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December 01, 2004

Negativity and Artsyak

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

How do you guys feel about negativity and reviewing? Not about being panned yourself -- that's always got to be painful -- but about the proper use of negativity when discussing the arts?

My own thoughts about the use of negativity in professional outlets -- magazines, TV, etc -- are fairly clear-cut, and grow out of a feeling that a reviewer's main responsibility is to his readers. A reviewer ought to be (among other things) honest and trustworthy. Readers never have to agree, god knows, but they deserve to have a clear sense of who they're comparing notes with, and to know that this person is being straight with them.

Complicating the reviewer-reader relationship as a practical matter is the fact that reviewers aren't employed by readers, except very indirectly. Reviewers' immediate bosses are editors and producers, who have their own preferences about what reviewers should be doing. Editors, producers, and advertisers like enthusiasm and pep; after all, they're selling a sense that something noteworthy is happening every day. (How else can they grab your attention?) Yet four out of five novels (or movies, or art shows, or ...) aren't worth paying much attention to; and, despite the current convention of the weekly "theme piece," substantial artsthemes don't exactly come along on a weekly basis. But if a reviewer alienates too many advertisers with his lack of enthusiasm, chances are he won't be around for long, no matter how popular he is with readers. So, a question every professional reviewer winds up struggling with is, How to be truthful about what he's encountering while not doing too much damage to his employment status?

It never hurts to remember that, to a large extent, culture reviewing is a service business. The reviewer is covering a field's output, and is serving as a consumer guide. But he may also be trying to make some useful observations, to do a little writin', and to provoke a few thoughts. (I'm leaving aside the whole "a reviewer has his own career goals" side of the discussion ...) To an extent that isn't often mentioned, a reviewer is also trying to keep his own spirits up. This is one of those open secrets: one reason reviewers sometimes make their fields sound like more-happenin' places than they really are is because the reviewer has to keep his own interest level jigged up. After all, after seeing something and writing a review about it, the regular reviewer has to go back out and do it all over again. Phew. As a music reviewer once said to me: "Free CDs, yippie! What could be better? The trouble is, you gotta listen to them."

As for negativity ... If what's under review is a big, impersonal entertainment, and a reviewer thinks it's awful -- well, why not open fire, and with both barrels? Corporate-entertainment ventures seem to me like nothing if not fair game for ridicule, and having the freedom and license to make fun of them when they stink seems like one of the true pluses of life under capitalism.

But even where mega-works are concerned, care may need to be taken. Getting too personal (unless someone -- Oliver Stone, Spike Lee -- is really asking for it) should be avoided. And people's physical givens need to be shown respect; it's no one's fault what they were born with, or born looking like. On the other hand, whether or not a performer's looks suit a role does seem like a legit topic for discussion. An example: Diane Lane was praised for her performance as a Jewish mommy who dallies with a hippie stud in "A Walk on the Moon," but I had some basic trouble with the movie that stemmed from her looks. Though I'm a big Diane Lane fan, and though she's certainly beautiful and was certainly delivering a good acting job, she simply looked like no Jewish mommy I've ever met. Should I not mention this?

Where the more public arts are concerned, big-gun negativity can be useful, and even morally necessary. There are some works that really do need to be fought. Absurd buildings and misguided urbanism, for instance, can have ruinous effects on neighborhoods, cities, and people's lives.

But where smaller, more personal work is concerned? A bad show of paintings? A lame-o indie film? 99% of the time, these are harmless phenomena that the world is going to ignore anyway. Why crap all over them? All you're doing is humiliating a nobody in public, and we should know better than to stoop to that. Generally speaking, the person (or people) behind the show or the book has worked hard; he's given his creation a lot of care and love, and is hoping you'll get a kick out of it. So if a reviewer thinks it stinks: good lord, don't bother reviewing it. And if a review is for some reason required, treat the work and the artist ... tenderly. The arts, after all, depend on lots of goofy people pitching in and taking nutty chances with their work and their lives. However maddening and annoying the artsworlds can be, they're also sweet and quixotic fields. And if a reviewer isn't able to both respect the art-and-entertainment impulse and signal to the astute reader that she needn't bother, then this reviewer shouldn't be a reviewer, dammit.

Incidentally, The Wife and I recently watched a movie-history TV documentary that raised some of these questions. It was "Final Cut," a show on Trio about the "Heaven's Gate" brouhaha; it was based on the essential-movie-reading Stephen Bach book by the same title.

An excellent documentary, and much worth watching. (Here's a schedule of the program's remaining showtimes.) Part of what interested me about the show was being reminded that not only were the movie's prospects destroyed by its reviews, the press coverage of the film actually played a big role in bringing down United Artists, the company that produced the film. Was that a fair use of the the press's negative powers? The movie may have been a fiasco, and there's no question that egos ran amok, etc. Still: did the film (and the people who made it) deserve the coverage it got?

Vincent Canby's legendary pan of the film in the NYTimes may have been wickedly amusing, but was it ... ? I dunno, an admirable act in its own right? Nobody sets out to make a bad movie, after all. And isn't "Heaven's Gate" a special case? Huge and hugely-expensive, and to that extent fair game. But it wasn't a nothing piece of blah corporate product. (We may laugh, but numerous European critics have proclaimed the film a masterpiece.) And, in any case, lots and lots of gifted people put lots of care, effort and time into the film; a shortage of talent, hard work, high intentions, and skill was not the film's problem.

I attended the first public screening of the original (very long) version of "Heaven's Gate," the screening that resulted in so many slashing reviews. And, while the film was obviously a disaster in many ways, it was a talented, fascinating disaster. It may have had zero life on a narrative level, but it was also gorgeous, repetitive, and hypnotic; it reminded me of one of those four-hour-long Phillip Glass operas that can put you in a kind of heightened stupor. That's not all bad. Did such a film really deserve to be treated more harshly than an empty, soul-crushing corporate entertainment? Yet it was treated so severely that even the studio that produced it died a sorry death.

In any case, the professional negativity-thing strikes me as relatively negotiable, as well as well-trodden. Despite occasional muddiness, there's firm ground there to be found. But what's the proper use of negativity on cultureblogs? I'm not sure I know. We blog-writers, blog-commenters, and blog-readers seem to be discovering a whole new world of culture-yakking.

Part of what makes the ethics of professional reviewing pretty straightforward is that professional reviewing is indisputably a public act. But what about culture-yakking on a blog? It's certainly nothing like a New York Times or NPR review; it's unpaid, it's frankly personal, and it's read by not-many people. Yet, despite the fact that we may enjoy carrying on as though we're merely gabbing amongst friends, that isn't completely accurate either. All our gab is out there, even the comments; thanks to Google, these discussions can all be found. Some of the profs whose Teaching Company lecture series I've praised on this blog have gotten in touch to say Hi and Thanks, for instance. They didn't merely happen to overhear a private conversation. They were able to find these Blowhardish discussions -- which means that anyone (bosses, families) with a be-Webbed computer can do so too.

How to enjoy the freedom of culture-yak blogging while taking this half-public thing into decent account? One question that often occurs to me is: Well, why would any blogger "review" anything in the first place? Of course it's a free world, etc. But, as far as I'm concerned, nobody in their right mind should write a review without being paid to do so. God knows it can be fun to make observations and crack jokes; to pass along tips and compare notes; even to do some criticism. But to write real reviews? That's a job of work. Which leaves me suspicious of the morals of any blogger who voluntarily writes a review-posting.

(Forgive an even-more-self-indulgent-than-usual moment: I've enjoyed observing how blogging is affecting writing about the arts. Have you? Something's changing, though I don't know what. As for myself, I seem to be more prone to muse-out-loud-about-the-issues-a-given-work-raises than I am to evaluate the work. No reason to be shy about my opinion -- but why should I expect anyone to care about it either? Yet I'm not writing essays or traditional "thought pieces." I find myself doing something else, and I'm not sure what. Just sorta meandering through the cultureworld and thinking out loud as I do so, or something like that. Other culturebloggers have their own, probably better, ways of raising and chewing over artstopics too: Lynn, Fred, and Brian, for example. As far as I'm concerned, this variety of approaches represents an exciting new development in writing about the arts. I'm so keen on it that my consumption of conventional arts-writing, let alone arts-reviewing, has gone 'way, 'way down.)

Where negativity on the blog is concerned, I've settled on a policy of -- generally -- skipping it. (Exceptions: destructive architecture and urbanism; the delusions people have about books and publishing; idiotic big-budget movies.) This policy is half-whimsical but also half thought-out too. It seems to me that it's simply a better thing to pass along suggestions that may deliver pleasure than it is to blast away at works that won't.

But the negativity question puzzles me, even when I try to think it out in terms of what visitors might enjoy or appreciate. After all, maybe it's a Good Thing to alert people to lousy stuff. What do I know? Life's short, and if there's work out there that it's better to avoid wasting time on ... Well, isn't coming out and saying so a useful thing to do?

