Just who is this guy?

Where does a critic's authority come from? Where does this guy get off saying the book I loved was a waste of wood pulp?

And why should anyone listen to him?

The questions occurred to me while reading Richard Schickel's instantly notorious, flame-bait outburst against bloggers, "Not everybody's a critic" in the LA Times. Much of what Mr. Schickel grumps about is -- pace all of the outraged bloggers -- perfectly accurate. Reviews aren't just opinions, no matter how wittily and dismissively they're expressed. Much of what passes for literary criticism on the web is simply very loud likes and dislikes, often not very enlightening likes or dislikes, unsubstantiated and barely argued, if at all -- dragged down, perhaps, by the way the web inspires flame wars and insults. If Jessa Crispin (Bookslut) trashes another book -- like Don DeLillo's Falling Man -- while declaring her contempt for the work in question is so mighty and inviolate that she'll never stoop to reading the book, I'll stop paying attention to her judgment on most any book. And I heartily agree with her on many graphic novels. But the surly imperiousness does her no favors.

And Bookslut is actually one of the more interesting book blogs around. Think of the thousands of others.

The question of a critic's authority has nagged at me for as long as I've been a working critic (more than 20 years). It's nagged me because many of the conventional answers felt inadequate (he has a Ph.D., she wrote a book on the subject, that other guy writes for the Times). And although journalism doesn't permit much introspection, it does have a habit of hitting you with the same basic problems over and over until you solve them. Or ignore them entirely.

What follows, then, is my ploddingly pragmatic attempt (I apologize for its length) to work out where critics derive their authority to speak ex cathedra the way we do. And I do mean Pragmatic with a Capital P -- this attempt avoids any resort to critical theory because I repeatedly found those tools unhelpful when a caller was threatening to break my arm over what I wrote about his play. Instead, this essay focuses on what strike me as day-to-day realities of critics and readers, what happens between them in the course of a review and over time.

It's my apologia pro via critica -- a phrase which, by the way, this critic can't help noticing mangles Latin and Greek together.

Authority or just plain credibility as a reviewer was a pressing concern when I became the Dallas Morning News' theater critic in 1986 for the simple reason that I had never taken an acting or directing class, never studied theater as performance. To be sure, there'd been plenty of courses on theater as literature. My doctoral dissertation, if I'd written it, would have been on Samuel Beckett, and what I considered my master's thesis was on Hamlet.

But as theater people well know, there's a world of difference between the page and the stage. Love's Labor's Lost, Act IV, scene 3, has different characters entering sequentially. Each comes upon the previous character and spies on him reading aloud a love poem or letter. In turn, the spy finds a letter to read aloud (or reads his own sonnet) only to be spied upon by the next character happening by, and so on, until everyone is revealed as love-besotted fools. The first time one reads this scene, the contrivances and repetitions are just hokey, utterly silly without being clever. On stage, though, any halfway competent director and cast can make the scene charming or even uproarious. And if the director is inventive enough, the actors talented enough, the third or fourth time you see a production of Love's Labor's Lost, that scene can still be a delight, especially the happy anticipation, the mechanical certainty, that the last idiot simply must walk out onstage and fall into the same trap.

As a public relations writer for what is now known as Bass Hall at UT-Austin, I'd certainly gained some in-the-trenches theater experience. Working with the English National Opera on tour, Twyla Tharp and dozens of Broadway productions was a hands-on, backstage job, dealing with everyone from lighting crew to box office. But again, it's not the same as acting or directing outfront.

On the other hand, how many film critics have actually made a movie? It's the old Dr. Johnson line -- one needn't be a cook to know dinner is bad.

So what does one need to know? Where does a critic's taste, his authority, his ability to pass judgment, originate?

In the early '90s, the Dallas Times Herald hired a new theater critic who, it turned out, had been a professional actor. He even still had his Equity card; he'd acted off-Broadway. He came to town making it plain to the local theater community that he was one of them, He understood. A seasoned stage performer: the perfect opponent, it would seem, to underscore any insecurities about my own credibility.

Then one evening I ran into a theater director/professor/friend and happened to ask him what he thought of the new critic in town. He was curious to know more about the fellow's background, and when I explained, my friend promptly quipped, "Oh, yes, that's what every director wants judging him from the seats. An ex-actor with a grudge."

Well put. What this says is that not only is direct education/experience in an art not absolutely necessary for a critic, it can even be a hindrance, a distortion. Your teacher could have been an eccentric, someone with a warped notion of his art. Or, considering the highly collaborative nature of an art like theater, extensive background as a lighting designer may cause one to over-value the importance of blue gels and undervalue the contributions of, oh, say, actors.

As it turned out, the new drama reviewer, for all of his first-hand knowledge of theater, was a perfectly dreadful critic. In all of this, I am not making a case for ignorance as an asset in a critic. Far from it. I envy the depth of classical knowledge in writers such as Daniel Mendelsohn or Garry Wills. But let's return to the teacher analogy: Haven't we all had a teacher who was clearly very knowledgeable in his field, perhaps even a leading scholar in it -- and he was still a bad teacher? Boring, poorly organized, incapable of conveying his topic in a manner that either interested his students or just let them grasp it?

All the knowledge in the world doesn't necessarily make for a good critic, either. it doesn't necessarily mean we should (or even will) listen to him.

So what does?The answer came to me while listening to other newspaper critics answer one of the most common questions we hear from readers: How did you get this job?

The question is prompted by several desires to know more. First, there is no set career path to be a critic on a newspaper or magazine. So it is a bit of a mystery. Only relatively recently have graduate journalism programs even included classes on reviewing. Yet they are no guarantee of eventual employment as a critic. There is still no "required" apprenticeship or degree program or even designated butts to kiss. It remains an ad hoc, who-you-know, what-editor-happened-to-read-your-work profession.

Related to this lack of a clear-cut background is the reader's simple curiosity: Who is this person handing me advice over breakfast? It is a common human interaction. When a reader would ask me, one-on-one, for a good novel to read, my first response has generally been, well, what kind of novels do you typically like?

We often try to personalize the exchange of information like this. Critics (and readers) may believe that theirs are judgments based on aesthetic principles and rationally arrived-at values, but in most ordinary conversations about any art form, the discussion quickly turns to matters of likes/dislikes, personal favorites, anecdotal evidence. This goes on unconsciously, I believe, in the course of almost any recommendation. If a friend or family member tells us not to see a particular film, we make a thousand calculations without thinking, based on our knowledge of our friend's previous expressions of taste, cinematic preferences, his hots for the leading actress and so forth.

The same is happening on a more overt and even crude level when we ask, "How did you get this job?" -- in other words, what has shaped your choices? And do they lend you any credibility?

Having heard my fellow critics (and myself) answer this question dozens of times with the expected litany of degrees earned and promotions won, I was struck by how the answer seemed beside the point. It disappointed because it didn't answer what was actually being asked. How did you become a critic? That is, what was it in you that let you believe you could pass judgment on books or music, and people should listen to your pronouncements?

In short, there's an element of moral challenge to the question: Who are you to say these things?

Finally, the question is often asked because the critic generally has no licensed position of authority, that is, no real power backed by law or money or custom. Consider: Only a handful of people in our entire lives can judge us with impunity and make those judgments matter. Our parents, our teachers, our employers, real judges in court, and maybe religious ministers (though many, wisely, leave that judging stuff to God). Anyone else who tells us that we can't write or that our taste in music is awful, we can safely tell them to screw off. You're not the boss of me.

Yet we still avidly seek out the judgments of such people, people we most often don't even know personally -- and follow their advice on how we should spend our evenings, what we should hang on our walls, put in our CD collections.

Where did they earn this 'power'?

It's with the word "earn" that I realized how this all actually works. We have it backwards. The critic doesn't bring authority to his reviews. It's his reviews that grant him authority, earn him any authority. A review is not an opinion, as Mr. Schickel says. It's not even (just) a wise judgment. It's an attempt at persuasion. It doesn't simply tell us that this book is worthy of our time and attention. A review tells us why and how. In trying to explain the critic's own response, the review justifies them. The review leads us into sharing his conclusion.

