August 12, 2002

Critical Flaws
With the advent of online publishing tools like Blogger, the web has become a whirling opinion-fest of amateur critics and professionals alike. This is great. But with this expanded marketplace of ideas comes a lot of drivel, unintelligent mud.

An article in Sunday's Washington Post caught my eye, by Philip Kennicott, who is the Post's classical music critic. Philip has also noticed this onslaught of critics (he names magazines, newspapers, websites, blogs, TV) ... who utilize some pretty lowly tactics. I am amazed at how many "professional" critics lower themselves to these tactics (like, ironically enough, the Post's David Futrelle review of David Weinberger's, Small Pieces Loosely Joined) ... and how many amateurs take the high road.

Kennicott lists 10 most abused tactics, which I think all of us in the blogosphere should take note of in both how to read critics and how to write critically:
(paraphrasing excerpts)
1. The High-Low Switch - Typical forms include the guy's guy, who announces at the beginning of the article that he knows nothing about opera or ballet, and then proceeds to lampoon the oddities and peculiarities of a world in which he remains an outsider. Or the opposite: the "sophisticated" critic who over-analyses, over-examines and over-emotes about sports, cars or barbecue.
2. How much for that Degas in the window? - The essential gambit is to reduce art to money and then marvel at the absurdity of a human nature that places extraordinary value on such inconsequential things.
3. There are people starving in Africa - There are nine coal miners trapped in Pennsylvania, but there are millions about to die of starvation in Africa. The critic is saying that you, the reader, are worried about the wrong thing; but that means the critic is worried about you being worried about the wrong thing, which, to be blunt, is rather a silly thing to worry about given that there are people starving in Africa.
4. The sinister extrapolation - Telltale signs of the form include evidence of spongy social science ("Some researchers see a connection between ...") and the nagging sense that the author hasn't, in fact, actually seen the movie, read the book or gone to the women's greased mud-wrestling exhibition that prompts the dire prediction of cultural collapse.
5. The rag and bone shop - A form that flourishes during crisis, when the "courageous" critic steps forth to voice the dark thought that no one else dares express.
6. Modest Proposal - The critic proposes the unthinkable to shine light on moral prejudice and hypocrisy. It is, unfortunately, much harder to carry off than its venerable status would suggest.
7. The straw man as whipping boy - The best sign of the straw man as whipping boy is an article that begins by vaguely imputing the false assumption to somebody else: "Some people think quilting is just for grandmothers, but don't tell that to the Men's Stitching Society of East Rutherford." The article then proceeds with a string of people contradicting the assumption that no one, in fact, really made in the first place.
8. Mozart was a talentless hack - Part of every critic's responsibility is to rethink and reevaluate the received wisdom. But for a sure-fire attention grabber, take an elephant gun to a sacred cow. Dredge up some momentary annoyance you may have felt when a concert ran on too long, or your mind wandered reading Shakespeare, or your feet ached at the van Gogh show.
9. The author was a scoundrel - Which doesn't, of course, mean that he wrote a bad book, but that has never stopped critics hoping to find that elusive philosopher's stone that connects personal misbehavior with bad art.
10. The Revival - The author, who generally leads a sheltered life, hewing to the same cultural habits for years, accidentally discovers that "swing dancing is back." Or "mah-jongg is sweeping the nation." Or "bowling is hot in the inner city." In fact, no actual trend may be discernible, but it sure seems that way if you dip into the cultural margins for 10 minutes and then report back to the mainstream on developments that are new only to you.

After Googling Kennicott, I stumbled across a few other goodies here and here, and here.

No comments: