blogs to point out a good read or two.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on September 22, 2003 12:08 PM

Yahmdallah's comment gives me an excuse to quote the greatest remark ever about rock critics, from the noted intellectual David Lee Roth: "Most rock critics like Elvis Costello because most rock critics look like Elvis Costello."

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on September 22, 2003 12:39 PM

You take requests?

Here's mine: Don't do reviews. Please.

Posted by: j.c. on September 22, 2003 03:13 PM


Whom do you not want to do reviews?

Posted by: Yahmdallah on September 22, 2003 05:54 PM

Funny: I see a fair amount of confusion in the original post and in the comments that's best illuminated by Henry James (1893): "the practice of 'reviewing'. . . in general has nothing to do with the art of criticism." This is touched upon in Murakami's quote, too; the what-you-do-every-day-ness is integral to the best crit [alongside the writing, natch].

Posted by: Bill Sebring on September 26, 2003 08:54 AM

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