In other words, the critic earns his authority by using his knowledge, his rhetorical skills, his humor, his personal insights, maturity, modesty, bravura cleverness -- whatever it takes, in this particular instance, to convey the experience of the film in question and to convince us not only that he's right but that he's worth listening to. These are the only things that matter with a critic. Just as with a teacher, it's all about the classroom (and how he handles the homework), with a critic, it's all about what's on the page. If he can't do that, all the rest is meaningless.

So, then, what does one need to be a critic? A critic worth listening to? One needs to have experienced a lot of the art form in question -- read a lot of books, seen a lot of plays. One needs to have thought about them a lot. And one needs to be able to express those thoughts vividly, lucidly. Persuasively.

And if you work for a newspaper, you'd better be able to do it fast and to the point. And then do it again tomorrow.

Of course, a critic may gain a cumulative authority. We're won over by one review, he turned out to be right about that great sitcom. So we pick up his next review to find out what he says now. This is why it's important for newspapers and magazines to have regular critics: They gain authority over time, and we get to know their sensibilities, just as we know our friends'. This, I believe, is essentially what people mean when they tell critics the other line we so often hear: I don't agree with everything you say, but .... and what they leave unsaid (although sometimes, they do say it) is that I always read your work anyway/always enjoy reading your work/always learn something from reading your work.

This also why the rise of the "five star" or "thumbs up/thumbs down" review mechanism, the Entertainment Weekly blurb review, the blogger's bitchy dismissal have all been pernicious developments in the art of criticism. In these instances, they reduce the process, they crudify it. It is just an opinion, so much amusing confetti or spitwads, less than a book jacket blurb or those breathless movie ad exclamations from some radio or TV (or increasingly, internet) hack you've never heard of. One can learn little from these so-called reviews except, perhaps at best, the craftiness of the writer in feeding the worst aspects of the corporate marketing machinery or the Zippy-the-Pinhead attention span of the web. Would you give more credence to one of these blurb-o-mats if the name of the author were followed by Ph.D.?

My conclusions here may seem commonplace -- all this writing and my big insight comes down to a critic's work on the page is what matters, all that earns him a following. Big surprise. The sad surprise is how often this seemingly obvious point gets lost in the posturing and anger and snobbery that always seem to come out in arguments over judgments, the purpose of reviews, the power of the critic, the supposed decline of the critic, the place of the critic, the rise of the amateur web critic, the professional ethics of the critic -- and all of the other perennial debate topics that never seem to advance the art of criticism much.

But my conclusions tell me that, ultimately, Mr. Schickel is wrong. Some bloggers certainly deserve respect as critics, and they gain it (or are gaining it) the old-fashioned way, the same way Mr. Schickel has, the same way critics have done since Aristophanes mocked Sophocles or Aristotle tried to figure out how theater worked its magic on an audience.

They earned it.

May 23, 2007 8:50 AM | | Comments (5)

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5 Comments

You should also point out that even a BAD critic has value, just as long as they are consistent. For instance, we have a local entertainment critic at the Seattle P.I. who runs 180 degrees from what my family finds enjoyable. So, whatever play he pans, we'll attend. Whatever movie he raves about, we avoid like the plague. We have yet to be disappointed.

