Clean Copy Saved My Life

Jason Gross, the tireless entrepreneur of Perfect Sound Forever, asked dozens of critics, myself included, what kind of advice they’d give to aspiring young critics, and he’s beginning to post the answers here (critics A through D this week; I presume I’ll be in the following alphabetic fistful). [UPDATE: Oops: E through K appeared while I was writing this.] My first thought was, there are still aspiring young critics? My second was, what advice would do them any good at THIS point? But on reflection I managed to come up with some, not nearly as practical as the average represented. Some of the advice is pretty good. I like this from Ted Barron at Boogie Woogie Flu: “Avoid hero worshipping. Musicians, however much you may admire their works, are just people. Know them personally, be one, be something.” Peter Blackstock’s rules are ones I followed instinctively, out of sheer terror of unemployment:

1) Be on time. 
2) Turn in clean copy. 
3) Be open to assignments. 
4) Familiarize yourself as fully as possible with the publication to whom you’re pitching. 
5) Don’t sell yourself short.

And I fully endorse Jon Caramanica’s “Have an opinion. Believe in it. It might be wrong–that’s OK.” Most emphasize that no one can make a living as a critic these days, and you’ll have to have a day job in addition. That’s probably true. Still, while I never lived high as a critic (my top salary at the Voice was a little over $30,000, plus I was free-lancing for other publications that added a fraction to that), in the ’80s it gave me a living wage at a time when there was nothing else I could have done. I don’t think Walmart would have hired me. I was only qualified for academia, and completely out of sync with what academia was mandating at the time. For me, criticism felt like a gold mine I’d stumbled across. But those were different times. 

The problem, of course, is that most of this is pop advice, and the criteria for pop and classical critics don’t greatly overlap (making my contribution come off as pretty pompous in context, though I stand by it for anyone who wants to do what I did). A lot of what’s offered has to do with developing your own literary style, which is not really expected of classical critics, and hardly feasible in any publication that gives you fewer column inches than the New Yorker. You become a pop critic by spinning wild fantasies about where some band’s persona fits into the social scheme; you become a classical (or jazz, I think) critic by being a snob with a big record collection and pretentiously high standards. I’m a great believer in criticism, and consider it a potentially noble profession, but until we train people to do it, and teach them various modes of criticism, and hold them to rigorous standards, and give them enough space and scope in our publications to let them be intelligent, the bulk of it (the classical stuff, anyway) seems like a waste of ink. Alex Ross and his New Yorker space should be the pattern, not, as they are, the absolutely anomalous exception. The rest is, and can only be, little more than hit-or-miss PR. Thus my disinclination to put much energy into advice for a profession otherwise close to my heart. “Get Alex Ross’s job” is pretty empty advice while he’s still so young.

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Speaking of which, I got an advance copy of Alex’s new book Listen to This (everyone still thinks I’m a critic), idly started reading it, and its bristling energy alone made it difficult to put down. He really is the classical Lester Bangs. 

Also relatedly, with the subject heading “‘English’ reviewers may suck but Irish reviewers ROCK!”, wildly red-haired Irishman Bob Gilmore alerts me to a more factually accurate review of my 4’33” book in the Irish Times. I guess I’m going to have to read George Prochnik’s In Pursuit of Silence, with which I keep being paired.