Posts Tagged ‘criticism’
“People love hearing how right they are.”—Agent Stan Beeman, The Americans
Last year on Game of Thrones, Jaime Lannister raped his sister Cersei. At least that’s what he did in the scene I saw. Statements on the matter by actors Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Lena Headey and director Alex Gravestalked about two people in a deeply dysfunctional relationship having sex they knew they shouldn’t be having, not that one person was refusing to have at all. Co-writer and showrunner David Benioff appeared to disagree in an interview taped prior to the episode’s airing, before adopting total radio silence on the issue. The show’s subsequent handling of the characters, author George R.R. Martin’s comparison of the scene to its equivalent in his original books, and further discussion by the actors provided still more complicated and confounding context. We could perhaps conclude that either through communication breakdowns between the players or a failure of execution to mirror intent, the scene — rooted in complex and destructive sexual dynamics between two habitually secretive and duplicitous characters and interpreted by half a dozen artists each with their own ideas about the event — simply got away from them.
Few of us did. Fans of the books lambasted the scene as yet another horrendous, story-destroying decision by Benioff and his creative partner Dan Weiss, two people frequent treated as singularly unsuited to the task of adaptation. Admirers of Jaime bemoaned the damage done to him by the event at least as much as his sister, the victim. Critics saw the scene as a romanticization of rape, using the show’s long and contentious history with female nudity, sex, and sexual assault to support the argument. And while the wider world focused in the latter of these three critiques, the former two were no less self-assured or severe in their respective corners of the critical firmament.
On one level, the reaction to what happened between the Siblings Lannister in the Great Sept of Baelor is just a standout example of the golden rule of arguing on the Internet: interpret with minimum good faith, attack with maximum rhetorical force. But that rule applies to discussions of everything from politics to fly fishing. In terms of art and art criticism, something else is going on—a phenomenon of which the social-justice framework for criticism is just the most well-publicized, hotly debated embodiment.
The past decade-plus has been a time of dispiriting uncertainty and powerlessness: an era of endless war, economic erosion, class disconnection, and political disillusion. At the same time, our approach to art and entertainment has become all the more unequivocal in its assertions about content and quality. We pore over TV shows for clues about their outcome, which we present with power-point precision. We treat all art like editorial cartoons, interpreting it the way we would a drawing of a fatcat politician holding bulging moneybags in each hand, and accept or reject the story accordingly. We treat the comics and novels that form the basis for our blockbusters as holy writ, we insist that fiction hew inerrantly to the facts that inspired it, and we punish those who stray from the path. We elevate our favorite characters and relationships to the point where the stories they inhabit are mere vehicles to get them to the place we’d like to see them go.
In all four cases—the Theorists, the Activists, the Purists, and the Partisans—we’re treating the inherently subjective fields of art and art criticism as things we can be objectively right about. We’re taking work that’s complex and capable of conveying multiple contradictory meanings and reducing it to a simple either/or, yes/no proposition.
In other words, we’re fucking up.
I tweeted some thoughts on TV criticism and crises of confidence in light of the medium’s long-term nature. They were brought to you by the news that I’ll be covering The Americans for the New York Observer this season.
dagsg asked: Do you have any opinion why, when some piece of art (e.g. GoT) might appear to be have dodgy or questionable elements (or changes in many cases) in closer inspection, modern fandoms almost always suspect malevolence behind it? Instead of explaining it with usually more plausible ignorance and/or stupidity (which also might sound a bit harsh in some cases).
I’ve written about this before, I know, and I’m sure more articulately than I’m about to, but: In contemporary criticism of art, both professional and fandom-based, several prevalent approaches that on the surface appear to have little in common are all methods of doing the same thing, which is turning the evaluation of the work, which in the case of both the evaluation and the work is something inherently subjective and complex and capable of containing multiple contradictory messages and meanings, into something objective and simple.
“Purists” turn to fidelity to the source material. “Social justice warriors,” whether that term is being externally applied as a pejorative or self-applied as a tongue-in-cheek but proud descriptor of priorities (and I would consider myself the latter; it’s one of the reasons I started this tumblr years ago and started writing about this material in this way), as well as their reactionary opponents, apply sociopolitical metrics. Theory-mongers focus on “solving” art by teasing out clues and connections to unearth hidden truths or predict a work’s conclusion. Stans, shippers, even the “bad fans” of antiheroic characters so frequently lamented by film and TV critics who find them in the comment threads and twitter exchanges resulting from their reviews, prioritize the treatment of their favorite characters and relationships.
