A Short Note on Critics and Criticism


David Carr and A.O. Scott have a short video up at the Times about the state of modern criticism. As the length would suggest, it’s a light discussion. The subject is really the reviewing of Hollywood-Industrial-complex movies rather than criticism writ large — the kickoff being a certain blockbuster star being Twitter-angry with Scott over his lukewarm review of the movie in question — but the principles of the discussion extend. In any event the questions are more interesting when we’re not talking about what the corporate machine has vomited up for us lately. Is it wrong to discuss the merits of an artist’s work without regard for his or her feelings? Is this all just subjective and we’re ultimately trying to reconcile whole different universes of taste?

I used to want to be a critic, thought it was honorable, and then the first issue of Harper’s I ever bought contained an essay by Dave Eggers. It stopped me in my tracks. I’m referring to Eggers’ “selling out” rant, if you’ve read it before. If you haven’t:

Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.

This essay has been, and still is, a touchstone for me. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve started to see a crack in it. Eggers starts off defending all that is true and honest and good about art. He has opinions on this subject, and they live in the rapturous passage that contrasts the rapture of the Flaming Lips to “that terrifying Tori Spelling person.” And you know, we all have opinions on this subject, otherwise we wouldn’t know what to read or see or listen to next, because we’d have no way forward. No guide.

Of course some personal taste comes from places of envy and regret and anger. But not all of it, and you and I know what the difference is between a movie like The Vow and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Someone, somewhere, may have their feelings hurt by my saying that. I think it’s wrong to presume no one spent time and effort on The Vow — in fact, if you’ve seen it, you know that the lead actress at least was working her butt off in a movie that didn’t deserve her. I don’t wish I’d made that movie. I wish no one had.

I still read criticism, sometimes, in select places, if I feel that by doing so I will learn something. Sometimes I learn how to write better. James Wood’s How Fiction Works is like that, the kind of thing we should be reading and thinking about. Of course writing well isn’t a good candidate for abstract description, but it’s good to have principles you’re working from. It’s good to think about what works and what doesn’t.

But in an age where opinions are a click a dozen on the internet it’s hard to know who to listen to. The trick is to stay away from the bitter but so many people are bitter — for entirely good reasons — and it’s hard to know where to go. But the sudden ability everyone has to weigh in should not, I think, mean, that no one weighs in at all anymore. Perhaps the old economy of the thing is dead and gone. But the need for it probably isn’t.

Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →