Cues for Critics
I’ve never particularly cared for those ubiquitous lists of “Rules for Writers”. (If I did, I’d probably present this one as more or less definitive.) Luckily for me, I am not much of a writer, and no one is sniffing around this site in hopes of getting a hot tip for dethroning Big Steve King. I do, however, live on the Internet, and on the Internet, everyone’s a critic. Since we are currently at Peak Media, there will soon be as many people writing about movies, television shows, music, books, and other art forms as there are people actually making them; but while the quantity of criticism has gone nuclear, quality is becoming as rare as the Javan rhinoceros. Hence these well-meant and humbly offered tapas of advice. (Note: I am certainly as guilty of breaking these rules as anyone; indeed, their appearance here is meant as much as a reminder to me as a proscription for anyone else. And if you think my own past disqualifies me from daring to offer such advice, well, I certainly can’t argue with that.)
1. Criticism is not biography. There’s nothing wrong with a little personal anecdotage to pepper a critical analysis, especially if it’s germane to the substance of the critique. But with so many contemporary critics, the cart is placed so far ahead of the horse that it’s no longer even visible. If you’re so unengaged with a work of art that you find yourself writing a memoir rather than be forced to talk about it, then it’s probably not worth writing about to begin with. Similarly, if you find yourself continually reviewing only art that has a personal connection to you and your own history, you’re writing for an audience of one person, and that person already knows everything you’re going to say about it. If you get more than three paragraphs into a piece of critical writing and you still haven’t said anything about the object of your critique that could be experienced by someone who isn’t you, then you’re likely producing something too narcissistic to be of interest. We should know enough about you to know why you care, but your challenge is to tell the readers why they should care.
2. You are not Lester Bangs. His particular approach, which it would be pointless to discuss, is appealing to each generation that encounters it afresh, and that’s proof of why it was so important. That’s the good part. The bad part is that style was perfected already, by Lester Bangs, who stopped doing it in 1982 due to extenuating circumstances. It was invented by Lester Bangs, suited only to Lester Bangs, and perfected at the hands of Lester Bangs. We needed one, we got him, and he’s gone. There is no need for another, particularly one who is demonstrably inferior to the original, and they’re all inferior.
3. Discuss the art you saw, not the art you wanted to see. This is one of the oldest truisms of the critical art, and the reason it needs to be continually reinforced is that it’s so powerfully tempting to ignore. Critics are artists, after all; often, they are skilled practitioners of the very art they critique, and it is often painfully obvious where a particular work of art went wrong. That’s fine, and it’s even desirable to point out that moment of failure to your audience. But it is inherently unfair to do anything other than review the movie you saw, and not the movie you wanted to see. Criticism is only valuable insofar as it directly addressed the object at which it is directed; if you, instead, want to discuss a generalized ideal of what you think a piece of art should be, then by all means, follow Harold Bloom in thinking that the only proper critique of a poem is another poem. But you can’t have it both ways.
4. Avoid empty language, but embrace new language. The use of jargon in criticism is a very contentious subject, especially in those areas where criticism veers away from the popular into the academic. If you are writing for a popular audience, it is true that they will learn nothing if you inundate them with a bunch of impenetrable argot they don’t understand. That said, academics don’t often use arcane language just to show off; they come up with highly specific names for things because they are attempting to describe highly specific subjects with as much accuracy as possible. Just as an artist embraces originality by creating something that was not in the world before, a critic can advance the cause of criticism by inventing language that was never before used. Your job is not to use the same words to discuss everything, but to ensure that when you use new ones, your reader understands what they mean and why you chose them.
5. Everything is political. This is almost entirely an American affliction. That art is, and should be, political by its very nature is something that most people in other countries have realized for centuries, and have embraced both in their creation of art and their criticism of same. But here, we either consider it rude to analyze the politics of an artwork and do little more than flail our hands around at it like we’re swatting at a bee, or we go overboard, taking the Zhdanovite position that no art is acceptable unless it conforms to our particular moral standard. It is time to accept politicized art at its value, find the hidden politics in art (and forsake the dated notion that the creator’s position is the word of God), and blend those into a critique of art as both a product of its culture and a critique of that culture. “Controversial” is the ultimate dodge; there is no better word for abdicating an intelligent discussion of art.
6. Accounting is not criticism. Relatedly, however, we must abandon the ‘social justice warrior’ approach to criticism that merely tallies up the number of members of some arbitrarily chosen affinity group portrayed in a work of art or involved in its making. While there are useful, even vital conversations to be had about the way women, minorities, sexual identities, and so on are portrayed in art, those conversations cannot be had by simply totting up a list of numbers. “There are no women in this band”, “there are not enough gay people involved in the production of this movie”, “there are no black authors on your Top Ten list”. “there are not enough white people in the writer’s room of this television show” — these are not criticisms, they are mere observations, and they tell us exactly nothing, either about the value of the art being produced or about what the solution to the real problems of equality of opportunity and representation in the arts might be. Critically, it is the equivalent of saying “I stubbed my toe”.
