From Dwight Garner’s New York Times Magazine riff on “A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical” (8/15/12)

Here’s the basic gist from this book critic:

What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.

There’s little to disagree with there, save for perhaps the word “punishing”: in a world in which somehow even bad press has become good press (for sales); a once-benched, unenthusiastic, uninspired film like Hansel and Gretel can “merit” a sequel; and countless YouTube videos have just been uploaded into the mythical Cloud, we’re all in dire need of aggressive arbiters over contemplative curators. Like the exceedingly rich who have lost touch with the world (to the extend that they need to hire shoppers to help them spend their money, or staff to filter and break down pop cultural trends to them), we’re all in danger of missing out on the flavor-of-the-second zeitgeist. There isn’t enough to time to watch, read, play, or listen to everything — even if you’re distilling down to a single artistic medium — which is why we need trustworthy people who are willing to wade through a sea of mediocrity in the efforts of finding the gems.

Crowdsourcing (like Reddit) may work when it comes time to make a silly dance sensation go viral, but for the finer arts, especially lengthy tomes or season-long series, we really do need tougher standards. Mind you, this isn’t saying that everyone should like the same thing: Garner stresses the word authoritative, which is to say merely that however granular you want to make your genre, you should be able to find someone within in that category — once attempted to nominate gurus before it morphed into a TV trends site — who can help you to weed out the losers. It’s closer to what Longreads and Byliner are doing, though these serve more as archival services (an easy-to-browse card catalog), and if they’re selective (or even if they’re pulling from an all-inclusive library of current magazines), they’re secretly so. There’s no byline for the person who uploaded and linked to a story up on Byline, so there’s no way to measure whether that recommendation is something that might be up your alley, or if it’s just more of that unending content, now more streamlessly and slickly delivered than ever! I’m envisioning something closer to what I’m attempting to do, in which I make no secrets about who I am, what I’m about, and what I’m feeling, and then post links and quotes (and, often, as with this post, personal responses) to the article itself. A better, more consistent example might be what Paul Debraski’s doing over at I Just Read About That: if you know that he’s, say, reading through back-issues of McSweeney’s, you can let him do the work and then read the pieces that he made sound most appealing to you. Admittedly, it’s not that difficult to look at the table of contents of those New Yorkers that keep flooding your mailbox (three things in life are certain: death, taxes, and another issue of The New Yorker), and to then read only those stories that most jump off the page, but now expand it to those magazines that you’re not reading, the films you’re not watching, etc.

There may be an artistic renaissance going on right now, but if that’s the case, then we need even tougher critics, those who are willing to say that despite a recent work being good, there’s something even better that you might want to first check out. (This is why I never understood Armond White; he wrote erudite defenses that were clever to read, but did anybody really need a defense of Transformers? How awful was everything else that season?) We don’t need this late-season American Idol nonsense where everybody gets an A for effort and the “judges” either don’t know what they’re talking about or don’t know how to describe what they mean: Ben Folds, of The Sing-Off, is probably the best reality TV judge we’ve ever had, whereas the temperamental, often biased, and egotistical Donald Trump is probably the worst; some of the professional critics on, say, Top Chef, come close . . . when they’re not looking for sound bites. (According to Garner, none of the early American Idol either: “criticism doesn’t mean delivering petty, ill-tempered Simon Cowell-like put-downs.”)

Garner makes an essential point when he notes that “new mediums like Twitter and Yelp have become all opinion, all the time, with little in their digitized streams of yak that a critic might recognize as real criticism.” You’ve all heard the saying about what opinions are like, and while there’s room for the most enthusiastic bloggers and devoted fans who want to erect shrines to cancelled shows (never mind that they gloss over any and all of the imperfections and refuse to allow any other opinions in), this shouldn’t be the form of discussion that displaces and drives out those who might actually debate or discern the value of what’s out there. Nor should the snarky pandering of newspapers and online journals (to the lowest common denominator reader, tuning in just to have their own opinions validated) do away with the descriptive and defensive pieces that were once more frequent. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with any of these formats, and I love a good put-down as much as the next reader: it’s only when these pieces are mistaken for criticism itself or, worse, the thing that replaces criticism that I start to get nervous.

And what am I nervous about? I have to head back to Garner for this, since he puts a name to my demons:

It [criticism] means making fine distinctions. It means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter (and they do). It’s at base an act of love. Our critical faculties are what make us human.

Yes, I’m nervous about losing our humanity: the love, appreciation, and empathy we feel from something truly inspiring (even if only to us) to a septic overflow of unprocessed, unfiltered content in which we do all our work simply trying to consume our way to the surface rather than to actually interact with what we’re experiencing. Yeah, sure that film from the Criteron Collection is terrific; no time to process, I’ve got a hundred more to watch, and so the very act of collecting these films has made each previous installment all the more meaningless. We need best of best of lists merely to keep it all together! It all causes us to recede back to a primal self — the hyperactive five-year-old boy I saw at the laundromat last night who applauded each time violence was inflicted to a character during The Naked Gun, without a care or concern in the world — and up-vote the things that tap into our basest instincts, without ever pausing to evaluate what this might say about us, our culture, or our craft. We don’t all have to be reading Infinite Jest, but if we’re going to read an action novel, can’t we at least find someone who can direct us to the best examples of that genre?

To that end, then (and back to Garner’s point): we need to be more than “recommendation machines,” and we need to be more honest, both with ourselves and others, about what we like. This means taking a moment or two to think about what we’re arguing (a weakness of mine, I know); it means being willing to step back from the “solicitous communalism of Twitter” or the omnipresent watercooler conversation of Facebook. It means limiting ourselves, for a time so that we might be more expansive later. As I’ve said I want to do with my own criticism, this means avoiding wholly negative pieces or singing empty praises of terrific theater: we know there’s the good and bad. I’m more concerned now with what else we might say . . . before we reach a point where everyone stops listening, entirely. After all, assholes don’t have ears.

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