The real-life reason I'm thinking about these questions is that I'm currently listening to a Teaching Company lecture series that I wouldn't recommend. Fact is that, although I've spent a lot of blogtime pointing out Teaching Company courses that I've enjoyed, I've also disliked some of their products. Should I pan the bad ones? Maybe not: these aren't big, impersonal corporate-entertainment products, after all. Whether or not I personally like 'em, they're low-budget, well-meaning works that gifted individuals have put time and care into. Plus, I'm rooting for the Teaching Company. IMHO, what they do and what they make available is generally a Great Thing.

On the other hand ... Well, golly, maybe a few visitors would like to hear about products they might skip, and maybe the Teaching Company could use the feedback too. The current series, for example, isn't a bad-bad-bad one. It's mezzo-mezzo -- good enough for me to get all the way through, but annoying enough to be a chore. It's solid, it's informative, it's well-organized. But the prof is one of those academics who seems to have no idea how to make his subject interesting; he seems incapable of stepping outside his subject to see it from the point of view of his audience. As a result, he delivers too much minutiae, and not enough about why any of it matters -- about context, impact, or significance.

This series presents me with another human-level puzzler too, which is that I simply dislike the lecturer. He strikes me as beamingly self-pleased, one of those not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is pedants who's convinced that god put him on earth to lecture at the rest of us. He's like Woody Allen in those tiresome scenes where cultured Woody can't believe that dingaling-ish Diane Keaton doesn't know about this or that NYReview of Books artsthing, and presses it on her. This lecturer is like Woody Allen, minus the brilliance and humor.

So, content: B-plus. Presentation: C-plus. Personality: F-minus.

But should I tell other people how I'm reacting to this series? Should I divulge which series this is? And if I do, how direct should I be about my dislike for the prof? Struggling with his personality has been a big part of my experience of the series, after all.

Not that the opinion of 2Blowhards has any importance, of course. Still, his kids and his friends might Google his name and discover my jokes about him. Why expose someone who's done no real harm to potential ridicule? On the other hand: good lord, isn't passing along information and tips an important part of how we make our ways through life?

All thoughts, musings, and impressions appreciated.



posted by Michael at December 1, 2004


"On the other hand, the prof is one of those academics who seems to have no idea how to make his subject interesting; he seems incapable of stepping outside his subject to see it from the point of view of his audience. As a result, there's an awful lot about minutiae and intricacies, and very little about why any of it matters -- about context, impact, or significance."

This is an interesting topic to me, since I'm an academic lecturer in a potentially deadly dull specialization. Yet I manage to make the topic interesting and consistently receive the highest ratings in my department.

But it wasn't always so. I had to learn to be an engaging teacher, and I learned best through honest feedback (also called student ratings). What it taught me was the need to "... step outside [my] subject to see it from the point of view of [my] audience," as you so aptly put it. Yes, I think I know more about my particular subject area than almost anyone else, but students don't really care about that. It's more important that one learns to interact with students in a manner that is respectful and treats them as partners in the process.

"He strikes me as beamingly self-pleased, one of those not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is pedantswho's convinced that god put him on earth to lecture at the rest of us."

heh. Deadly, deadly. I'm sure I was like that many moons ago, but piles of student feedback have taught me that I really don't know it all; consequently, I've become a much better teacher. Yes, Michael, I would urge you to provide constructive feedback. When I stopped viewing teaching as transmission-of-knowledge-to-those-who-don't-possess-it and began to understand it as an interactive process, it was transformative for me (and for the students, I suspect).

It's interesting - I was composing a blog post sort-of about this topic, including the need for simplicity of expression of complex ideas. I'm working up a lecture on "baby physics and optics" at the moment, and I realize how easy it is to hide behind academic jargon and preach to those who already know what I'm talking about.

I don't mean to wax rhapsodic about teaching, but I truly love what I do -- how many people can say that?

Feedback would be good. Follow your instincts, Michael.

Posted by: Maureen on December 1, 2004 03:43 PM

Oh, please,please, please divulge the name!

Actually I love to hear about both those things that are praiseworthy and those that are not, from intelligent people(Blowhards) that I respect.

I consume Teaching company products regularly and some of your previous recommendations (Greenberg, Sapolsky, and Taylor) have been spot-on. But I also enjoyed a few of the ancient history courses which I believe you didn't care for. I very much value your opinion but that alone would not entirely persuade or dissuade me from the course. For me content is of primary importance followed by presentation with personality being much less important. I would probably average the three grades you assigned and come up with a weighted average of B-.