7. Description is not a sin; it is a necessity. Look: there is nothing wrong with florid prose, if it is skillfully carried out. Metaphor is not just desirable but absolutely necessary in criticism, and abstraction of subject can be made to accomplish great things. And yes, the Pitchfork house style — or, at least, the popular stereotype of the Pitchfork house style — unfairly takes it on the chin from its detractors. But it is also true that you can look through the last decade of their year-end staff picks, and in a distressingly large number of entries, have no idea what kind of music is under discussion. Yes, music is an emotional art form, and it is important to convey the importance of mood, tone, and feel; but if I read your review of something and I don’t even know what instruments are being played in what genre, you have made a fundamental error as a critic. I almost never watch movies or read books because of the plot, but I’d at least like to know what it is before plunking down my cultural currency; providing that is literally the least you can do. Unleash your impressive assortment of synonyms and similes after you’ve given me the most basic information.
8. I can read Wikipedia myself. I know, research is hard. You’re getting paid ten bucks to review this thing on a two-day deadline and all you have to go on is some self-congratulatory bullshit written by a paid publicist. And what else are you going to do to pad out your word count, actually talk about the music? Well…yeah. Not to put too fine a point on it, but beyond the essentials of dates and names, the background information about at artist and the circumstance under which she came to create her art are completely inessential. You may think you’ve dug up some interesting tidbit by playing connect-the-links, but nothing is more obvious than someone who’s relied on Wikipedia or IMDb to flesh out what is otherwise a weak review. The art should always be the thing that eats up the bulk of your writing; if it’s less interesting to you than the person who created it, then you should judge it a failure and write about that.
9. Purity, schmurity. If I could remove entirely from existence one critical tendency in all film writing, music reviewing and literary criticism, it would be the dead-end search for purity and its affiliated isms. Populism is a dodge; no art has ever been great just because a lot of people like it, and no art has ever been bad just because a lot of people like it. Authenticity is a dodge; the first caveman to bash a couple of rocks together was the only true original, and even he was just aping nature. Everyone else has built on a vast and constantly expanding corpus of widely pollinated culture. Purity is a dodge; diversity, appropriation, and cultural co-option have all existed since the dawn of human civilization, and no art form ‘belongs’ to a specific group of people except insofar as they are capable of executing it in a more or less interesting way. To claim otherwise is to take the side of every prescriptive reactionary in the history of art. These arguments exist only to give critics something to yack about; they serve no other purpose whatsoever.
10. Don’t go chasing influence. This is a tough one, and probably the one I’m most tolerant of seeing violated. After all, every expression of culture is a product of what has come before, and enumerating the influences that led to it has value, from both a critical and a historical perspective. Also, since I’m a big booster of describing art as part of the process of critiquing it, it can be very useful to a reader not familiar with some new style or sound to say “It looks like this movie” or “It sounds like this album”. In these circumstances, and to these ends, the Influence Game can be valuable. But far too often, especially in criticism of the Internet age where human writers seem to accept the idea that they are in direct competition with programmed algorithms, the Influence Game turns very quickly into a round of Observe My Exquisite Taste, a high-low variant of the venerable Look What I Know Aren’t I Marvelous, which is itself not actually a game, but a less satisfying form of masturbation.
11. Avoid the hype cycle. This is hard to blame on a lot of working critics, because they are paid to be part of a vast content-pushing scheme were clicks translate into ad dollars, and they are, tragically, professionally obliged to be part of the hype cycle. But for those who write for the love of writing, there is no excuse; they should know that the hype cycle is nothing but advertising, and by taking part in it, they are doing nothing more than performing as unpaid shills for moneymen. It is stupid, short-sighted, and actively destructive to the art form they claim to love. I would never advocate for willful obscurity, but the world is a vast place full of more movies, books, TV shows, and music than one person could ever possibly take in over a human lifetime. You may feel out of the loop by ignoring something big and shiny and new in favor of something older, less pervasive, and less ubiquitous; but you will never do the world a disservice by writing a single piece about a lesser-known book or movie or album instead of writing the 10,000th ‘thinkpiece’ about the same goddamn thing everyone else in the world is talking about.
12. Whether or not you liked something is the least interesting thing you can say about it. Another truism that’s beyond trite, and dreadfully difficult to avoid. But it’s so common because it’s so true: telling your audience whether you liked a piece of art or not isn’t very interesting, and at most, it should be the very first and least thing you say about the art, not the lion’s share of your critique. All it tells your reader is what your tastes are, and that’s a completely useless bit of information. What they want to know is if they will like it, and to tell them that, you must talk about the art and not about your experience of it. Why did you like it? What did you like about it? Why do you have particular tastes and preferences. What did the art do right, and what did it do wrong? Did it do right and fail? Did it do wrong and still work? What did it mean? Why did it get made? What did it look like or sound like? What did it teach us about ourselves or our world? What moral lesson did it impart or upend? What expectations did it fulfill or frustrate? Tell us the answers to these or a thousand other questions, but don’t, for the love of God, just tell us if you thought it was good or bad.