A few weeks ago, my little sister called me up to ask me a question: “Do you ever feel like everyone hates you?” Of course I start to slip into encouraging big sister mode and say something about how it will pass and people in their freshman year of college will eventually grow up and you’ll all become adults who respect one another, but then I thought about it honestly and said, “Everyday. I write for VICE.”
To qualify this further, I could have easily replaced VICE with SLATE, MEN’S HEALTH, MS., or CAT FANCIER, and the sentiment would be the same. There’s a lot of talk about writers having it hard right now and nobody paying freelance writers, and I run into this problem all the time, too, and still don’t know exactly how I feel about the subject, but there are two things I can take sides with regarding writing, and those are: 1. There are too many critics, and 2. Comments sections for online journals and magazines are not avenues of open discourse, no matter how you try to spin the angle of “free thought exchange.” They’re often amplified versions of lonely people yelling at the TV, sure of themselves that they would never ever go down to the basement to check out that strange noise.
To go back to my little sister’s question, if I really look at my life, how much I’m creating and disseminating (screenplays, films, articles, reviews, music, magazines, cookies) on a daily basis and the amount of negative, hateful, thoughtless feedback I get, it’s actually surprising I haven’t had a true nervous breakdown, yet. It’s even more surprising that I just keep doing it, continuing to receive criticism that is neither practiced, nor actual criticism, more akin to a grocery list of stuff people hate…and you just happen to be on the list. Note that I didn’t say your writing. No, you are what people are reviewing now. Yet, shockingly (sarcasm), I would venture to say that none of these “reviewers” has ever worked for a magazine or for an editor (most of whom will rewrite your content for their own purposes), or would ever really think to form a vitriolic opinion about something if they didn’t see that enticing empty box where text should be at the end of an article. I’m sure there were armchair writing critics before the online community existed, but I highly doubt those critics would have wasted days and weeks on end waging a war of words with a complete stranger before the online “community” developed.
What is criticism?
Last night, I was extremely excited to finally watch the indie sci-fi time travel hit PRIMER. It’d been almost 10 years since it was released, and people still spoke fondly of it. I settled in with Bird on our old Grandma-Gold couch, and we projected it on the wall. I can only describe the next 77 minutes that followed a…disappointment? Outside of the difficulty of being able to accurately assess something on its merits when it’s been hyped for a decade, there’s also the problem of my being a professional critic and being able to see how it could have been better before I saw how it actually was. Bird is still fond of the film; he could tell I wasn’t. I went into a lengthy discussion about how scene structures, VO, and editing were eerily familiar to Soderbergh, how there was no character development, and how the wordiness and overlapping dialogue was really just a sleight of hand to distract the viewer from the holes in the story, like “I have no idea what’s going on, so clearly the movie must be smarter than I am.” It’s OK. The movie isn’t actually smarter than you are. YET, when Bird said I should just admit that I thought the movie was awful, it didn’t feel right saying those words, even though I conceded so we could end the discussion. Despite all that criticism, I didn’t actually think PRIMER was awful. I just thought it could be better.
One of my jobs requires me to break things apart and see which gears need more oil and which gears we should just kill off in Act 1, because they’re not really integral to the story. Another job requires me to stare at photos that often look almost exactly the same and decide which one I like better based on imaginary criteria I’ve catalogued in my head. And yet another forces me to talk about music as though there’s any actual way to put words on paper that come at all close to understanding that particular art form. I am a constant critic on this obsessive hunt for something that is better than something else with a facade of objectivity that is paper thin, but it’s a necessary job and a burden, because I actually care about the artists I’m critiquing.
Judging aesthetics–the first glance–is only one part of the equation. I spend the other 8 hours thinking about how much work went into this, what the artist was trying to say, if my opinion could ever be valid for this art form, and what could be gained or lost by extracting or adding elements…and it’s tiring. But I care, because the artist is present. She is always present. And she is putting her heart into this, and maybe her heart is a shallow doormat, but it doesn’t need everyone’s dirty feet scuffed into its hollows to know that.
Real criticism shouldn’t even be called criticism. Or reviews. It should be an analysis of intentions, the mechanisms involved, and which of them exactly failed or succeeded. For PRIMER, I already know what’s not working. The wildcard, though, is the writer/director/editor/composer/cinematographer/actor Shane Carruth. I do not think the film was worthy of any award nominations, but I do think he was. Despite my analysis of PRIMER, it is very clear to me that Shane Carruth had a vision, and that signifies to me that PRIMER was just a tiny tick mark in a line of successful future projects. He is capable of great things, and that should be acknowledged. I do not hate him. I would never go on record hating him. Conversely, I would never simply “like” something just because everyone else does. And to me, that’s real criticism. It’s not pandering to people, nor is it whipping them in public, and until we get away from that kind of criticism, I think we should just not do it.
Also, maybe you should hug an artist today. Even if her art is terrible. I’m astonished that we’re producing so much right now when we’re also producing 10 critics for every one artist who’s creating. Never before was there a harsher time to be an artist–not only because of the economy, because of MFA programs that do nothing to further artistic endeavors, because of the lack of art appreciation, because of a maniacal overconsumption that masticates everything in its path at high speed only to spit it out with no recollection of its actual taste–but because there is no monetary, no public outcry catalyst to create. There is only you. And you are only here to ensure the survival of your species, not to write the script for a film whose format will most likely become obsolete in a decade. The only reason to create is you, and the only reason to stop is everyone else. And you can tell yourself that everyone else doesn’t matter, but you have realized that your art isn’t just you; it’s your bridge to the everyone else, and the everyone else’s have created a terrain akin to Normandy on D-Day, so good luck building that bridge, sucker.
There’s no easy way to make people better critics or to make people make better art that inspires or unites everything else, but it’s worth trying, because we need something constructive to do while we’re ensuring the survival of our species.
For the critics: Be gracious. Be honest, but remember she made this for you. An artist will not improve herself without a blueprint, and you don’t want to be critiquing something you don’t like for forever, so try writing something yourself. Not a critique or a review, but something from an original thought in your brain, and give it to the world.
For the writers: Fuck it. You’re trying. Just make a commitment to always try harder. If you fail, you can always become a critic. I kid.