NPR logo 'We Are Not Consumer Guides': Talking About Talking About Culture

Culture And Criticism

'We Are Not Consumer Guides': Talking About Talking About Culture

one thumb up and one thumb down.
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Several things are happening right now at the same time.

One is the dust-up I wrote about in this morning's roundup, which kicked off with this piece and has led to others.

Another is a very bizarre Kevin Smith meltdown over critical response to Cop Out, which, in the best tradition of good things coming from bad things, led to this elegant, wise response from Keith Phipps at The A.V. Club, in which he explains — using a very compelling example that involves Kevin Smith specifically — that criticism is not the personal bloodsport it's often taken to be. It's Keith's piece that contains the words that I borrowed up there for my title: "We're not bullies and we're not, though this sometimes gets forgotten, consumer guides. We're writers who think what we write about matters."

Another is the cancellation of At The Movies, the show that was once Siskel and Ebert's. After losing its hosts through bad medical luck and being undermined by, most notoriously, a very bad decision to involve Ben Lyons, who was not a critic but a reporter on personalities, and after being slammed by changes in television and changes in the economy, the show is finally closing up shop — though Roger Ebert says that he's got another show in the works.

Another, of course, is that we've been talking about Twilight all week.

It was Keith's comment about a piece of criticism not being a consumer guide that struck me as most helpful. Because honestly, Steve Almond is exactly right that if you go into a rock show, or a movie, or a reading of Twilight, or anything else, thinking that your job is to perform a takedown in whatever way you can, you are a bad critic. He says that's what he did. Ergo, he was a bad critic.

Here's where this bumps into Twilight: I would have loved writing about how much better that book was than I expected it to be. I would have put my arms around that idea and danced with it all week, because it's at least as interesting as "unfortunately, this book that a lot of people have told me is bad is actually bad." I've had great discussions about great things and great discussions about terrible things, and I've done writing I was proud of about both.

No, you're not stupid, and why it's not about the thumbs, after the jump.

Let's skip back to Ebert. Roger Ebert has a book called Your Movie Sucks and another one called I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie. He also has two books on what he calls "the great movies" and a book of four-star reviews. They're all well-written. And while I often agree with him, I also often don't. (See: Four stars for Avatar.)

I don't read his reviews because they reliably tell me what I will think, I read them because they reliably tell me what he thinks, and they do it in a way that is lively and well-argued, and/or hilariously barbed, and/or contemplative about things like love and sexual politics and why people behave the way they do. I love Pauline Kael's essay "Trash, Art And The Movies," even though our tastes in trash, art and movies are completely different.

It always baffles me when someone — like, say, Kevin Smith — takes the position that it is the nature of criticism for critics to set out to bear personal ill will toward movies or directors, or that when you sit down to review something, you do it with the assumption that there is only one way to see whatever you're talking about, and you go around following up in order to take down dissenters and to destroy any future projects emanating from the same creators. There are people who do this, but this is not the nature of criticism; it's the nature of jerks.

(That's not to even get into the fact that if you started giving bad reviews to things to settle scores based on publicist maneuverings, you'd spend the rest of your life keeping score of things that absolutely nobody who is worth reading in the first place has time to worry about.)

I don't think critics are necessarily above doing this, though the good ones obviously are, but I know that, except in extreme cases that are fairly easy to spot, they don't have the energy to do this.

Now, let's skip back to Twilight. One of the brands of comments we got in the discussion — not often, but sometimes — was basically, "You are insulting everyone who likes this book by saying it is terrible." This, I think, is where people who spend a lot of time expressing their opinions about culture in public, under a byline, have a slight advantage over people who don't, because they're forced to abandon this approach. (Many, many non-writers don't have it either; I'm just saying that critics have no choice but to have it beaten out of them.)

If you don't know at the time you start writing about television — or movies, or books — that many, many smart people will have diametrically opposed opinions to yours, and will express them eloquently and forcefully, then you will learn it almost immediately. I could rattle off ten things I love that are or undoubtedly would be totally despised by any critic you want to name whose stuff I love reading. I promise you that every single person I deeply respect who regularly reads what I write has, at least once, said to himself or herself, "I have absolutely no idea what she is on about; she has lost her mind." And then they come back the next day, I hope, and conclude that I have regained my lost grip. The idea that all smart and thoughtful people would, if asked, come up with an identical set of Good Movies and Bad Movies is just ... ridiculous. Beyond ridiculous.

Essentially, for me to believe that because I couldn't abide Twilight, liking Twilight makes you stupid, I would have to believe that because he liked Avatar, Roger Ebert is stupid. It just doesn't work that way, at least for me, because while I love the thumbs, it's not ultimately about the thumbs. And frankly, if you read criticism with the idea that your perfect critic is one whose opinions most precisely align with your own (because anyone else is indirectly calling you stupid and wrong and insulting you), you will bore yourself utterly to tears.