Outrageous Criticism

Everyone's a Critic 43060641_b3494810a6

I am in Book Review Limbo these days. I still subscribe to The New Yorker, but I recently canceled my subscriptions to the TLS and LRB because  (a)  I was only interested in coverage of classics, which was diminishing;  (b) Mary Beard’s free blog was obviously the go-to place for classics; and  (c) I decided I’d rather blow a couple of hundred dollars on jeans.

So where do I read reviews?  Blogs partially fill the gap.  I like the voices in personal blogs, whether polished or rough, because we get to know the individual writers.  Their voices are usually much tamer and diluted in blog/webzines, alas, but Bookslut was the best of these.   So I was sorry to hear that Jessica Crispin, the writer, critic, and editor of Bookslut, shut down her book blog/webzine, which covered mostly small press books. She says she got tired of it, and my guess is she doesn’t need it anymore, now that she has published two books.  Bookslut always seemed a little young to me, but I liked to know it was there.

So why am I writing about Bookslut if I didn’t spend much time there?  Because The Guardian sucked me in with the title of an article,  “Jessica Crispin “We’re Not Allowed to Say the Paris Review Is Boring.”

It’s so much fun to read a quote like that.  We all love an outrageous critic.  She is an outsider–she started Bookslut while she was working at Planned Parenthood in Texas–and what she learned about the New York publishing industry didn’t impress her.  I actually like The Paris Review, and used to buy it at Borders, which is no longer an option.  I still have a decades-old copy with an article about someone who went looking for J. D. Salinger.

The author of the Guardian article writes about Crispin,

In fact Crispin’s long run at Bookslut, where she did basically what she wanted, gave her a vision into the world of publishing that made her ill. She would open Bookforum, for example, she said, and find it reviewing only a certain set of books. “As things get kind of more chaotic for publications,” she said. “They get narrower and narrower and more elite and nepotistic.” It bothered her that the industry thought of itself as being intellectually honest when it was obsessed with “money and celebrity”.

I know very little about the New York publishing industry, but I have gleaned from years of reading reviews  and seeing the same few books and authors boosted in every bookstore and every review publication  that  writers who get reviewed have (a) Ivy League connections, (b) graduated from an MFA program,  (c) or, as in Hollywood…well, we can’t say that.    As for English publishing, it seems miraculous that anyone who didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge would ever  get a gig.

By the Way, The Paris Review has published a response to Crispin’s words.

The Secret’s Out: We’re BORINGASFUCK
May 9, 2016 | by The Paris Review

Subscribe now and receive 10 percent off with the promotion code BORINGASFUCK.

Better get crackin’, guys, because that offer is finite!

Man Up! It’s Hard to Be a Critic

A. O. Scott has written a new book, Better Living Through Criticism.  If you’re like me,  you do not know who A. O. Scott is.  He is the movie critic for the New York Times.  No, he is the film critic.

I do not see many films at the germy cineplex here.  In the last few months, I have seen Star Wars, Joy, and The Lady in the Van.  The first two are what I call movies; the last may be a film.  And I must say, Jennifer Lawrence, nominated for an Oscar for her role in Joy, is the Prettiest Actress Ever Stuck Playing the Inventor of a Mop.

I am never going to read a book with the title  Better Living Through Criticism.  I am a great fan of Pauline Kael’s witty essays, which  have titles like “Is There a Cure for Film Criticism?”

But I did read Nathan Heller’s lively review in The New Yorker of Scott’s book.

I cannot criticize a book on the basis of a review (or is it criticism?), but I can’t resist because I gather that Scott’s book is a lament about being a Gen-Xer who went to an Ivy League school and now writes criticism and doesn’t get the respect he wants.  Heller says Scott makes “a case for his embattled craft.” It seems that Scott assumes that readers of blogs and Yelp!  cannot tell the difference between film criticism and the reviews of  “Blogging Bob” (a character invented by Heller).

Heller is a young smart writer. He opens the review with a description of  George Orwell’s writing reviews for money and not respecting the work.  Then Heller segues into the difference between critics and “Blogging Bob.”

What’s the point of a reviewer in an age when everyone reviews? A common defense of the endeavor centers on three qualities: expertise, eloquence, and attention. Critics have essential skills that Blogging Bob does not. They know more. They are decent writers, who can give a fair encapsulation of a work and detail their responses. And they’re focussed: since their job is studying and explaining the object at hand, they are especially alert to its nuances.

Yes, it’s funny–but “Blogging Bob?”

Then Heller condescendingly adds that Blogging Bob, a tax accountant, may indeed have a lively voice and know about films. But the damage is done.  Nice try, but the name Blogging Bob says it all.

A. O. Scott may or may not be Critic Claude. I have invented the character Critic Claude in response to Heller’s invention of Blogging Bob.  This is not Scott’s fault.  And yet I am so, so very tired of white male Ivy League-educated critics complaining about the waning of criticism when they have jobs that others would kill for.  The quotations from Scott’s books are not especially promising.  “Will it sound defensive or pretentious if I say that criticism is an art in its own right?”

Yes, it sounds defensive because we already know that.

Here is another quote from Scott:

It is my contention here that criticism, far from sapping the vitality of art, is instead what supplies its lifeblood; that criticism, properly understood, is not an enemy from which art must be defended, but rather another name—the proper name—for the defense of art itself.

Criticism has its place; We have no problem with that.

But I, too, have seen some changes in the culture.  It’s a tough life!  Scott graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and then found work at prestigious publications in New York. Heller also graduated from Harvard and ditto.  I got my master’s from a state university  and could barely pay the rent with my teaching job. (I switched professions.)  And most of the Latin (slave) teaching jobs, German teaching jobs,  etc., are long gone except at eastern private schools that pay much lower wages than the public schools.

I ask myself, What would Pauline Kael do?   She wrote: “Film criticism is exciting just because there is no formula to apply, just because you must use everything you are and everything you know.”

We love the internet; we hate the internet.  Our little blogs are not criticism. Godspeed, Mr. Scott!   But criticism isn’t the most embattled profession.