Criticism is not merely a game. Too often, it merely displays the reviewer's superiority to the common herd or provides an opportunity for stand-up comedy in fancy clothes. Too often, critics don't pay attention to the work: pretending to inform us about art, they expound on themselves.
This is dangerous. By making criticism seem arbitrary, inept (and dishonest) critics drive thoughtful readers to seek refuge in objective measures. In place of thoughtful evaluation, they substitute box office returns and hit counts. In place of reflection, they substitute usability. Instead of excellence, they begin to concentrate on sheer mass or on first-time users.
To understand excellence, it may help to study failure.
A Wrong Turn in Saugus
One recent afternoon, driving to Saugus through Boston's greatest concentration of Wendy's, Burger King's, failed shopping centers and failing malls, I heard Joe Queenan give a wonderful NPR interview on his new book, Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon. He was witty, sometimes hilarious; he described a journey into the Darkness at the Heart of Middle America -- Branson, Missouri, a place I'd never heard of. Queenan is a critic; he's most interested in film and pop music; he'd decided to take a close look at the worst music, the most horrible movies, the most insufferable books, the most hideous American places he could find. A few days later, I heard him do an even better NPR interview. I was hooked: I surfed straight to amazon and ordered a copy.
The interviews were great, the book is dreadful. For 188 pages, Queenan lists things he expected to be bad, reports that he actually looked at them and that they were indeed bad, and moves onto the next bad thing. He sees lots of bad stuff: bad Broadway shows, bad fast food restaurants, bad Atlantic City casinos, bad country music. He applies lots of adjectives to each bad thing. He applies lots of adjectives to the way the bad things made him feel. He goes on to the next bad thing.
Queenan never gets around to explaining why anything is bad, exactly how it is bad, or what we might learn from is badness.
Learning From Failure
There are three good reasons to write about bad art. First, we can help people spend their time and money wisely. More important, we can learn from failure, we can sharpen our senses and learn to avoid blunders. Finally, we may discover that work we cherish -- work everyone believes to be good -- is actually flawed. By discovering the shortcomings of the best art, we might learn to surpass it.
Smashing icons is hard work. Queenan avoids that: he attacks artists who are popular but unfashionable, people that his readers are unlikely to like, but of whose success they may well be jealous. Queenan doesn't like John Tesh or Michael Bolton or Tony Orlando. He thinks Deepak Chopra is bad. He doesn't think Jackie Collins is a very good writer. So?
More to the point, he never explains why anything he hated is bad. Instead, he affects shtick:
I am certainly not suggesting that after all these years in the business, Barry Manilow had finally learned to sing or dance, or that his songs had miraculously stopped sucking. "I Write the Songs" was still a crime against nature. Manilow still danced like a spindly Travolta impersonator. And the guy who writes the songs that made the whole world sing still sang like Barry Manilow. I am only saying that his songs were at least songs, not pointless New Age riffing like Kenny G's."
To borrow one of Queenan's lines, this is the moral equivalent of a Pat Robertson stump speech: mindlessly repeating what his audience thinks it already knows, with rhetorical variations that the audience thinks artful. Queenan almost never chooses to skewer a challenging target: the bad stuff he despises is almost invariably out-of-fashion, out-of-favor. He makes sport with people who like stuff that isn't up-to-the-minute: old people who go to see Tony Orlando, or midwestern tourists who flock to see Cats or Les Miserables on Broadway. This is a at its heart a snobbish book, and if you aren't from LA or Manhattan, to Queenan you're bound to be a rube.
If the book were merely inane and repetitious, is wouldn't be worth mentioning, but it's also dangerous. Queenan confounds judgement with prejudice. He mixes up criticism with fashion. And, perhaps to keep things moving, he forgets his job. He never looks at the work, and so he never helps us learn from it.
Learning from Love Story
The film version of Eric Segal's Love Story is high on Queenan's list of things he expected to be bad. "I had along avoided the megahit of 1970," he writes, "because I suspected that Jimi Hendrix's death may have had something to do with watching on a full stomach." Queenan isn't disappointed: as you might expect, he didn't have a good time.
As I pointed out earlier, movies such as this form a major part of our cultural heritage; they are not harmless bagatelles that we can simple shrug off. Just as Germany is still infested by people who fought enthusiastically for the Third Reich, American society is still inhabited by people who saw this movie, or worse still, made this movie. They walk among us. They bide their moment. One day, not unlike the South, they will rise again.
This is cute, but the cuteness fades quickly if you look at it. The writing is flaccid and dishonest: Queenan affects to be just folks, but reaches for the awkward (why not "movies like this?") and pompous (ever seen a harmful bagatelle?) en route to a pseudo-ironic metaphor. The metaphor doesn't even make much sense: change "not unlike the South" to "like the South", and it reads just as well.
the real problem that Love Story poses: why did people once think it was good?More to the point, Queenan never engages the real problem that Love Story poses: why did people once think it was good? I first heard of Love Story at the dinner table. Grandma Celeste read it when it was first published, and she thought it a moving story. Celeste was a formidable reader. She'd gone to college when girls just didn't do that. She read deeply and widely all her life, lived in an apartment filled with books. She'd been a newspaper writer. She wasn't a slave to reviewers or literary fashion, and time sometimes validated her judgement. One of the books in her living room was an early Lady Chatterly -- an edition from the time when you had to order a copy from overseas or have a friend smuggle it home in a suitcase.
Celeste thought Love Story was a fine book. Today, everyone remembers it and shudders. The critic's job is not to shudder more cleverly than the rest of us, but to help us understand what happened. Was Celeste deluded? Are we? What changed in the intervening 25 years? Could it perhaps change back?
Into The Lagoon
Queenan doesn't like Red Lobster restaurants because the customers seem not to appreciate it when he shows up in beat-up old clothes. "Who are these guys to sneer?" he wonders, "They're all dressed up in their K Mart polyester, their hair is pure New Jersey, and they could stand to lose some weight." In short, Queenan doesn't like to go places frequented by middle-class and high-prole suburbanites; he wants to dine with people who don't need to cross a bridge to get the Manhattan. What's lost, of course, is the possibility of explaining something we didn't already know, or learning anything about food.
There isn't any White Trash in this book, unless Queenan thinks this means people who live in The Bronx or Trenton.
The Blue Lagoon is obviously a turning point in American film
Queenan doesn't like The Blue Lagoon. He doesn't say why. That's a shame, because The Blue Lagoon is obviously a turning point in American film. Before this movie, Brooke Shields was an immensely talented and promising actress, thought to be at the start of a career that would span five or six decades. After this movie, she was a failure. It's rare for a modern film to do so much damage. Yes, The Blue Lagoon is a odd, dirty-minded little story. It pretends to preach how natural sex could be if we could all just act naturally, while taking elaborate care to make sure that Ms. Shields' hair always just happens to (barely) cover her breasts. But all actors occasionally find themselves in bad movies. Most go on to better parts. What happened here? Queenan doesn't think to ask.
Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon attacks easy targets. Queenan makes fun of books that have Stephen King blurbs on their covers, but he avoids taking on King himself. He carefully avoids treading on Elvis. He attacks work that is old hat, out-of-style, unfashionable, downscale. Contrast David Mamet: when Mamet wanted to take on Hollywood, he didn't pick on a decade-old failure like The Blue Lagoon, he singled out Schindler's List, the magnum opus of an immensely popular director. Mamet tries to show us why work that seems moving and new doesn't really deserve our admiration; whether he succeeds or not, we know he's undertaken a challenge. A critic should be more than a cheerleader, more than the loudest voice in a mob.