What’s it all about, guys?

I spent some time last night looking at Mark Charan Newton’s excellent blog, and was intrigued at what he had to say about the recent Guardian Book Blog debate about the role of critics versus bloggers.

It’s a fascinating topic, and Mark has some very shrewd things to say about it.   There are some great comments on his thread too.  I’m genuinely fascinated by the subject of how some critics or bloggers become ‘opinion beacons’; and how and why herd mentality can kick in even when you’re dealing with idiosyncratic and strong-willed bloggers.  It’s also a point of real interest to me that book critics in the quality press are often pals of the writers they review; which is why blogging can sometimes be a better source of impartial and honest criticism than the reviews by “professional” critics.

And having absorbed all these comments, I then looked on the Guardian Book Blog page and saw many other fascinating comments.   I always love what Philip French has to say; and I think the comments from Jessa Crispin, editor of Bookslut, were terrific. 

HOWEVER – I do have a major problem with this whole debate .  And I’m willing to admit it may reflect badly on me.  Because I did read the original article in The Guardian, which inspired this whole flurry of excellent commentary, and I DIDN’T UNDERSTAND IT. 

Does that ever happen to you? You read words on a page, and they are big words, written in complicated sentences, by someone terribly clever, and yet they make no sense? 

Yes? No? Is it just me?

*Sigh.*  It may be just me.

But let me try and defend myself here.  This is the original article, by writer Neil Gabler.  And the subheading reads:

Everyone’s a critic now

A refusal to heed the advice of highbrow cultural critics is nothing new. But when the public can quickly share their own – different – views on Twitter, Facebook, myDigg and other social media, is criticism dead?

Golly, that sounds good!  And I understand it too.  The writer is asking: can professional critics compete when there are so many talented bloggers out there?  (The answer is, yes of course they can, if they’re any good – but no matter, move on.)

But then the argument begins, and my eyes start to spin. First Gabler opines (horribly word, but that’s what he’s doing – he’s a opiner!):

Late last year there was a confluence of critical opinion in America the likes of which the nation hadn’t seen in years.

He’s talking about the critical consensus that the movie The Social Network, the TV series Boardwalk Empire and the novel Freedom by Jonathan Franzen are, all three of them,  really very good – in fact, brilliant!  According to Gabler, the critics united in acclaiming all three art works in a way the nation hadn’t seen in years. 

But hold on, I think, in my dumb and literal way – did they? Different critics were involved surely?  And has there never been such a confluence of critical opinion before?  Surely there has?  Bonfire of the Vanities was an acclaimed zeitgeisty novel, Magnolia was an acclaimed zeitgeisty movie. All the critics adored No Country For Old Men.   Everyone raved over The Wire, for ages.  It happens, all the time, every year.  Doesn’t it? Am I missing something here? Or is it just that I don’t understand the word “confluence” in this context. Surely it just means – um – “coincidence”?

Then Gabler asks, boldly:

This is an extraordinary bounty of greatness in such a short time, though what is really extraordinary is the extent to which critics seemed almost to collude in issuing their superlatives. Could it be they were joining forces to assert their authority at a time when that cultural authority is under siege?

Maybe, I guess.

Or alternatively – maybe not!  Maybe those particular  critics just loved those particular works of fiction?  I have to admit I’ve not yet seen The Social Network, though I adore Aaron Sorkin’s work on TV so I’m sure I WILL love it.  I haven’t seen Boardwalk Empire either, since it’s available on THE ONLY CHANNEL I DO NOT GET ON MY TELLY.  Nor have I read Freedom, though from the coverage I’ve read, my suspicion is that it’s wildly over-hyped by critics desperate to find the new Great American Novel that happens to be written by a white male. (But if  would be fair to say I don’t know what I’m talking about here! So do feel free to disregard that opinion.)  But how on earth could these critics ‘collude in issuing their superlatives’?  And were the superlatives all that superlative? Freedom is the freak here – never have I seen a book so lauded as a work of genius!  But The Social Network and Boardwalk Empire were merely getting, so far as I could see,  the usual hype.  Many critics wrote rave reviews;   publicists planted puff pieces and gushy interviews in the major periodicals; marketing people put up posters and adverts; and cumulatively, yes, it does feel as if you’re being told you HAVE to love these works of fiction.  But that’s normal.  It’s the marketing machine at work. 

And so by now, in the course of my reading this article, my head is spinning; because I don’t know what’s being said!  Either because a) I’m THICK (many of my friends will endorse a), I’m sure, because  that’s what my friends are like – damn them!) or b) because speculations are being tethered to abstractions and then coiled around by generalisations, without a single fact or forcefully expressed opinion in sight.  The phrase ‘seemed almost to collude’  is the killer there;  it means, there’s no evidence of collusion, but I’m going to allege it anyway.

And then Gabler get to the crux of the matter:

And there was something else novel this time around. Despite the deafening ballyhoo, the critical consensus didn’t seem to make much difference to the larger public. The Social Network did only “all right” business, not the sort of business one might expect for a celebrated cultural milestone; it has not yet broken the $100m mark at the box office and was the 29th highest grossing film last year, right under that blockbuster, Date Night. (The Coen Brothers’ True Grit, by comparison, took $100m in just three weeks.) Similarly, Freedom just logged its 17th week on the New York Times bestseller list, after having fallen from the list before the holidays. It came 39th among the 100 bestselling books of 2010 on the USA Today list, despite the boost it got as an Oprah Book Club selection. And Boardwalk Empire began in September with a ratings bang of 4.8 million viewers, only to sink to 2.7 million by November. As Entertainment Weekly opined, it “doesn’t seem to have the water cooler appeal” of The Sopranos or Mad Men. Critics were talking about it but ordinary people weren’t.