But in each case, the end result is a way to feel fairly to totally confident that art can be right or wrong; that the artists who make it, to speak to your question directly, can be right or wrong and condemned or praised; and that you, as a critic, can be right or wrong about that art and that artist in turn. Each approach has its legitimate benefits — in particular I believe that politics are a part of all art and MUST be addressed and considered — but each approach is ultimately reductive and contrary to what I understand art and criticism to be if no further steps to interrogate the work and one’s feelings about it are taken. Art is big and messy. Making it, consuming it, writing about it — these are inherently risky propositions. The risk should be embraced if we are to do anything worthwhile.
A couple weeks ago Jessica Hopper published an oral history of Hole’s Live Through This, and it had been a very long time since I reacted to a work of criticism so intensely so quickly.
For one thing, speaking as a writer who’s done one in the past, this is an achievement in using the oral-history form to reveal information, rather than aid in cloaking it through self-mythologization. It’s so easy to do that with these things. Shit, it’s baked into the premise of the enterprise: Look at my proximity to all these people’s proximity to greatness!
But it’s not that Hopper doesn’t include all the choice nugs you’d want in an oral history — you know, anecdotes about meeting RuPaul while hammered at the SNL afterparty, differing accounts of how badly Courtney Love wanted to work with Butch Vig, etc. It’s that she treats it not just as a history of a cool thing, but as reporting on that thing. She digs into how the studio was selected, how the personnel came together, what the schedule was like. She digs into the rock climate at the time, the (limited) involvement of Billy Corgan and Kurt Cobain, the (profound) influence of Siamese Dream and Nevermind. She digs into drug use, who was doing what and when. She talks to band members, producers, label people. She lets Love hoist herself by her own petard when that’s called for, but she also lets her emerge, then and now, as someone who had a very clear artistic goal and worked, successfully, to achieve it. Inner torment and commercial ambitions and improved songwriting chops and a better rhythm section and working with a guitarist with little self-confidence and hiring skilled producers and developing a workday routine and navigating the demands of other prominent artists in the field with whom she was close — it all went in and that record came out, and Hopper gets it all down. I suppose she’s lucky that she got such a forthcoming group of interviewees, since god knows that’s rare, but luck’s a fundamental part of a good piece too.
I didn’t listen to Hole in the alt-’90s heyday; didn’t buy the “Yoko” nonsense either, that just didn’t seem to cut any more ice here than it does with actual Yoko. And there’s no way to be judgmental about Love as a parent without being more so about the one who isn’t there anymore at all, so I think I gave that a pass over the years as well. Point is I didn’t have much riding on reading this either way. But what a fascinating document of the making of a work of art, and what an inspiring example of how to write about art. It makes me want to work harder.
A while back I answered a question about the intensity of my A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones fandom that wondered whether I’d ever felt this strongly or invested this much time and energy into another author’s work. The answer was yes and no: felt this strongly, sure; invested this much of my life, no. (Not unless you count “comics” as a whole; writing and thinking about comics has basically been my life’s work.) Even today I think I could just as easily be operating a tumblr and opining professionally about Los Bros Hernandez, or Clive Barker, or the band Underworld, or David Bowie (hey, wait), or ’70s glam rock, or Chris Ware, orThe Sopranos/Twin Peaks/Breaking Bad/Mad Men/Battlestar Galactica/Deadwood, or or or. But A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones it is. And it’s really remarkable how quickly my little “career” as an ASoIaF pundit took off, given how vanishingly little effort I put into getting it started!
I started my ASoIaF blog All Leather Must Be Boiled in March of 2011. My daughter had just been born two months prematurely via emergency caesarean section following another two and a half months of pregnancy complications that required my wife’s repeated hospitalization and lengthy bedrest stays, during which time one of our cats was diagnosed with cancer and was also both hospitalized for surgery and confined to a bedroom for recovery. I’d spent a quarter of a year running from work to hospitals to home, caring for the beings I loved as they suffered. A work as grim as ASoIaF was an odd choice for “escapism” to be sure, but it seemed to do the trick, because it confronts serious issues — issues that truly haunt and hound me day to day — in a way that also helps blow off steam about those issues.
So one day I got back from visiting my daughter in the neonatal intensive care unit during my lunchbreak, sat down at my desk, and decided to fire up the old tumblr dashboard and launch a new ASoIaF-only blog. This way, the things I wanted to say about the series would neither spoil it for readers of my other outlets who were interested in catching up, nor drown out everything else I write about for readers who weren’t. Simply choosing to use Tumblr instead of, say, WordPress indicated, to me at least, how casual the thing was going to be. Most of my initial posts were written for an audience of one: me — stray thoughts, things I caught myself, passages I loved, a play-by-play of my journey of discovery through Westeros.org’s archives and forum, fanart drawn by cartoonist friends and acquaintances, anticipatory effusion about the then-upcoming HBO show. It was truly the tumblr of a fan, not a scholar, barely even a critic.
The point is, I learned as I went, simply through going. The more I wrote, the more I found myself able to articulate what was important to me about the books, to formulate coherent questions about the things I didn’t understand, to provide answers about the things I thought I did understand, to find answers on my own and put them in front of other people. Very quickly, “other people” expanded to include people who really were experts. Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson from Westeros.org said nice things, popped up in the comments, and eventually got me hired to work on the official annotations of A Game of Thrones alongside Elio and the books’ freaking editor, Anne Groell. That happened within six months of me starting this tumblr. Stefan Sasse from Tower of the Hand liked what I was doing enough to suggest we start a podcast together, and voila, The Boiled Leather Audio Hour was born. The writing I was doing about the show (and other shows) was apparently solid enough that when I mentioned how much I’d love to get paid to do what I’d been doing for free to my friend Matthew Perpetua, who was an editor at Rolling Stone, he passed my name to his fellow editor Evie Nagy, who hired me to recap Game of Thrones within days of me just idly “wouldn’t it be nice”-ing this during a google chat. Because of the way I write, and the things I write about, and the place I write about it, I find myself in the central overlap of a Venn diagram that includes traditional, Westeros-style fandom, professional pop-culture critics, and the tumblr ASoIaF/GoT community. Best of all, this doesn’t only work in one direction: One day I clicked on a tumblr that had just followed this one, discovered an incredible, fully-formed music critic at the tender age of 18, and passed his name along to the right people, so that I think he was offered his first pro music crit gig within literally hours. (What up, Jaimeson?) To call All Leather Must Be Boiled the most rapidly rewarding writing I’ve ever done would be to understate the case considerably.
And the rewards, in the form of knowledge and enjoyment of that knowledge at least, never stop. As I said earlier, one of the best things about this blog is the chance it gives me to be wrong about things in public. That way, the people who know more than I do can provide me with the right information, and I can grow and learn and get more right in the future. What a wonderful opportunity! It’s a joy to be corrected by Elio, or enlightened by Stefan, or challenged or outright debunked by another tumblr. I want to get better, and that’s how you get better. I think that because I started this tumblr with no pretensions to expertise, simply the desire to talk about these fun books I read, I was responded to in kind. The vituperative, “SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET” responses I’ve gotten to anything I’ve ever said there can be counted on one hand; even then I try my best to put the tone aside and focus on what they’re telling me that I wasn’t seeing or hearing myself. Sometimes they’re just wrong, of course — hey, I’m a critic, I’m going to think other people are wrong, that’s what they pay me for — but most of the time they’re shining a light on something I could’ve used a clearer look at. You can bet your bottom dollar that I take that experience to heart and try my best to apply it to everything I do, online and IRL. There’s no better way to become an “expert” than to do, and do, and do, and sit back and see what comes of the doing.
I meant everything I said about Dirk Deppey, the recently laid-off writer of The Comics Journal’s Journalista linkblog, online editor of TCJ.com, and former managing editor of the Journal’s print version. The earliest iteration of Journalista was indispensable to the formation of the comics blogosphere, and indeed the entire comics internet, as we know it today. Dirk’s stint at the print Journal gave many comics bloggers their first-ever print outlet for comics criticism, from yours truly to the great Joe McCulloch. It also opened that publication up to manga and “mainstream” comics like it had never been before — to my mind an under-discussed and key step in the past decade’s reclamation of genre comics from fanboys, nostalgists, and monomaniacs as an area worthy of genuine critical engagement. Speaking personally, Dirk’s frequently insightful criticism and impassioned industry-analysis polemics were touchstones for me as a growing writer, even if now that influence is less obvious (because he did so much less criticism in recent years in the former case, and because I’m less interested in guns-blazing writing in the latter).
But Dirk has never been a shrinking violet when it comes to warts-and-all appraisals of notable and beloved industry figures as they head for the exits — that’s a big part of why people liked him so much. And it’s in that spirit that I’m saying now that Dirk’s farewell Journalista post was the first one I’d read in months, and the first I’d done much more than skim in years. While my hope is that leaving the Journal will allow him to return to his early strengths, the fact is that they were very much early strengths; if anything, the work he did on the late-model Journalista and on TCJ.com generally represented a major step backward for, or even an undoing of, the valuable work he’d done in years past.
