The harsh critique and the hack-job
Who doesn't enjoy a good critical take-down once in a while? It may not be the most admirable aspect of human nature. But when a critic sharpens his knife and delivers an expert filleting, it's awfully hard to stop reading.
Of course, it can't be fun to be the filletee under such circumstances (don't ask me how I know this). But hey, if you're in the public eye or ear, you may have it coming once in a while. If you can take the praise, you should be able to take the criticism. Besides, the possibility of such treatment keeps you on your toes, better able to defend yourself in word-to-word combat.
I should have said in the previous paragraph "your work may have it coming." For while one's work may be fair game, one's self shouldn't be. Writing a bad book or composing bad music doesn't make one a bad person. The same goes for one's fans. Just because they like the thing that's being dragged through the mud, they don't deserve to be spattered with the same mud.
Let's use two recent reviews as examples of the right (or at least acceptable) and wrong way to carve up an artistic turkey. One, writer William Giraldi's thorough going-over in the New York Times Book Review of Alix Olin's novel "Inside" and story collection "Signs and Wonders," has itself been reviewed in negative fashion, by writer and music J. Robert Lennon in a column for Salon. Yes, Mr. Giraldi enjoyed himself more than perhaps he should have. But I don't place his critique outside the boundaries of fairness and decency. Giraldi confines his scorn to Olin's writing, and backs up his points with quotes and reason, even if he gets a little catty about it. And I don't find Giraldi's review that much worse than Lennon's own Guardian review of Paul Auster's "Winter Journal," which Lennon links to in his piece by way of self-flattering comparison. Besides, Giraldi's review makes for more enjoyable reading than Lennon's, doesn't it? Be honest, now!
For the counterexample, let us descend from the lofty heights of lit-crit, and plunge into the wild and woolly world of contemporary pop music. Yeah, I know — hardly the realm to expect serious discussions of the main aesthetic issues of the epoch. But you know, some pretty darned serious stuff comes out of pop nowadays, and in fact, has for decades. I, for one, would put today's best pop musicians alongside their peers in classical, jazz and other more "artistic" genres for the quality of their work — a placement that quite a few classical musicians would agree with. Without shedding its youthful exuberance (thank God), pop has grown up.
Too bad some pop journalists haven't grown up along with it. I mean, read this petulant, childish hack-job, in which 20 of the more acclaimed and successful acts in (mostly) indie-rock are slammed for their costumes, facial hair, CD covers, attitudes — everything but (in many cases) the quality of their music. And according to the authors, if you should actually like any of this music, well, you must be a posing phony wannabe pseudo-hipster —unlike of course the critics themselves, whose smirking disdain makes them cooler-than-thou. Folks, you can be fun and even a little snarky without this level of self-regarding snottiness. And by the way, kids, please look up "atonal" before you repeatedly misuse it. The readers, and the musicians you're reviewing, deserve better.
By the way, can you identify the fictional critics pictured above, and tell me in what movies they were featured?