On Criticism

I wish that I could tell you that it’s all alright
Glass of the Microscope – Yeasayer

I like to think that I’m all about tough love and hard truths. When it comes to self awareness, everyone has their blind spots, and I tend to think that it’s the job of a good friend to help you see them. I think if someone asked you whether you wanted to know the thing that was holding you back, almost everyone would say yes, they want to know what their thing is. But not everyone wants to know, even if they say they do. Harsh criticism is hard to take, especially from a friend (a good friend of mine sent me a critical email 3 months ago that I’m still processing it).

When it comes to harsh criticism, what are the exceptions, is it okay to criticize the dead? is it ever okay to tell someone you don’t like their art? In a way, since you’re not criticizing their person, but something they did, it should be easier. But in our culture, art is such an extension of someone’s personhood that it’s never really appropriate.

There has been a spate of articles about book criticism lately, on one side is Slate’s case for more critical critics and Dwight Garner for the New York Times Magazine, while Laura Miller at Salon and Heidi Julavits at the Believer make the case against harsh criticism and snark in their field. Miller argues that there should be an exception for fledgling writers, people don’t read that many books anymore and it does more harm than good to squash these new authors before they get their bearrings. While Julavits argues that no one should review a book until they write one (To hear a great wrap-up of the debate check out the Slate Culture Gabfest). With art especially, there is a particularly vile type of criticism that says ‘this isn’t even art‘. There are certain contexts where it’s considered a matter of taste, and others where it isn’t. I think I tend to be on the side of hard truths but I think it’s not a coincidence that the call to be harsher is coming from men, and the call to be nicer is coming from women. This isn’t because women are thin-skinned and can’t take criticism, I think it’s because they know what it’s like to be on the outside in an industry that still privileges men’s opinion.

Let’s look at criticism in a field I know a little more about. I’ve never wanted to be a writer or a literary critic, but I love music and particularly music analysis. It’s no secret that my favorite band of the past 10 years is Yeasayer. I’ve been anxiously anticipating their new album which dropped this week. The album was panned by Spin and Pitchfork, two of the most respected music magazines. Reviews matter (someone once told me something about the Beach Boys that has tainted almost every listen since), you internalize other peoples’ tastes and they become your own. But what are these magazines really saying? Maybe pitchfork’s reviewers are as racist and sexist as their readers. Yeasayer’s may be too gay for them. I had a friend who wrote reviews and someone criticized him for referring to many albums as ‘the best I’ve heard all year.’ He stood by his statements, arguing that music doesn’t hurt, if you listen to an album once and don’t like it, it’s not the end of the world, you didn’t waste any time, no harm no foul. I agree with Julia Turner on the Gabfest, you don’t have to listen to every album, (or read every book), be discerning in what you review, then you can be as harsh as you want.

It struck me on a second listening to the Gabfest that this can also be framed as an East Coast vs. West Coast Debate. Although born in Boston, Dave Eggars has become a distinctively West Coast literary figure, as has his magazine McSweeny’s is one of the few major magazines published in California and NOT New York. It’s a classic debate between the straight talking New York art critic and the laid back California surfer/stoner/hippie. Coming from Oakland, I feel it’s the best of both worlds, it’s sunny California for sure, but maintains its urban grit and certainly a diversity of opinion. I like to think this represents my views, I can take the harsh truths but only in the warmth of the supportive sun.

p.s. Apologies to the Russian’s Mom, no wedding pictures, just decided to go meta.