Look, this is just crazy talk!   Freedom just logged its 17th week on the New York Times bestseller list – and Gabler is arguing it’s a flop?  It’s not!  Damn it all, it’s a best-seller.  The hype/criticial consensus clearly worked. It’s a difficult, complex, long literary novel -and it’s up there in the lists with populist, thrillingly crowd-pleasing writers such as Stieg Larsson, James Patterson and Tom Clancey.  How is that failure? In the link Gabler gives, Freedom is actually number 10: check it out. Jessa Crispin lucidly argues that you can’t equate merit with popular success; but Franzen has achieved both!  Similarly, The Social Network did pretty well at the box office – considering the kind of film it is.  It’s not a flop just because it didn’t outgross Batman or Avatar or True Grit.  (And besides, to make a real comparion you have to know many screens The Social Network was released on;  and what kind of DVD sales it  is getting.)

Boardwalk Empire’s figures do stink though. An audience of 2.7 million US citizens?  In the UK, that would be regarded as poor, nay crap,  for a prime-time show; when I first started writing for The Bill, we used to routinely get audiences of 13 milliion per episode – in a country much smaller than America.  So go figure. Maybe Boardwalk Empire IS a  flop;  but that’s not what Gabler is saying.

But what is he saying?  I don’t know!  That’s what bewilders and baffles me, even on fourth and fifth and sixth readings.  His actual argument is, roughly: 

1) These three works of fiction (2 drama, 1 a novel) are uniquely acclaimed as works of genius. (Unproved, and highly questionable.)

2)  These works of fiction are all dreadful flops. (Not true.)

3) People no longer trust critics, they rely on bloggers instead.  (May well be true – but this has nothing to do with the preceding argument!)

At this point, Gabler really gets into his stride with a cultural anaysis of undoubted authority and smartness. He tells us of the rifts ‘between those who saw themselves as custodians of a high culture and those who were opting for that distinctive American culture with its democratic elements’, and explains that’ ‘ The political avatar of this division was Andrew Jackson, the plainspoken hero of the Battle of New Orleans who ascended to the presidency in 1829 by declaring himself a “fighter not a writer”, to distinguish himself from his well-educated opponent.’  Wow, this is all astonishingly clever stuff, and leads to this beautifully phrased paragraph:

What complicated matters was that within America there was much of the same irksome aristocratic hauteur as there was in Europe, which meant that rifts quickly opened here between those who saw themselves as custodians of a high culture and those who were opting for that distinctive American culture with its democratic elements. The political avatar of this division was Andrew Jackson, the plainspoken hero of the Battle of New Orleans who ascended to the presidency in 1829 by declaring himself a “fighter not a writer”, to distinguish himself from his well-educated opponent, John Quincy Adams. Jackson seemed to be a common man, and he exploited that image.

Around about this point, I began to feel like an idiot.  This writers clearly knows more about history than I do, he knows more about politics than I do; he deftly ranges from an analysis of popular culture to a critique of the very nature of the American soul.  By comparison with this guy, I am some dumbie!

Except, it’s all specious.  The stuff about Andrew Jackson is fascinating, but it has nothing to do with Boardwalk Empire.  Which at one level is fair enough; it’s a common journalistic trick to use something currently in the news as an excuse to shoehorn in a pet theory about something else.  But even so, the article irks; because it’s full of falsity masquerading as wisdom.  It dances around with abstract arguments, insteads of plainly stating an opinion.  It uses citations to add authority, without actually employing common sense.  It reaches for sophisticated politcal and historical references to add credibility to an argument that actually is, when push comes to shove, bollocks.

And this, in a nutshell, is why I prefers blogs.  Not always, and not every blog. And there are certainly brilliant professional critics whose opinions I trust.  But all too often, when reading reviews and features in the ‘posh press’, I find myself getting lost in a haze of someeone else’s cleverness.  I often read a review of a film and don’t have any idea whether the critic liked it, or not.  And I read features (such as this one) about topics I care about written by the cleverest-of-the-clever, and I collapse into a fog of confusion.

This is because some clever people SHOW OFF SO MUCH THEY’RE ACTUALLY NOT CLEVER AT ALL.  

Well, stop it, guys. If you have something to say, say it clearly; and back up your argument with examples, and with logic. 

Mark Charan Newton made a very generous reference to Gabler’s piece in his own blog inspired by it – but what Mark has to say on this topic MAKES SENSE.  Whether he’s talking about climate change or debating of blogs are better than crits, Mark is never less than lucid, logical and intellectually honest.  And that, I would argue, is typical of blog culture at its best.  Some bloggers are opinionated, and wrong-headed (in my view) and downright mean; but at least everyone says what they actually think, in words that can be understood.

Long rant on my part. Great debate in general.  Am I being too rude about Gabler’s critique?  In my view – NO. 

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