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June 01, 2007

Critics Vs. Bloggers

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Critics sure can be pompous, can't they?

I was recently enjoying (or rather "enjoying") a couple of pieces by or about critics linked to by ALD. In this one, Time magazine's Richard Schickel writes that webyak isn't real criticism, mocks an enthusiastic blogger / book-reviewer for having worked as a "quality-control manager for a car parts maker," and compares blogging to "yammering," "cocktail-party chat," and "finger-painting." This other piece quotes the Washington Post's Michael Dirda -- an excellent reviewer, by the way -- claiming that the traditional "book review section ... remains the forum where new titles are taken seriously as works of art and argument, and not merely as opportunities for shallow grandstanding and overblown ranting."

Well, I do declare. Hmmm, let's see: I really-really enjoy my life as a web-ified arts-gabber. I enjoy it in fact so much more than I ever did my pre-web artsgab life that I rarely bother reading professional reviewers at all these days. Which I guess means that I'm a bigger fan of finger-painting and shallow grandstanding than I am of "real criticism." So be it.

I do understand that people will panic and say stupid things when paradigms shift and livelihoods are threatened. And I do sympathize with people who are caught in these predicaments, really I do. On the other hand ... While most of us have been sideswiped by history a few times, few of us have had the opportunity to fill up newspaper and magazine space with our outrage, exasperation, and self-regard.

It all reminds me of the days when I hung out with critics and reviewers. Many of them were bright, lively, and interesting people. But more than a few were amazingly full of themselves. While reviewing always struck me as a groovy way to handle the moneymaking part of life for those who could manage it, it struck some of my friends as a religious vocation -- a calling. I remember one reviewer speaking about criticism as a form of "bearing witness." No surprise that these high-minded types also seemed convinced that the public -- or, if not the public then their editors and bosses -- owed it to them, or maybe to humanity at large, to support "real criticism."

(Just to get this out of the way and be -- yawn -- fair: I can enjoy reading good reviews and essays; I admire people who can do criticism well; I've learned from some reviewers and critics; and I'm happy to agree that criticism is a branch of literature, if a minor one. FWIW, I once wrote a blogposting about why I never made a serious attempt to become a reviewer.)

In any case, it seems to me that Schickel and Dirda are missing two key points.

One is that the new state of affairs isn't best thought of as a contest between great thinking and mindless babble. It's better thought-of as a new participatory openness. The germane comparison isn't between a professional critic's full-dress essay and a tossed-off blogposting. (By the way: Why shouldn't we enjoy both?) It's between a culture in which only a tiny group of people is able to artsyak in public and a culture in which everyone who cares to can.

FWIW, I hyper-prefer the second option myself; I wrote a blogposting comparing our present condition to the British and Scottish 18th century, to so-called "coffeehouse culture." As far as I'm concerned, the British and Scottish 18th century was one of the glory moments in Western culture. Let's all pitch in, at least if we feel like it. Between you and me, I do giggle a bit over the way certain divas will complain about having to share the stage with anyone, anyone at all. Do they have any idea how preposterously grand and stuffy they make themselves appear? In any case: so much for the critic as intellectual radical!

Free-swinging, bright, and articulate people are around the web in the thousands. Yahmdallah, Prairie Mary, WhiskyPrajer, Cowtown Pattie, George Wallace, DarkoV, Alice in Texas, The Communicatrix, The Man Who Is Thursday, Searchie, Alias Clio, Scott Chaffin, Alexandra, and many, many others -- they're all as smart as can be. All of them have an adventuring spirit, a lot of interests, an open mind, a big heart, and verbal flair too. And let's not forget the commenters, many of whom outshine the bloggers.

Whether or not these people pull their observations and jokes into fully-shaped pieces of writin'-writing -- who really cares? And why should they? Webworld is a conversation, not a moderated exchange of formal essays. The rules are different. (The philosopher Stephen Toulmin is good on the differences between formal logic and informal reasoning. Like me, he thinks it's a terrible mistake to value one more than the other.)