I’m not surprised that the news of Dirk’s ouster was greeted with near-universal sorrow over the move and well-wishes for Dirk himself — they were responses I shared, too. But it seems a shame, and inimical to what Dirk did at Journalista, to let a quickly deleted tweet from Drawn & Quarterly’s twitter account (written, I assume, by a person I’ll refer to as “Schmom Schmevlin”) and an extension of the years-old pointed silence from one-time Deppey sparring partner and blogospheric allfather NeilAlien serve as the only critical appraisals of Dirk’s tenure at TCJ.
With that in mind, here’s a quick list of three major problems I had with Dirk’s work.
1) By the end, ¡Journalista!, for all the hours Dirk put into it, was about as minimal a linkblog as you could think of. The critical and analytical content that drove it in the early years was long gone, and the supplemental stand-alone reviews he used to run were a distant memory. He’d write a few lines about the “Above the Fold” story, mostly paraphrasing whatever he was linking to; beyond that he only even provided a quote or any kind of context for one link per subsection of each entry — the rest was just name/topic, name/topic, name/topic. In the absence of a critical voice or all but the barest context, there was nothing at Journalista you couldn’t get with a fuller and potentially more enriching presentation elsewhere. Eventually, elsewhere is exactly where I got it.
2) I may not be the best person to speak about this, since as I said my engagement with Dirk’s writing was minimal in recent years, but on the increasingly rare occasions when Dirk did offer his thoughts on the issues of the day, his relentless contrarianism too often skewed and obscured his analysis. Perhaps this habit of thought was an outgrowth of his pox-on-both-their-houses Reason-style libertarianism, Dirk’s expressions of which were always redolent with pride for sticking it to both fundamentalist conservatives and latte-sipping Seattlites as though the two were morally and intellectually equivalent evils. (I’d comment further but I assure you I don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to poor politics; when I was at my worst, in fact, Dirk was one of the people who treated me with the most understanding and kindness, and I’ll be forever grateful for that.) Regardless, from his refusal to countenance the idea that the digital-comics landscape had substantially changed in the wake of the iPad despite multiple points of evidence and statements from the major players saying exactly that to his vocal disgust for Facebook-driven PR efforts despite that social network’s obvious utility and near-ubiquity, Dirk frequently rode his hobbyhorses right off the trail, misinterpreting and misrepresenting the positions of his interlocutors in the process.
3) Here’s Dirk talking to Tom Spurgeon about the institution he helmed in both print and digital forms:
Prior to the rise of the Web, the magazine was pretty much the only place where you could get bullshit-free reportage and commentary on comics as a medium and an industry, and the Direct Market therefore tolerated its presence. The Internet changed that, and rendered The Comics Journal essentially superfluous.
So here you have the former managing editor and longtime online editor of the most important comics criticism publication in the English-speaking world saying he didn’t much see the point of that publication once the web came along. I in no way subscribe to Om-tae Evlin-dae’s contention that Dirk destroyed the Journal — he put me in it, so obviously he raised it to heretofore unreached Olympian heights, and at any rate the magazine’s real crash-and-burn days came after Dirk’s departure — but that’s a goddamn bizarre attitude for someone who ran the magazine to have about the magazine. And it very well could explain a lot about the disastrous relaunch of the publication as a web-driven entity. TCJ.com is, frankly, an embarrassment — comically user-unfriendly (just by way of a for instance, I had to manually search it to find Dirk’s aforelinked post on Paul Levitz, which had been voted one of 2009′s best pieces of online comics criticism by one of TCJ.com’s constituent blogs, because the old permalink didn’t work anymore), spastically updated, intermittently focused, and almost entirely removed from the very discourse Dirk claimed had rendered it redundant. That vacuum allowed the emergence as The Comics Journal’s loudest and most prominent critical voice an approach to comics and comics criticism that couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to the traditional ideals and values of both the Journal and its parent company Fantagraphics if it were made to wear a snazzy yellow union suit and call itself Professor Zoom, The Reverse Comics Journal. I’ve never had any clear idea who to blame for all this — Dirk, Managing Editor Michael Dean, Assistant Editor Kristy Valenti, or founder/publisher/longtime editor Gary Groth; frankly, I think the buck has to stop at the top. But here’s how Dirk responded when Spurgeon asked him “Is there anything you might do differently in terms of site development if you had to do the whole thing over?”
…As for site development, I think that Kristy [Valenti] and Mike [Dean] have done about as good job with TCJ.com as anyone could with the available resources.
If you had the potential to change TCJ.com for the better but can look at TCJ.com and think that — and absent yourself entirely from any role in it in the process — that seems to me the very model of malign neglect. And the downfall of what was once the biggest name in comics criticism has got to be discussed as part of Dirk’s legacy, even though the fact that I probably wouldn’t be here without him is part of that legacy as well.