It does seem to me that disclosure is more in keeping with the tradition and ethos of the site. On the other hand I understand and respect your reservations.

Posted by: Mark on December 1, 2004 04:30 PM

I think constructive comyments are good. I agree, though, being funny or mean at someone else's personal expense isn't cool. Now that you've already given him an F-minus on personality, maybe you shouldn't get too specific.

I remember the most hideously personal review I ever read was by John Simon of Barbra Streisand in "A Star Is Born". He desribed her nose as a "tower of hamburger" or something like that and said that our culture's collective fascination with her was more than just bad taste---it was "evidence of our collective will to live in ugliness and self-debasement." That does seem a bit harsh for a movie review, doesn't it? Even a bad movie? As Babs said, "I'm being reviewed for my clothes, for my hair. It's a little late in the game for that, isn't it?" Simon didn't enhance his credibility with that review.

Posted by: annette on December 1, 2004 06:05 PM

there are plenty of places on the web to rate things, professors, books, movies etc... (rate my ___, amazon) or that consolidate reviews of such (e.g. metacritic).

on the web at least, being concerned about negative reviews i think is a bit quaint at this point in time, as it seems brutal honesty has always prevailed over tact and "feelings" in the mediasphere, esp in virtual mode.

witness boing boing, where cory doctorow frequently blasts some product or service and demands that it be changed, how often his uh, feedback, is complied with, which only encourages him more...

on that note there was a piece in the NY observer recently on pitchforkmedia, an upstart music review site whose "unknown writers have more legitimacy in terms of making or breaking a record than writers from The Village Voice, Spin or Rolling Stone."


Mr. Hougland of Other Music explained: "The writer for Spin makes more money, but the Pitchfork dude has way more power. If you look at the media and the blogs, it’s the music version of that."
Nothing illustrates the point better than two recent records: Funeral, by the new Canadian band the Arcade Fire, and Travistan, by indie darling Travis Morrison. About two months ago, Pitchfork reviewed Funeral and gave it a rave. Writer David Moore emoted, with the personal intensity and creative hyperbole that’s a hallmark of PF scribes: "Their search for salvation in the midst of real chaos is ours; their eventual catharsis is part of our continual enlightenment." Funeral earned the high mark of 9.7 on the site’s numerical rating system, where 10.0 is the top and 0.0 the bottom. Almost immediately, it became impossible to find Funeral in a New York City record store.
"Without Pitchfork, I can’t imagine that all the hype around the Arcade Fire would have happened," says Mr. Hougland. "It’s totally Pitchfork; it’s not even worth speculating about. It’s possible that they would have gotten that popular, but it would have taken a lot longer." Merge Records, the North Carolina–based indie label that put out Funeral, sold out their initial printing of the record and now have pressed an additional 60,000 to fill demand. Tickets for the band’s November show at the Bowery Ballroom sold out weeks before the event, a rare occurrence for a group with one hard-to-find record on its first headlining tour.
On the flip side is the dreaded 0.0, most recently awarded to Travis Morrison’s Travistan. Mr. Morrison had formerly found favor with Pitchfork as frontman of the D.C. art-rock quartet the Dismemberment Plan; in 1999, the D-Plan’s Emergency and I was voted Pitchfork’s No. 1 record of the year. The review of Travistan was so spiteful, it was almost as if Mr. Morrison had been trashed simply for going solo. Chris Dahlen wrote: "I’ve never heard a record more angry, frustrated, and even defensive about its own weaknesses, or more determined to slug those flaws right down your throat." In the wake of the piece, a skepticism about Travistan took hold, with some college-radio programmers—who normally would have been pushing a much-anticipated solo record from someone like Mr. Morrison—making excuses for why it wasn’t in heavy rotation. At least one record-store owner initially declined to stock the record (he later changed his mind). Other critics followed Pitchfork’s suit; a number of pieces about the record discussed the 0.0 before even engaging with it.
Josh Rosenfeld of Seattle-based Barsuk Records, which put out Travistan, says that although the Pitchfork pan may have stalled interest in the record, he doesn’t think the damage will be permanent. "But what is interesting is what the difference is between the situation we’re in now and the situation we would be in now if Pitchfork had said, ‘9.8! Travis has pushed the boundaries again!’ A ‘boy, we love art in pop music!’ type of review. We can only speculate about things like that: would his record be enjoying the reception that people are now giving to the Arcade Fire record?"
When asked about his magazine’s ability to make or break a record, Mr. Schreiber (officially Pitchfork’s editor in chief and publisher) is a bit tongue-tied. "It’s unbelievably cool to have any kind of influence," he says. "But I’m totally taken aback by it, and I’m torn by it. You want to be careful, because you know that if you have a really positive response, you are going to do this great thing for bands. And it’s the greatest thing in the world to see that band going around playing for 50 people and the next night, because of a good review, it’s sold out." Mr. Schreiber paused. "But you have to keep it honest," he continued. "And that’s why we have any impact, because people know that they’re going to get a straight answer from us. We would never trash a band that’s putting out its first record, just to kill it. Though, with something like the Travis Morrison record, I know that I would give it the same ranking no matter what."
A 0.0? This reporter thinks that rating is grossly unfair (and, for the record, is a big fan of Travistan). Mr. Schreiber feels otherwise. "I think that a record can be so unlistenable and so terrible that it deserves that rating," he said. "It’s totally subjective. So is it devoid of worth to me personally? Yes."