In a conversation, a full-dress, rounded-off statement can be a pain in the ass -- it puts everyone else in the position of being lectured-to rather than conversed-with. Conversation has more to do with cooperation than with debate-like combat. What makes a good conversationalist isn't aggression, confidence, intellectual prowess, or technical mastery; instead, it's liveliness, perceptiveness, humor, and responsiveness. Incidentally, no disrespect meant to the moderated-exchange-of-formal-arguments model. What I can't figure out, though, is why those who prefer that model look down on less formal, more personal ways of carrying-on. After all, a great conversation is one of life's tiptop pleasures, even one of its tiptop aesthetic pleasures.

The other point I think some of the pro critics are missing is ... Well, are they all that sure that they're that much better, even in their own terms, than some of the bloggers are?

I've been an artsfreak since the late '60s and have been reading criticism since that time. Some bloggers strike me as being as articulate and slick as the pros -- Alan Sullivan, Jon Hastings, and Architecture and Morality's Corbusier, for example. Some other bloggers strike me as people who could be pros if they wanted to. If Fred Himebaugh (of the Fredosphere) were doing music criticism, he'd be my favorite music critic. John Massengale routinely gets off descriptions of places, buildings, and architectural controversies that are clearer, more vigorous, and more engaging than anything you'll find in the slick architecture magazines.

Another plenty-ready-for-primetime example is Philip Murphy. Happy to admit that a big reason I like Philip's architecture blogging as much as I do is that I'm in tune with his point of view. But that isn't all he's got going for him by a long shot. He's vivid, he's clear, he's funny, and he reacts to what he sees and experiences like a human being rather than like a ditzily overeducated media-junkie or arts-appreciator.

For the fun of it, I'm going to compare a recent Philip posting to a professional piece of architecture criticism by the New York Times' Nicolai Ouroussoff.

Philip recently visited Philip Johnson's legendary Connecticut Glass House. (You may have to scroll down a bit -- Blogger doesn't seem to want to link to specific postings.) Here's Philip Murphy:

I'm agnostic on the Glass House. I think it's beautiful in some sense. But it's not really a house at all. It's a garden folly.

That doesn't become obvious until you enter the building. My first impression was that the ceiling is very high and that the interior is a surprisingly larger space than I had expected.

My second impression is that the house is inconsequential. Everyone instinctively walked from the front door directly over to the glass walls to look out at the view. I asked the tour guide if this was a typical reaction and she said yes approvingly, visitors always go for the view.

Philip is frank about the attitude he came to the house with. He describes what he encounters very concretely. He takes note of surroundings and effects. He compares his reactions to those of other people. He's funny and open and down-to-earth. I read him feeling like I'm being taken somewhere real by someone trustworthy.

Pro reviewer Nicolai Ouroussoff, meanwhile, visits a psychdelically-colored Dutch glass shed designed by Jan Neutelings and Michiel Riedijk. Here are some of Ouroussoff's thoughts:

It's a stunning space whose power lies in the contrast between the various architectural experiences within. Clad in cold gray slate, for instance, the underground atrium is a striking counterpoint to the heavenly glass walls above. Mr. Neutelings and Mr. Riedijk call the atrium their "inferno." It also evokes a tomb: big, square openings are cut through the atrium's walls, revealing a series of corridors painted a hellish red. The archives are tucked behind these corridors, where researchers and scholars, you suppose, toil away with the concentration of monks.

Neither fiery nor blissful, the offices are something closer to purgatory. Arranged in neat little rows, they open onto long, narrow corridors that overlook the bustling main hall. The office interiors are more contemplative, the colored cast-glass panels alternating with more conventional strip windows. The colored glass emits a soft glow that is strangely soothing.

I don't know about you, but as I make my way through this high-flown exercise in chic intellectual connoisseurship, I keep wondering why George Sanders's absurdly snobbish theater reviewer in "All About Eve" is having such a bizarrely upbeat day. Ouroussoff seems to me to inhabit some other, vaporous world, one shared with wine snobs, fashionistas, and opera queens, issuing categorical proclamations in voices too shrill and angelic for normal human hearing, about etherealities no sensible person really needs to care about.

Nicolai, dude: How about a description of the neighborhood where the building's located? How about a few sentences about how the designers handled the parking question? Why not tell us whether the glass shed works as a museum? And what the rooms are like to spend time in? And finally: How about discussing these questions in terms of how they affect you personally rather than in terms of eternalities and art-historical rankings? Reading Ouroussoff, I feel like I'm hanging out with the wrong crowd -- trust-funders on funny mood drugs.

Here's the tale of the tape. The blogger: earthy and direct language, check. A straightforwardly personal reaction, check. Common sense backed up with knowledge, check. Honesty, humor, and a sense of perspective, triple check. The pro reviewer: ... Well, what exactly is Ouroussoff peddling, anyway? I mean, beyond a lot of up-to-date make-believe and tinsel?



posted by Michael at June 1, 2007


Ouroussoff's review that you quoted reads like some restaurant reviews I've read.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on June 1, 2007 9:01 PM

What the pros don't seem to get is that there are lot of people out there who are just as intelligent and perceptive as they are, but who didn't want to deal with the career bullshit you have put up with if you want to get ahead in academia or journalism. Plus, having a real job and a real life tends to make a blogger's perspective a lot more down to earth. We aren't really getting a lot of money or prestige out of this, so there seems to be a lot less posturing in the arts blog world. Its pretty much all about what we really love and what really moves us.

Posted by: Thursday on June 1, 2007 9:44 PM

I see weblogs about the arts, etc., my own in particular, more as taking part in a conversation about these matters, than as a substitute for "professional" reviewing, much less criticism.

Having a blog or commenting on other people's is like the experience of over-hearing a group of strangers discussing a book; you've read it and like (or hate) it; or you haven't but are intrigued by the talk; you join in, and - suddenly you've made a group of new friends. I know there are other ways to approach blogging, too, but I can't give it enough time just now to have a professional gloss. I don't think I write irresponsibly, though, in spite of that.

One of the things I and others like me can do is talk about books, films, etc., that have long since passed out of the concern of the professionals because they aren't new any more. In that way, our internet chatting can even help to spark or revive interest in writers who might have disappeared from view permanently. Surely people who care about books can take pleasure in that fact, without regarding us as interlopers?

Incidentally, I wonder how many people who talk about "professionalism" realise that the word implies the making of a vow, and not accepting money for work done? The original professionals were medical doctors, lawyers, theologians, and religious, because they were the ones who took vows in assuming their offices or duties. Up until the 18th century, taking money for certain kinds of work was considered to make you "interested," and therefore less able to deliver an objective opinion or show good judgment.

Posted by: alias clio on June 1, 2007 10:45 PM

Too bad that Schickel has now joined those inside the circle of Major Media wagons; I've seen a number of links in recent months dealing with people in journalism who seem to think that, because they are employed by a newspaper, magazine or TV network, they are somehow superior to the rest of us.

Sure, in principle, it takes skill, training, study and other virtues to become a critic or reporter for a major publication. It might also take luck and maybe personal connections to cement the deal. Not everyone has luck and/or connections, so it's quite possible that there are people even more qualified than today's reporter/critic crop mingling with the rest of us Great Unwashed citizens, not counting those who never considered "professional" criticism or journalism in the first place.

I wonder what the crew behind the circled wagons would have to say about this concept.

Also, I mentioned in one comment or another that I was trained in journalism and PR by the Army. They passed along the basics in eight weeks. My conclusion: journalism ain't rocket science (though criticism might be a tad closer).

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 2, 2007 12:54 AM

Blowhards is about the only place I could say the following:

1. There is no craft, science, or art of criticism.
2.Critical standards do not exist.
3.Enjoyment and appreciation of art is in inverse proportion to the ugliness of the language used to appraise it.
4.Sir Thomas Beecham one explained to an audience that he was about to play a piece of music because it sounded pretty. This is the only known profundity ever uttered on the subject of art.

So please, Blowhards, blog on. Give me more webyak and spare me the preciosities of Trotskyite rags like Time and the NY Times.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on June 2, 2007 6:22 AM

One of the best postings I've read yet on this whole brouhaha that's mounting in size to rival the What is literary fiction? war.

Posted by: susan on June 2, 2007 7:02 AM

Sure, there's an annoying snobbery that professional critics put on display when their very existence is being challenged. And all the arts and reviewing blogs certainly do that.

On the other hand, blogging brings a certain amount of democracy to the whole area of criticism. As an old boss of mine once said, "Opinions are like assholes, everybody's got 'em." The only hitch there is that not everybody's opinion is worth taking the time to listen to. WHich isn't to say that every professional critic's pieces were worthwhile. It's just that with so many blogs, who's got the time to separate the wheat from the chaff?

Shouldn't there be some standards, at least in terms of the ability to string ideas together in sentences that are literate and cohesive, so the reader can follow and understand the points being expressed?

But, then, I still like the idea of books that are not self-published. At least we shouldn't swing over to self-publishing alone. With self-publishing there'll always be some question of whether the only reason the work got published was because an author was willing to foot the bill.

Blogging presents an unprecedented opportunity for anyone with a computer and an Internet connection to have a platform. (In print, self-publishing accomplishes something similar, and potentially just as admirable.) But as there'll always be people who will place stock in anything that's in print--either on paper or online--there's a caution we need to observe.

Stephen Tiano

Posted by: Stephen Tiano on June 2, 2007 1:51 PM

I enjoy any movie criticism/review that is eccentric and takes me beyond whether the reviewer recommends the movie and takes me into the joy of movie history, literary history, and the immediacy of how the movie affected the writer that particular day.

It's why I love/d Pauline Kael. When my New Yorker arrived and I knew she had a review, I'd take time, close my eyes, and playfully try to predict what she was going to say. I was almost always wrong.

But no writer so entertained me with her verve, phrase making, love of language, cut through the bullshit observations, sense of immediacy, independence, freshness, and love of moving pictures.

Pauline Kael helped me view and listen to movies more fully.

That's when a critic's work works. She not only offers a reading of a particular movie, but by reading her, I came to experience each movie I saw, whether she reviewed it or not, more fully because she taught me how to take in the movie more completely.

And, AND, I always knew why she said what she said. She never assumed that I knew what she was thinking or what her standards were. She made them explicit. They changed. Sometimes from review to review. But in the particular review I was reading, I always knew what Pauline Kael was thinking and I never cared if I agreed with her or not.

That was immaterial.

What mattered was engaging her expansive, irreverent mind at work.

Had she been a blogger, the effect would have been the same.

Posted by: raymond pert on June 2, 2007 1:56 PM

Basically I agree with most of your points here.

Schickel is a great film critic. He publicizes many overlooked films and writes with panache. As a paid critic, he is a rarity; he can write with complete independence..Or can he? How many Time-Warner media properties has he written puff pieces about? Schickel is overlooking the two most damning thing about his privileged work assignment: 1)he is expected to cover a lot more Time-Warner media properties than probably is justified and 2)a printzine sets firm limits on article length and interactivity. Shickel probably could have made some penetrating insights about many of the films he reviewed. But he's limited by the format and space considerations of his publication. Weblogs do not face those constraints.

As for erudite coverage/criticism, David Hudson's greencine blog probably does as good a job covering the film world.Also, it's more chatty (as is your own blog). Also, Hudson covers not only MSM but also the blogging world, something which Schickel seems not to do. I'm a huge fan of Schickel, but if given a choice between Schickel and greencine's Hudson (who links to Schickel's reviews on occasion), I could learn more about film criticism by reading Hudson.

Next point. But what about Harriet Klausner? this article about Klausner . This article/post and comments are really damning. They suggest that top Amazon reviewers are not writing reviews but merely copying press releases (and sometimes even selling the same books they are praising without reading).