While it's true reviews aren't just opinion -- the critic is responsible for providing the reader with certain factual material, placing the work within its genre, its milieu, its culture; providing some information about the artist, the circumstances, etc, -- still, reviews are largely opinion. But informed opinion. And that's, I think, what sets the critic aside.
During the decades that I reviewed the visual arts, I must have gone to hundreds of exhibits, visited dozens of studios, viewed thousands of works, and read hundreds of books about art. I discussed art with artists, curators, historians, art lovers, and gawkers. I also kept up my interest in music, literature, theater, dance, and history. Because, as Leo Steinberg once said, it takes a lifetime to learn to look at a painting. Everything feeds and alters your perceptions of a work. It sounds snobbish to say it, but all opinion is not equal. I am wary of critics who dismiss certain kinds of art -- all television is trash, hip-hop is not really music at all -- when it's clear they've never really experienced them.
Artists as critics is an interesting question. There are a few painters who write knowledgeably about art. Robert Motherwell comes to mind. Picasso is always worth attending to when he speaks about other artists. Not because he was an especially astute critic, but because of his acute vision. (The two are not synonymous.) In general artists value that work that in some way nourishes their own, work they have learned from, or cast off but still respect. Work that doesn't feed their own vision usually gets short shrift. George O'Keeffe once asked me if I liked Brancusi. Of course I liked Brancusi,I said. But lately I had become interested in David Smith. It was the end of our conversation about sculpture. It's not hard to see why. Brancusi and George O'Keeffe had worlds in common. David Smith, as far as she was concerned, might as well have been a plumber. It didn't affect my love of O'Keeffe's work. But it did teach me to be wary of the critical judgment of artists.
Finally, I think the critic's role is to set the conversation going. I never hoped to be right in all my judgments, even most of my judgments. But I hoped to be at least nourishing in some way. I myself learned a lot about looking at art by reading critics who opened my eyes. A singl;e lecture by Leo Steinberg taught me to look at cubism. There's a wonderful Jasper Johns sculpture that every critic should have on her desk; it's called "The Critic Sees," and it consists of a pair of eyeglasses with, behind each lens, a mouth, open and talking. Of course that's it, isn't it? All we critics, in a sense, see with our mouths open, that is, we see ultimately through the medium of language. We might deny it, but it's so. That's why I was often unsure what I thought of a work, or how it made its effect upon me, until I sat down to put it into words. Otherwise, I'd have been just a connoisseur.

I want your assurance of having solved your posed cunundrum but wish this true I fear. Perhaps though you identify curious intellect? Really? Critics require curiosity maybe--I understood from this somehow. Question then judge. Honestly impressionable? Yet acute. Cute?

I became the staff arts/entertainment critic/reporter at the Waco Tribune-Herald about the same time that Mr. Weeks became theater critic at the Dallas Morning News and found myself saying amen at several points.

He brings up what I feel is an important dynamic that I rarely see addressed in discussions of critics/bloggers: the role of one's readership. While years of reviewing experiences (plays, movies, concerts seen and heard) influence my writing, it's significantly shaped by whom I see as my audience.

When I see a play or film, I try to think how general Waco readers would react: parents with school-age kids or younger, political conservatives, Christians, retirees, Southerners, blacks, Hispanics, longtime Texans - the various perspectives that give a community like Waco its cultural flavor. I write and critique with these readers in mind.

Over the last year, we've shifted many of my reviews from print to our arts and entertainment blog. It's enabled an immediacy that was missing due to early print deadlines and also offers a chance for feedback, two considerable pluses. Still, I find myself wondering exactly who are my readers are now, given that the Internet offers a global reach a magnitude beyond a newspaper's physical distribution area. Do I continue in my same voice and sensibilities as before, and let readers interested in that gravitate to my posts, or try to appeal to the different demographic that's now online? It's an open-ended question.

The online uproar this spring over the movie "300" from bloggers and readers who fumed MSM critics who bashed it "simply don't get it" got me thinking about blogging critics and their readers. I'm willing to entertain arguments that new ways of approaching and critiquing film outside of narrative and storyline, the core values of many MSM critics, are needed. Many of the blogging reviews I found, though, offered little more than "it's visual, it moved me and it was cool" - no sense of an audience greater than the writer, one that might have a different perspective or need a little education.

Critics, no matter the medium or format, earn their authority through their writing and perspective. That process, though, is an ongoing dialogue between a writer addressing an audience and an audience willing to engage him/her.

Keep up the good work, book/daddy. Readers like me appreciate it.

Outstanding essay, Mr. Weeks, and a great companion to Mr. Schickel's piece, which makes good points but was too much of a blanket dismissal of internet-based criticism. In this rapidly changing world, that is where most of our work will ultimately end up, event those of us who started in print. And like you say, we will have to earn our audiences.

I do also like the persuasion argument both of you bring up, because when I think about critics I follow and appreciate, they are the ones who have brought me to things I had not previously considered, or maybe even assumed I would hate.

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This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on May 23, 2007 8:50 AM.

A minority report was the previous entry in this blog.

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