so there you go.

Posted by: glory on December 1, 2004 06:49 PM

Michael, I've re-read this paragraph (and its predecessors) several times now, and I still can't see what you're getting at:

"Well, why would any blogger "review" anything in the first place? Of course it's a free world, etc. But, as far as I'm concerned, nobody in their right mind should write a review without being paid to do so. God knows it can be fun to make observations and crack jokes; to pass along tips and compare notes; even to do some criticism. But to write real reviews? That's a job of work. Which leaves me suspicious of the morals of any blogger who voluntarily writes a review-posting."

There's clear something unsaid that I'm missing.

I write and post book reviews regularly, as you well know. I'm not paid for it. What does this have to do with my morals? Do I not write "real reviews"? Quite possibly, in your view, I don't; I certainly don't write the kind of in-depth piece you'll find in the Times.

I write the kind of reviews I write (reviewettes, perhaps) because I enjoy doing it and because a surprisingly large number of people (by my standards) seem to enjoy reading them. On the other hand, not being paid to write reviews I only have to review books I'd be interested in reading anyway. Consequently, it's only rarely that one of my reviews conveys more than mild disappointment.

Anyway, could you define your terms a little more clearly? I'm all aquiver wondering whether my morals are suspect or not.

Posted by: Will Duquette on December 1, 2004 09:45 PM

There's a word and concept here that Michael, has picked up on. It's the power of the revierwer, over the art. And it's definately scary if not handled right.

I can't say i know much about art, or architecture, but damn if I know music, especially the modern indie scene...
I read pitchfork regularly, and I talk about it often with other music geeks (we're more snobs but eh)

and the fact is that pitchfork DOES have that kind of power. I will go out and buy something that they give an 8 to. I will listen to another genre if they say it is amazing and revolutionary.

Why? because they listen to the music, they know the cutting edge, they know when something is derivative, they know when something is a rehash.

And there's a definate power thing. Their taste becomes my taste, and so I don't play travistan on my college radio show (morrison's been getting a little uppity anyways). I accept that and my friends who also like and trust pitchfork accept it too. You are influenced by what you read.

Then again I have lots of friends who dont care that pitchfork hated an album, they call it bitchfork, they filter things another way...

for the same I love Stephen Hunter's movie reviews in the post, when he says something's good I KNOW it's good, if he says it's not so good, i might see it anyways...

Plus both hunter and pitchfork sometimes just write with some really wicked style:
i remember loving this review:

Posted by: azad on December 1, 2004 10:13 PM

Um, I used to review movies for The Mutant Reviewers From Hell ( for about a year. I did it because it was fun, a hobby for the opinionated. I could talk about movies, rate them, include little stories and jokes. It was my first writing gig and I learned a hell of a lot from having to produce 3 reviews a month (While it is nice to see a slow progession in my writing, I still read my early reviews and cringe openly.) There was the instant feedback, and I chose the movies to review, which helped. But I enjoyed it, from thinking of clever ways to trash horrible movies for new ways to explain why *this* movie was so effective or to help promote a little known film I just adored. God knows how many times I've checked out something because I read a review. It really organized my thinking and caused to examine my aesthetics and thoughts.

Did I mention I wasn't getting paid?

I eventually quit because life was interfering (3 new jobs in a new city). But I always wanted to return with a new feature. Maybe it is a young man's hobby....a talkative, very opinionated young man who likes arguments and ranking things.



