Brian Seibert responds to “The Frame Game”: why to leave the “I” out

I agree about the pitfalls of retreating to the first person–the position of “This is just my opinion”–in reviews. There’s a place for it, such as when you want to make a comment that you know is idiosyncratic, a pet peeve. But if it’s done too much, it negates the whole enterprise.
The declarative sentence already says, implicitly, This is How I See It–and expresses a point of view that everyone knows is necessarily limited. Calling attention to the limitations quickly becomes mousy (“If you don’t like what I’m saying, I don’t really mean it”) or passive-aggressive (“This is just MY opinion, and if you don’t share it, you’re an idiot.”). Both are annoying. Such qualification is a temptation to be resisted, or a tonal color to be used in extreme moderation. A little goes a long way.
The critic SHOULD second-guess himself–question his assumptions, double-check the rightness and fairness of his assertions–but BEFORE he turns the piece in. You doubt and rethink, but then you have to make up your mind and assert something–which is why, at least for me (to retreat to the first person), writing is usually agonizing.
Was it Coleridge who wrote about judging the work in the spirit in which it was made? That seems the right first step, but then you have your response, and the thinking-through of that response (which can and often should step out of the dance’s frame). Then you try to convey something about the work, that response, and those thoughts in a severely limited number of words–making artistic choices about order, emphasis, style, and tone that are not so different from the kinds of difficult choices made by the artist under review.
[ed. note: Brian Seibert writes regularly for The New Yorker’s “Goings on About Town” section and The New York Sun, and has contributed to The Threepenny Review, the Times and the Voice. He’s working on a history of tap for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.]

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