I've been tolerant of people like Klausner (and when I say "like Klausner", I really don't mean only her; nor do I mean that I think all of her reviews are crappy). But there's a certain percentage of readers who don't want merely to talk but to increase the number of bylines they have. Their motives for writing reviews/responses is not necessarily to make criticism but to provide summaries. This wouldn't be so bad if only they weren't mixed up with the rest of the reviews. (To amazon's credit, they have rating systems to promote better-written reviews).

By the way, there is another force in book reviewing. That is librarything. I'm finding it to be a delightful way to catalog your library. Check out the Unrecommender, which lists books which are least likely to be owned by someone who possesses a certain book. See the books you are least likely to own if you own Kafka's The Trial .

Posted by: Robert Nagle on June 2, 2007 2:21 PM

"See the books you are least likely to own if you own Kafka's The Trial."

Well, I bet "The Tale of Tabitha Twitchett" by Beatrix Potter would have gone on that list, if the writer had thought of it.

And I not only have both, but I wrote a blogpost comparing them. So there you are.

Couldn't resist jumping in to add that.

Posted by: alias clio on June 2, 2007 5:38 PM

In past times, the best reviewers set out to examine the merits of the subjects of their reviews, and some of them did it very well, enlightening readers. Certainly a great deal of subjectivity comes into play, but it is cynical and untrue to say traditional reviewers have no standards or criteria or expertise. Modern blog reviewers, for the most part, perform a different function: they are tastemakers, and their goal is to win a following for the works they approve of. That is a very different underlying intent from what critics have been doing for generations, and it requires a different methodology. I trust the better reviewers, including Richard Schickel and Jonathan Yardley, far more than I trust the tastemakers.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on June 2, 2007 9:29 PM

I strongly doubt that any movie review published on paper over the last year can compare to Michael Blowhard's review of "300" on this blog.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 2, 2007 10:11 PM

The difference between an experienced critic's reviews and the reviews of tastemakers with blogs can be seen in a brilliant review of the new DeLillo 9/11 novel by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post. Go to the Yardley archive in the Books section of the Post.

Critics analyze a book on its merits; tastemakers express their likes and dislikes and try to win others to their tastes. Nearly all bloggers are tastemakers, not critics.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on June 3, 2007 10:40 AM

I should like to know what "analyse a book on its merits," means, as opposed to "express their likes and dislikes."

In an age when few people can agree upon definitions of beauty, morality, or even what constitutes "good" writing (i.e. does it require grammar, sense, and logic, or does it not?), the idea that there is any distinction between "what is good" and "what I like" is very difficult to maintain.

Certainly I believe there is one, but I doubt most reviewers would agree with me. Nor do I think they share my definition of what constitutes good and bad writing.

For the most part, when you strip away the verbiage, critics today have nothing but their likes and dislikes to offer, and these are often based upon their political and social beliefs, and an inclination towards the new and experimental.

What's more, even if professional reviewers do indeed analyse a book on its merits, I do not see that this necessarily implies that they are not also would-be tastemakers.

Posted by: alias clio on June 3, 2007 3:01 PM

I agree with Steve Sailer. That review/essay of "300" was actually one of the only pieces of movie criticism this year that dealt with larger concerns, rather than a basic analysis of why the movie was good or not. A more important topic to Michael Blowhard is how young individuals experience the arts today. If that kind of criticism is being written in a blog form, then I would rather be reading blogs.

Posted by: David Brown on June 3, 2007 3:17 PM

I confess to pulling an Ouroussoff many times when it comes to wine and tobacco. I don't feel too bad about it, mainly because I don't pretend that I'm speaking an absolute truth about what I'm smoking or drinking.

A 1933 Broadbent Malmsey Madeira might be the second coming of Christ for me, but I know full well that to most drinkers of wine, whether newcomers or folks with much more experience than me, what I enjoy tastes like candied oranges.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on June 3, 2007 4:22 PM

The words "analyse a book on its merits" mean nothing, nothing at all. They imply a number of things - eg a belief in rank based on special intellectual capacities - but they mean nothing.