Posted by: JL on December 2, 2004 01:56 AM

Presuming to influence others in matters of
'art' is arrogance beyond the pale. To be ...
concerned about doing so is narcissism at the
very least. Try this ... STFU and let the folks
who consume whatever it is you are 'reviewing'
speak for themselves. Chronicle their thoughts.
The audience will follow or not. REALLY, who
put you in charge of taste and content? I am
embarassed by your quandry. Much as I would be
if I were telling people how to fuck. It's up
to them. Not you. Your job is to guage how they
'feel' about it. Not how YOU feel about it.

Posted by: Steel Turman on December 2, 2004 02:19 AM

Steel, "Your job is to guage how they
'feel' about it. Not how YOU feel about it."

Why should I care two bits about how anybody else feels about a book I'm reviewing? How I feel about it is precisely the point--so that, over time, readers can use my opinion as a reliable guide. They may go read what I recommend, or they might avoid it like the plague; either way, my review was useful to them.

Posted by: Will Duquette on December 2, 2004 10:31 AM

Hi Michael,

Thanks for a lively posting. I dislike how 'critique' has become a synonym for 'attack' when the opposite is often true. I comment on records, books, movies and such on my site because I love them or -- in the lengthy case of "The Polar Express" -- because I feel to the need to warn people away from art that doesn't deserve that love!

I too am not sure about your 'morals' comment but, if you mean the sort of narcissism that Steel is referring to, I see the point to a degree but only just. It's not about imposing your will on others but about sparking a dialogue. If I'm wrong to warn people away from "The Polar Express," I'm pleased to hear them tell me why. Chances are, if they're curious enough, they'll disregard my warning anyway but hey, I tried. That's all a reviewer can do.

Posted by: Scott Dagostino on December 2, 2004 11:35 AM

Maureen -- But I can't believe you weren't always a sparky, responsive and inspiring teacher. I'm sure you've gone through a lot, learned much and gotten better, but I'm also mighty sure you never had anything of the shit-eating-grin, puffed-up, self-pleased, pedantic quality this clown does. I'm not sure feedback would accomplish much where he's concerned. What he really needs is a personality transplant. But you're right, of course: feedback's usually a good thing. (And interesting to learn that you've found student evaluations useful. Do many teachers? I had the impression most don't, but I live far from academia these days ...) FWIW, although I'm reluctant to pan their not-so-good courses online, I've tried sending feedback about the courses I haven't enjoyed to the Teaching Company. They're good about sending thanks, but I wonder if they've taken any real note. Can't hurt, I suppose.

Mark -- I'm relieved to know you've found a few of my suggestions helpful! And I'm eager to hear from you about the courses you've enjoyed too. I'm wary of their history series, but still tempted ... There's a newish one, about ancient Near Eastern history generally (starts with the Abyssinians, or the Fertile Crescent, or something, and goes all the way through the Romans -- real big-picture stuff) that I'm especially curious about. Have you tried that one? There's another new one that's a general survey of biology that's tempting too ... And then that history of the English language, and ...

Annette -- You're right about John Simon. A lot of his comments seem to have 'way more poison in them than is warranted. Makes you wonder about the guy, doesn't it? He sometimes seems to dislike performers -- a strange mindset for someone who reviews theater. It's as though, for him, they get in the way of the Ideal Art Experience he thinks he deserves to be having.

Glory -- I think Amazon Reader/Viewer/etc reviews and guides are an amazing and wonderful innovation in the arts. Open to abuse, of course. But also the most direct feedback a lot of those creators have ever gotten. One of the reasons I think the lit world has gone bad over the last 30 years is that it's hard for lit people to get feedback, except from fellow lit people -- showing it to your agent, workshopping it, etc. And that results in weirdness, bizarrenesses that mean nothing to anyone not in and of that world. The "literature" becomes an ingrown outgrowth, if that makes any sense. Performers seldom go that far off the rails (except in the nonprofit world) because the feedback they get is so much more direct. The audience laughs or it doesn't; the show works or it doesn't. That helps keep the artists' focus on what works -- they can play with that, but if they go so far astray that they lose touch with it they simply won't be seeing much work. Interesting to learn about all the attack-review sites too, thanks. Sounds like an extreme-sport/skateboarding/"Jackass" tone is taking over a lot of the discussion. The end of the world is upon us, I guess.

Will -- You're certainly right that I should have made my terms clearer, and as you know I'm a big fan of your site, which I like partly because it's personal, it's done from love, and it's informal. Reading the reviews you write and publish is for me more like encountering people who are chatting about what they love and are interested in than it is like reading a traditional "book review section," and I think that's a great thing. The motivations are clear, and the people doing the writing are being perfectly honest and transparent about their reactions and thoughts -- ideal artsyak, as far as I'm concerned. When I was (too loosely) using the word "review" in that paragraph I was thinking about official-style reviewing, competing with the pros, playing their game. Why would anyone do that, except for money? (Or unless they're living in a self-important fantasy, or imagine themselves to be auditioning for a professional position?) Thanks for making me clarify that. But being someone who's written a novel for pleasure, you may also just be an exceptional guy. There aren't many who can accomplish such work from such direct and straightforward motivations.

Azad -- That's a really smart set of points. And thanks for the tips too. Pitchfork is news to me -- I'll have a good time checking it out, although I personally lost touch with the edge a couple of decades ago.

JL -- I used to write sorta-paid, sorta-unpaid movie reviews too. I kept it up for a couple of years out of similar motivations. It was kinda fun and glamorous; I certainly nothing else better to do; and being forced to formulate my thoughts on a regular basis was an OK experience, like going to the gym for my brain. I probably had a fantasy or two about someone noticing my reviews and throwing some real money at me ... And then, like you, I kinda let it go. It does seem like a young guy thing to do, doesn't it? But writing for a real publication, even if doing so unpaid and young, still seems a little different to me than reviewing (in the official sense, not in the "I saw this movie and here's what I thought of it" sense) or not-reviewing on your own blog. Blogs are semi-kinda-but-then-again-not-really publications, they don't have deadlines, there are no bosses or editors ... Will formulates his reactions into review-like pieces of writing -- but even so, they're done on his own schedule, for his own reasons. It's part of the fun of blogging, actually, to find your own reasons to write something. No one's paying you, no editor is depending on your copy ... So on what basis do you commit words to pixels? Maybe there are some bloggers who kick themselves into gear by saying to themselves, "y'know, the world just needs to know my opinion about this book/movie/CD; and I've got to frame it and write it and publish it just as though it were a review in a real magazine, despite the fact that there's no money, no deadline, and no editor involved!" That's what strikes me as odd -- what kind of blogger would kick himself into gear in that way? How to explain such a mental process? But I suppose it's not impossible that someone might do perfectly decent blog-artsyak that way. I guess I'd still be suspicious, though -- but maybe that's my weirdness.

Steel -- Not quite sure what your point is, or how I'd implement it. And isn't part of the fun of participating in the art-thing pitching in with your own thoughts, reactions, and observations? Why deny yourself (or anyone) that pleasure? But maybe I misunderstand you.

Will -- It's (among other things) fun to be useful (or potentially useful, anyway), isn't it? That's been one of the neato discoveries of blogging for me.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 2, 2004 11:58 AM

Scott -- Oops, hit the "post" button at the same time you did, I guess. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Good to learn about your site -- I look forward to poking around. (Good to know I can skip "Polar Express" too.) The "imposing your will" question's a really interesting one. It's been part of the stance of some official reviewers over the years to pass Olympian judgment. It can be annoying, but it doesn't really bug me -- I don't take them too seriously, and do my best to view their stance as provocation instead. (And I often like provocateurs.) But it's hard to believe that stance is going to be as common in the future, isn't it? I mean, now that Amazon, blogging, etc are all democratizing the artsyak process. How will anyone get away with being Mr. Lofty in the midst of it? I suppose Nobelists will be able to carry on in that way. But anyone else? Some academics will try, I suppose. The feedback an artsyakker (pro or not-pro) gets these days is so much more direct than it ever was before ... The fact that anyone with a computer can get out there and artsyak ... It used to be a special thing, to be allowed to opinionate about the arts in public. There were hurdles, a process, you had to get people to let you, you'd presumably convinced People Who Matter that you were qualified to Pass Judgment and Have an Opinion ... So maybe the handful of people who got into those positions had some justification for puffing up a bit. But these days? Can the pros even pretend that they're automatically better than the amateurs, simply by virtue of being pros? Seems to me like there's a lot of evidence to the contrary -- that there are tons of artsbloggers (and people who comment on artsblogs) who are fresher, more honest, and more perceptive than a lot of the pros. So I wonder how the pro-reviewing/pro-"criticism" world is going to change and evolve in response to these developments. Any hunches?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 2, 2004 12:19 PM

Gym for the brain! Exactly, I make much more sense now then I did before I started to write regularly. I didn't have major deadlines, but I did have editors (good ones!) and the whole "just like a magazine" thing seemed like a great hobby, boot camp for working in "real" publications. Also, it gave me an offical excuse to see *alot* of movies and did make me notice more things, keeps my eyes and ears open...a mini Film School education along with magazine experience.

