Tag Archives: The New Yorker

Criticizing the critics

"What's the best part of this blog post?"  "It ends!  HAW-HAW-HAW-HAW-HAW!"
“What’s the best part of this blog post?” “It ends! HAW-HAW-HAW-HAW-HAW!”

Did you know “hate-watching” was a thing?  I suppose it’s been around for decades, an extension of the phenomenon that makes everyone slow down to gawp at an accident on the freeway despite the same everyone complaining about rubberneckers (i.e. everyone else).  We have this weird fixation/fascination with things that repel us, and in the same way we will gravitate towards stories in the news that piss us off, so too are we drawn to watching shows we don’t like so we can… well, I’m not exactly sure what, other than write snarky columns about them, gloat about them with friends and continue to wallow about in our own high-mindedness, supremely confident of our genius turns of phrase.

A focal point for hate-watching is Aaron Sorkin and The Newsroom; in fact, I hadn’t heard the term until it surfaced in more than a few snotty articles about this particular show.  For the life of me I can’t find another program that is so piled on by sniping television critics both amateur and professional, steering clear of the low-hanging fruit of reality shows and looking instead to take one of Hollywood’s most successful writers down a plethora of pegs.  It has not escaped my notice that the tone of many of these pieces resembles retribution for a past slight, as if Sorkin’s dog once soiled their lawns.  The counter-argument is that Sorkin brings it on himself in how he deals with things he doesn’t like – either depicts the advocates of his bêtes noire in his fiction as inarticulate, uneducated simpletons begging to be schooled at every turn by smug know-it-alls, or just attacks them outright in the public sphere (you don’t need to be an English major to see the irony at work here in the writings of those who respond to him in kind).  Back when his ire was focused singularly on the Republican Party – the West Wing years – we were happy to play along, but when he turned his pen on the media (Studio 60 and now Newsroom) the knives came out.  As for his public persona, I can’t comment, except to remind us with a nod to Citizen Kane that the perception of the man through the filter of other people’s words is not the same as knowing him.  Maybe he’s a great guy, maybe he’s a jackass.  I’ve never met him and have suffered no injury to my person or property from him, or any of his works.  The worst I can say about him is that there have been a few of his projects I haven’t cared for as much as the others.  I am not going to then write a series of “10 Reasons Why Aaron Sorkin Sucks” articles while continuing to DVR The Newsroom obsessively and live-vent my spleen in 140 character bursts every time one of the actors delivers a cadence of familiar patois I might have once heard on West Wing.  I’m a fan.  Every time I fire up the newest episode I want to be blown away.  If I’m not, I may have some modest suggestions about where I felt things went off the rails.  I’m not approaching the show from the perspective of “well, let’s see how he disappoints this week.”  I am, and remain, a love-watcher.

Drew Chial wrote a fantastic piece yesterday about the glut of ridicule in our culture and why it’s foolish for anyone to think it needs a supply-side solution.  You can blame the spread of snark on any number of factors both socioeconomic and not, but ultimately, snark succeeds because it’s the comedy of apathy; that is, it’s cheap and anyone can do it without expending much effort.  Why bother trying to write a thousand words of reasoned analysis when you can just follow the lead of the Ain’t it Cool News comment section and dismiss something as a “crap-spewing donkey abortion oozing from a gangrenous sore on Satan’s left ass cheek”?  It reminds me a bit of that famous comedian’s joke that they made the documentary about, “The Aristocrats,” which is a can-you-top-this exercise in inventing examples of inconceivable raunch, sleaze and gore.  The same goes for the state of criticism, in which the object is not to offer suggestions for improvement but to find the most incisive way to reduce the subject to the tiniest, most pathetic, withering shell of its actual self, something we can all have a good guffaw at while it cries in the corner.  How dare they even try.

As has gone political polarization, so has criticism.  Moderates, the ones who do it because they’re fans and they want the best for the genre they love, are an endangered treasure.  Rather, the critical mass (pardon the pun) has split, with the intellectuals twisting themselves into polysyllabic, pretentious knots to fly above the fray (the nadir was The New Yorker’s review of the Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson comedy The Internship, which for no discernible reason managed to include a paragraph about the collected works of Michelangelo Antonioni) and the lowbrows hiding behind online aliases acting like a thousand monkeys on a thousand keyboards flinging verbal feces, yet both self-tasked with the singular objective of tearing down instead of building up, as though validation for a life misspent can be achieved only in annihilating the accomplishments of others.  The late Roger Ebert was lambasted in many circles along with partner Gene Siskel for reducing the nuances of film criticism to a binary “recommend/don’t recommend” state, but one of the things I always appreciated about Ebert was that he always evaluated a movie for what it was.  He didn’t attack Dumb and Dumber because it wasn’t Schindler’s List.  He was not above succumbing to snark once in a while (as his famous “I hated, HATED this movie” rant about North proved) but he was first and foremost a movie fan and hoped each time, as the lights went down, that what he was about to see was the greatest movie ever made.  This I think is a sentiment that has largely been lost, perhaps in the wake of the tsunami of disappointment the planet felt as the words THE PHANTOM MENACE scrolled in front of us and we learned about the galactic dispute over taxation of trade routes.  Our primary instinct now is expecting things to suck (and then, ironically, raging about them even though all they’ve done is meet our lowered expectations).

It’s telling, and fortunate, that Facebook and its social brethren (like WordPress) don’t have a “Dislike” button anywhere, as we hardly need to make being a snarkily dismissive asshat more convenient.  But we need to get away from the whole “hate-watching” concept, where we aren’t just saying we don’t like something but are instead devoting hours of our time to viewing and then regurgitating and ripping apart every single flaw, in furtherance of whatever the endgame is – proving ourselves better, smarter, wittier?  What, truly, is the goal in hate-watching The Newsroom:  getting it canceled or making Aaron Sorkin cry?  And will either of those (one a little more likely than the other) outcomes result in a substantial improvement in our lives or the lives of our fellows?  Criticism for the sake of itself misses the point.  How do we get better?  We improve upon our mistakes.  At its best, criticism is how we help each other do that, by pointing out the missteps the subject may not see and giving them the opportunity to address them or ignore them as they see fit.  The key to good criticism lies in the nobility of its motivations, and if the motivation is the aggrandizement of our own egos, then We’re Doing It Wrong.  And anyone who thinks otherwise is a crap-spewing donkey abortion oozing from a gangrenous sore on Satan’s left ass cheek.

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O Privacy, Where Art Thou?

This is your life.  Credit Vassilis Michalopoulos / Flickr Creative Commons
This is your life. Credit Vassilis Michalopoulos / Flickr Creative Commons

On Twitter today, Joyce Carol Oates shares a quote from yesterday’s New Yorker about privacy, in which artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg opines, “we are probably the last generation that will realize what we’re losing.”  You can’t help thinking that she’s right.  An entire generation is growing up with their lives chronicled meticulously for the world’s perusal through Facebook, Instagram, blogs, what have you, either by proud parents or by themselves, seeking connection in the digital space.  For the vast majority of the population, these connections will be benign, the consequences minor or nonexistent.  Traditional media is certainly keen to hype up the instances of social media gone wrong, and certainly the latest revelations about the National Security Agency are cause for justifiable alarm at what is being collected and by whom for what purposes.  To me, it seems that privacy has become a malleable concept.  People are okay with sharing to a certain degree, but there is usually a line they won’t cross, and that line differs from person to person.  Yet everyone is happy to abdicate at least some of what is uniquely theirs to the great unknown masses; the absolute recluse is soooo last century.  (Even Thomas Pynchon lent his voice to The Simpsons a couple of times.)  Is Joni Mitchell right, though?  Will we not know what we had until it is gone?  Or is the march to a completely open community inevitable and privacy a willing sacrifice?

The flexible line intrigues me.  A while back, I read a post (I don’t remember where, sorry, or I would provide the link) in which the writer suggested that the level of detail provided in certain “mommy blog” posts about children encroached on the territory of potential libel litigation once the child reached maturity – tired moms calling their kids “little shits” online, and so forth.  As a blogger and a new adoptive parent, I too had a choice to make about how much or how little detail I would include about my son in this space.  Mindful of my own rule that you should never put anything online that you wouldn’t carve in concrete on your front porch, and not wanting to burden my son with a digital legacy not of his own making, I chose to be quite spare in the amount of information I reveal about him.  Where I do post about parenting it’s about my thoughts and feelings – which I can control – and my son is more of a relatively anonymous factor influencing me.  You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned his name, and if someone who knows me personally accidentally drops it in the comments, I delete it post-haste.  (I have not mentioned my wife’s name here either, for the same reasons, though if you really want to find it, it’s not that difficult.)  The siren song of the Internet is calling to him with increasing volume, and he’ll have plenty of time to forge his own footprint his own way, when he’s ready (you know, in about 30 years or so).  He doesn’t need me blazing an embarrassing trail with catty remarks about cranky moods or off-color remarks spoken in innocence that will come back to haunt him in his first job interview.

Even if you are cautious about sensible things – not posting your address or phone number, or photos of your house or of you blistering drunk in a pair of your mother’s underpants and so on – you are still giving up an aspect of your privacy when you share your thoughts, whether they be in short bursts of anger at the latest dumb thing done by right wing politicians or long, carefully-reasoned pieces like this one.  If someone was a diligent reader of the preceding 200-odd posts here they’d have me at a considerable disadvantage were I to meet them in real life.  (Honestly, at any given time I don’t remember half of what I’ve written here.)  You don’t know where I live or where I am this very second, but one could argue you know a much more intimate detail about me.  You know how I think.  That is, assuming you trust that I’ve been truthful and I haven’t been pulling your leg for almost two years with the old unreliable narrator gimmick.  And that raises another interesting question.  Given the absolute tabula rasa of the digital space for the creation of an online identity, why the presumption that the majority of folks who use it are being absolutely honest about who they are and what they think?  I could have created a completely opposite alter ego just for fun and gone to town.  But I wanted to be me.  And I wanted the digital me to be consistent with the real me, otherwise Lucy would have a lot of ‘splaining to do at dinner parties.  So I have in fact given up an integral component of my privacy.  I’ve opened my mind to you.  There’s an implicit contract then that you are not evil incarnate and you’re not going to find some way to use it against me in a future I have not yet conceived.  And even if you do there’s not hellish much I can do about it.  I’ve handed over the mallet willingly and it’s your choice whether or not you want to bludgeon me with it.

When you think about it in that context, sharing online is an enormous gesture of trust, and an encouraging one, for it speaks to a deep-rooted optimism that our fellow human beings are good people who can be relied upon to be responsible caretakers of the information we’re providing them.  Is it possible that the desire for community, connection and having our voices heard outweighs the wish to protect privacy?  For it seems that today, you cannot have both.  Certainly, those who shun the digital space wind up missing out on a heck of a lot.  There are terrific people I’ve met through blogging and through Twitter that I never would have known about had I chosen to retract my head into my little turtle shell and keep my own counsel.  My life, then, has been enhanced by forfeiting aspects of my privacy.  In her TED talk, Brene Brown talks about how the people who are the most willing to be vulnerable are those who experience the richest love in return.  Yet there’s that catch – being vulnerable.  Putting it out there.  Extending your hand knowing there is a possibility (however remote) that it might be bitten off.  What is worrisome to many, as Heather Dewey-Hagborg suggests with her quote, is that in the future, there simply may be no choice anymore.  We need to know if we’re okay with that.  The reward of a closer-knit human race is a tempting carrot indeed, but the trouble is, no one knows what it will feel like to be hit with the stick.