Monday, May 01, 2006

Hacks and Snipers

In "The Amateur Critic vs. The Professional Critic," "professional critic" Rebecca Skloot comments briefly on an interesting article by Scott Kirsner in the Boston Globe, which notes the rise of Internet criticism and the challenge it presents to paid practitioners. Says Kirsner:

It's hard to imagine that the Internet will eliminate professional critics, any more than it eliminated professional realtors or grocery stores. But it will probably make these critics work harder to state their opinions clearly, wittily, and insightfully, and provide more context than the typical Web reviewer. [...]

Online reviews can be grammatically deficient, and stories of authors imploring their friends to post glowing notices on are common.

It should not be necessary (but, alas, it is) to remind Kirsner that the same problems--poor writing and a tendency to favor one's peers--can be found among the "professionals." And repeatedly over the years, I've scribbled copy for a publicity kit, only to have chunks of it magically reappear nearly verbatim in an article "written" by a paid reviewer.

Neither Skloot nor Kirsner attempts to define what a "professional critic" is, but let's assume for yucks that the term refers to anyone who makes a significant portion of his or her paycheck carping rather than creating. It's a rather narrowly defined group, and--like the "amateur critics" whose grammar is tsk-tsk'd by Kirsner--the audience and the quality ranges considerably: from movie critics on television programs to cultural critics for national magazines to the local librarian writing for a weekly advertiser. (What both articles neglect are the far more insightful and valuable essays written not by salaried critics but by scholars and authors--of the type you'd find in the New York Review of Books and TLS.)

There are a few indisputably great writers among the nation's professional critics, but a large percentage of them can be sorted into two groups: hacks and snipers.

Among the hacks: I've probably ridiculed enough for one month the abysmal prose of Michiko Kakutani; suffice to say that even the more tepid Amazon reviews are just as well-written and insightful as anything she's been paid to do this year. The pedestrian servings from Kakutani, Virginia Heffernan, Roger Ebert, Michael Medved, and their peers just don't bring much to the table: consumers often want more than a simple "I like it" varnished with glossy compliments or a vituperative "I hate it" baked in scalding insults. These writers regurgitate the same prose, day in and day out, and the results are neither memorable nor informative.

On the other side of the divide, you'll find, for example, William Logan's review in the New York Times Book Review two weeks ago, of David Lehman's The Oxford Book of American Poetry. The essay was well-written and entertaining--the newspaper equivalent of a literary catfight--but Logan's irascible humor and take-no-prisoners approach were indistinguishable from the traits found in a typical blog entry by James Wolcott. (And, to clarify: I don't mean this comment as a slight on Wolcott, whose gut-tickling blog and Vanity Fair columns I read religiously. Instead I'm simply arguing that the quality and tone of reviews appearing in print are often not very different than what you can find on a Web site.)

A poetry critic for both the Times and for The New Criterion (and a notably anemic poet himself), Logan spends most of his article judging Lehman's selections based on the number of pages they take up. Yet even his scattering of snap judgments tell us far more about William Logan and his own questionable tastes than about the book at hand:

Emily Dickinson's self-mutilating psychology and silvery unhappiness give a differential specimen of the American character. A bloodless recluse in Amherst, indrawn as a clam, she developed her own shorthand language, one so powerful the rhythms borrowed from hymns seem resolutely her own. [...]

It's one thing to leaven the majors with wits like Dorothy Parker or kooky originals like H. Phelps Putnam (who wrote, among other things, a pair of sonnets about genitals), quite another to try to revive the long dead reputations of Emma Lazarus, Adelaide Crapsey, Angelina Weld Grimke, Samuel Greenberg, Leonie Adams, Mark Van Doren, John Wheelwright and dozens of other trivial worthies (even on a bad day, a battered stanza by Eliot makes these poets look like a dish of mealworms). [...]

You can get the idea of Ashbery in two pages--almost everything after that is sludge. [...]

Yet far more pages are wasted on giddy, crowd-pleasing poets like Billy Collins and James Tate.

Like Wonkette at an open-mic poetry slam, Logan offers slivers of substance dipped in the deliciously syrupy coating of one-liners. On the blog 13 Ways ... Of Looking at a Blackbird, Beverly responds in kind: "Did anyone besides me think, Get that man some Pepto-Bismol? Please."

Reading the review again, I'm still not sure what Logan is trying to argue, but he tiptoes close to a thesis here: "A good anthologist must have a few bizarre quirks, though preferably not too many. Lehman's catholic taste and appreciation of minor voices make him ill at ease with major ones." What Logan really seems to want is a Hall-of-Fame anthology that includes huge chunks of Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, Pound, Frost, Stevens, Williams, and Lowell, plus a few lesser but well-known poets, rather than a collection that might introduce readers to a wide variety of authors they've never had the chance to encounter. Yet he doesn't bother to address whether there is even such a need for the type of commonplace book he seems to envision.

The sorry truth for the future well-being of "professional critics" is that you can find online a lot of writing that is as repetitive (and insubstantial) as Kakutani's and as sarcastic (and insubstantial) as Logan's. The major difference is that the kids online are writing from the heart rather than for the wallet.