Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Take That! Foolish Critical Readers

No, not you dear friends, but readers of the Commercial Appeal. Still clearing out Sunday stories, I have to mention this story titled "Critics Cornered," in which theater critic Christopher Blank, under the guise of writing about a persistent, critical letter writer is actually using some column space to exact a small measure of revenge.

He writes:
Someone was trying to tell me how to write.

"Can you believe this?" I said, handing it to my editor, and we laughed, because laughter is the only armor critics have against the myriad people who feel that no hack journalist is qualified enough to say negative things about the entertainments they love so dearly.

More articles showed up, picking, prodding. Some of them were complimentary, too.

VERY GOOD INDEED! TERRIFIC!, raved a sprawling manuscript on a play review that also bore the mark of a balanced criticism by back handedly pointing out a grammar goof. One does not quibble about split infinitives with one who never dangles a participle....

Why couldn't she see what I was trying to accomplish?

I was trying to make classical music seem interesting to folks who might ignore it. I was trying not to sound so stuffy. I was trying to be entertaining.

One day, a long letter arrived on a sheet of white paper. It said:

To help save your job - You need to LISTEN with eyes closed if necessary. No "scenery" (the seating arrangement at a recent chamber music performance) or "costumes." Actors use body, voice. Musicians just "voice," "interior." Music is drama too. The inner soul, not the "outer" seen on stage.

As the victim of a critic, I was suddenly bursting with questions that actors, musicians, dancers, directors and various enraged arts fans have been asking me for ages: Who are you? What qualifies you to say what you say? Do you even know anything about that which you criticize?

Since the letters came anonymously, I couldn't purge my ire by means of snarky, self-defensive rebuttals, much like those I send to folks who question my authority via E-mail. Raging silently, I wrote to my anonymous critic.
He's angry because an anonymous person repeatedly sent him marked up columns with lots of advice on how to improve. Sound familiar? It got under his skins pretty bad, to judge by this column. When she finally used her real name, Blank was more than willing to out her in this article, all the while venting his own anger.

Sadly, he doesn't seem to have understood the lesson here. There's nothing wrong with critics have opinions. It's good, as it means they have some standards by which they judge what they review. The problems is when those standards aren't articulated to the reader, who is then left to wonder what the reviewer does like and why. That's the nub of it -- why.

Blank has absorbed the CA writer's tendency to hide behind the institution, to present a disconnected face to the public while pretending a neutrality that is, to most readers, clearly false. Only by admitting to biases and prerequisites can the reader see where the reviewer comes from. That's what generates a lot of the outraged mail to the CA, not clearly knowing where they come from.

One of my favorite reviewers from the past was rock critic Lester Bangs. His reviews were rambling and emotional, and often not apparently on the subject at hand. He once wrote a review of a Black Sabbath album in which he mostly told a story of going to the supermarket late at night to score some Romilar cough syrup, for a cheap high, while extolling the virtures of a Romilar downer. He only briefly mentioned the Black Sabbath album, but it was clear that he was saying it wasn't as good as a Romilar high. If you were a regular reader of Lester Bangs (a reader requisite of any reviewer), you knew what he meant. He had strong opinions, passionate beliefs and a tongue that could both cut and caress.

But too many of the reviewers for the CA have problems of blandness, or irrelevance, or aestheticism. John Beifuss, the movie critic, is bland; Tom Walters is irrelevant; Frederic Koeppel is the aesthete, the guy who is better than you. Andrew Young, Cap'n Comics, is pretty passionate, but is strictly limited to his comics ghetto. Bill Ellis clearly loves music and can tell you what he likes, or dislikes, and why in ways that are informative to you.

Anyway, the CA's answer to Blank's problem is to institute the "Readers React" feature. It's a bad idea, as it's just another Letters to the Editor, broken out by specific article. As a newspaper reader, I really don't care what other readers think. I'm paying to know what the writers think, and more importantly why. How many times have they already printed Letters to the Editor that demanded answers, only to ignore any response? They would do far, far better to simply give the "React" space over to the writers at the paper to answer questions from readers. Explain themselves, their biases and reasoning, and the public will benefit. The paper will develop a real relationship with the community, not the present one-way shovelling of drivel we have now.

I don't think that's going to happen, though. The paper has a one-way wall between themselves and the public. They are deeply protective of their privilege. Oddly enough, it's precisely the kind that they do not sit for from the subjects of their questions. Goose, meet gander.

You can see a preview of what the new "Readers React" feature will look like here. Tellingly, they use the exact same people, and some of the same words, as they quoted in the above story! Wow, such economy. It bodes well for the future.

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