I imagine it helped that none of my reviews are over 400 words.

I don't think, however, I'd ever have money thrown at me for reviews. I did however, when I used my movie reviews to get a quite accidental job at FOUL magazine (I was working in the store that was under the offices). Now that I can say I have *both* web and print publishing experience, my job hunt is going much better.



Posted by: JL on December 2, 2004 12:43 PM

Oh, and also some Ego Boosting involved. I would get instant feedback, from other reviewers, readers, and even Premire Magazine took notice (my design, not my writing). For a 15-16 year old in Noplace Rural USA, it was a heady rush.

Posted by: JL on December 2, 2004 12:49 PM

Thanks for the link, Michael. I'm less inclined than some of the other commentors to cry havock and let slip the dogs of snark.

I write about CDs, concerts and movies mainly to better understand my own mind. The main thing I have learned through it is to watch out for peevish whining.

If I am being a lazy listener, the things that manage to make an impression are the occasional details that I dislike. So if I write a review that lists those things, I know I really don't have a right to express my opinion. As a bit of bonus badness, if I write a whiny review, to the extent the artist is paying attention, I will have made some enemies I really don't need. Naturally, that would apply only to stuff that is either local or niche.

Posted by: Fred on December 2, 2004 08:32 PM

I don't trust a critic who does not pan most of the work he reviews for the simple reason that excellence - in any field - is rare.

Of course, you first have to establish to your satisfaction that the critic in mind has first rate antennae for what's good and what's garbage.

Once found, you've found the one who delivers the goods about the goods.

Posted by: ricpic on December 2, 2004 09:47 PM


Here are some thoughts on some Teaching company courses I've enjoyed.

Their course on American History, taught by three professors, was very interesting and well done. Allit you mentioned before as being very good and the other two are strong as well. I was a History major and I wish more of my professors were as interesting as these guys.

I am very impressed by Professor Robinson's courses on Philosophy and Psychology. His level of erudition and apparent breath and depth of knowledge were very impressive. I did google him once and found a review of one of these courses which was quite positive but mentioned that his manner or voice was somewhat pedantic. I didn't find him that way at all. I thought he was likeable, very interesting and obviously very, very intelligent.

I love Professor Fears courses on the History of Freedom as well as Famous Greeks and Roman's. He is a very dynamic and theatrical lecturer and the courses were very interesting.He does a good job of relating past events and personalities with our contemporary era. He made an interesting point about how our Founders model was Rome of the republic but what we have become is Rome of the Caesar's. Like them we want to entertained, enjoy the prosperity, and leave the governing to the Emperor and the large bureaucracy. He made an interesting point about life in Pompeii and how the citizens could choose between competing fast food joints, gymnasiums to work off stress and calories, theaters to enjoy what were essentially sitcoms and how one of the leading citizens was a wealthy women who owned a chain of dry cleaning establishments. Fears is the antithesis of a pendantic professor.

Professor Vandiver goes a nice job with the Odyssey and Iliad. Ditto Sacio-Shakespeare, deGrasse Tyson-My favorite Universe, Liulevicius- Utopia and terror.

I though professor Brettell's course on Impressionism was outstanding. Incidentally- the reproductions display beautifully on my large screen tv, very bright and beautiful and a great home alternative to museum visits.

Greenberg's courses on Classical music cannot be praised enough. he is a really dynamic interesting speaker.

Michael, I'm not sure what course you are referring to that is newish and starts with the near east and goes through the Romans. There is a course, which is a few years old, on Western Civ. which starts at the ancient near east and goes through the reformation. I enjoyed that course althought I thought the professor is not as dynamic as some others. Still I did enjoy it and would recommend it.

Well this has been perhaps a bit too much of a core dump on my part. I am a big fan of their products (obviously). Most of their courses I've enjoyed.

Posted by: Mark on December 3, 2004 12:11 PM

But how does he keep his job, when editors, producers and advertisers want pep and enthusiasm and upbeatness? It's a dilemma, for both the reviewer and the reader.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 3, 2004 12:12 PM

"I don't trust a critic who does not pan most of the work he reviews for the simple reason that excellence - in any field - is rare."

As I say, that's the neat thing about blogging. I don't have to try to read a book just because it's there; if I don't think I'll like it, I won't read it.

Posted by: Will Duquette on December 3, 2004 09:25 PM

Should have said, "I don't have to read it." I do sometimes read books I'm not sure I'll like.

Posted by: Will Duquette on December 4, 2004 12:51 AM

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