Entire university faculties are devoted to such stuff as "critical analysis", just as they were once devoted to the Transmutation of Metals or the Nature of the Trinity. Here's an idea. If those pretending to a higher education in "English" were made to learn Icelandic (forget Anglo-Saxon!) they would feel better about themselves, having mastered something that has both solidity and difficulty; they would get the chip off their shoulder, ceasing to feel inferior around science grads and the like; they would use plainer, better English...and they could read the sagas!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on June 3, 2007 5:40 PM

Excellent idea, RT, and I would extend it to building a piece of fine furniture or rebuilding a transmission.

The immutable qualities of structure and materials demand rigor, and everyone can use a dose of that from time to time.

Posted by: Harry Bergeron on June 4, 2007 12:06 AM

Michael - Thanks! (I try).

Richard - I see the distinction you're making, but, the thing is, by the time a movie gets to the point where Richard Schieckel is going to write about it for Time Magazine, it's already gone through a pretty substantial "vetting" process - in terms of production, distribution, etc. What I like about bloggers is that they're free to choose subjects based on their own interests/preferences/tastes - they're actually a lot less beholden to "cultural gatekeepers".

With my own blogging, sometimes, yes, I do want to act as an advocate for a book/movie/whatever and I'll try to draw some attention to it. I do this because (1) nowadays books/movies/etc. are more likely to get lost in the pile of cultural stuff that's available to us and (2) a lot of the event/important books/movies/etc. that are suitable for a Time Magazine review or a piece in the NY Times Book Review just aren't that interesting to me as subjects for a blog post. (Not to mention that I'm totally unconvinced that the folks writing in the Times Book Review or writing academic criticism aren't just as much engaged in tatsemaking as most bloggers).

Posted by: Jon Hastings on June 4, 2007 6:39 PM

Shickel is and will always be a silly pompous ass. His book on Eastwood is a handjob of fanboy adulation and worthless as either biography or criticism. Nice to know he's so fond of people who actually work for a living as opposed to a bloviate who gets paid to pontificate. Dirda's a serious and talented critic but I think what we're dealing with here is a simple turf battle. The newspapers will inevitably lose their clout and cache to the web. I don't know if this is good or bad but it's going to happen.
Ed Gorman

Posted by: Ed Gorman on June 4, 2007 7:00 PM

I agree 100% with Michael that many bloggers out there are at least as good as if not better than most paid critics. And the critics feel it in their bones -- hence the hysteria. But I wonder if:

1) The success of these bloggers will mean the death of paid criticism?

2) Great bloggy critics won't burn out faster? Because, after all, working a day job and writing at night gets old faster than getting paid for what you love to do. Would Kael have had the career she had -- covered movies with the same depth and breadth -- without her New Yorker perch allowing her to do it full time?

Maybe the era of the truly legendary, culture-bestriding, standard-setting critic is over. Maybe such a creature isn't even possible anymore simply by virtue of our highly fragmented mosaic of subcultures. Not that I care *that* much. In with the new! But I do shed a tiny tear.

Posted by: Steve on June 4, 2007 7:45 PM

Hey, many thanks for nice comments about my "300" posting. It's great to know some smart people enjoyed it. I should mention that Steve Sailer has the most original approach to professional reviewing of anyone I've run across in years.

Steve (other Steve) writes: "Maybe the era of the truly legendary, culture-bestriding, standard-setting critic is over. Maybe such a creature isn't even possible anymore simply by virtue of our highly fragmented mosaic of subcultures." FWIW, I have the same hunch.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 5, 2007 10:56 AM


Because, after all, working a day job and writing at night gets old faster than getting paid for what you love to do.

Amen, brother, Amen.

But, just when I am thinking of chunking it all to hell, my erudite friend, Michael, posts something that gives me a shake, rattle, and roll and I unabashedly bask in his kind words.

2blowhards is like that favorite class in college where the professor was so good, so inspirational, so adroit at pulling everyone into the conversation that you hated to see each class end and everyone hung around long afterwards still caught up in the discussion.

Yep, exactly like that, term papers. Yay!

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on June 9, 2007 11:02 PM

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