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We Must Protect Criticism, Says Guy Who Anonymously Attacked His Critics Online

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by Matt Singer
June 12, 2012 9:35 AM
4 Comments
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"The Tree of Life."

The practice of criticism is under attack. Movie stars don't like it. Directors don't like it. Editors aren't too interested in it. Critics, in other words, need a champion.

At (British) GQ.com, they've got one in the form of columnist Johann Hari, who has written a passionate defense of the form entitled "Is This the End of Critics?" Surveying the rather inhospitable landscape facing critics today -- firings, layoffs, disgruntled subjects, the explosion of amateur criticism on social media -- Hari explains why professional critics still matter...

"Because critics perform two essential tasks in the cultural ecosystem - and as with any ecosystem, if you knock out one part, the entire network is at risk of unravelling. Their first task is simply consumer advice... but critics have a deeper role still. When something new and startling comes along, it often baffles us, and we are tempted to drop it, pained, for easier cultural lifting. A great critic can help us to figure out what is going on, and to appreciate it in a richer way. When I saw Terrence Malick's 'The Tree Of Life,' I was sure I had seen something extraordinary, but I felt I had barely begun to understand it. It was reading the body of criticism by terrific writers, such as Dana Stevens and Peter Bradshaw that led me deeper in. As film critic Pauline Kael put it: 'We read critics for the perceptions, for what they tell us that we didn't fully grasp when we saw the work.'"

Well said. Hell yes, criticism is important (says the guy whose livelihood depends on its continued importance). It does help guide our purchases. It can enrich our understanding of complex works of art. It should be protected. It deserves to be supported. 

That support, in this case though, may come from a dubious source. The intro to Hari's piece on GQ-Magazine.co.uk  says that the writer "was last year embroiled in his own media storm after admitting to plagiarism and confessing to using a pseudonym to attack his critics online." So the guy saying criticism needs to be protected recently got into trouble for anonymous bashing his own critics?

Apparently. An article in The Telegraph by Cristina Odone details how, after a fight with Johann Hari, her Wikipedia page was defaced by a commenter who rewrote her personal history to include fabricated incidents involving anti-semitism and homophobia. That commenter, it later turned out, was actually Johann Hari. And Odone wasn't the only one of Hari's enemies attacked by his online alter ego, either.

After Hari's misdeeds came to light he apologized, took a leave of absence from his job, enrolled in a journalism training program, made amends. He seems to be in a better place professionally and I still think his message is a good one. But is he the right messenger to deliver it? I mean, this is weird, right? If criticism is under attack, this feels a little like an undercover agent sent to destroy it from within. Let's all agree to do as he says, not as he did.

Read more of "Is This the End of Critics?"

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4 Comments

  • MEAGAIN | June 14, 2012 8:21 AMReply

    And ordinary people on the street don't like it because most movie critics are weak minded cowards who are far to easily influence by peer pressure. They're pathetic sniveling wretches incapable of forming their own opinions or having the moral fortitude to stand up for something they believe in. They coalesce into the herd for fear of standing out or for having a view that doesn't align with that of "the majority of critics" and the worst part is they get paid to do so.

  • Chris | June 12, 2012 1:20 PMReply

    There's no question that the arts need criticism. Criticism is essential to artists. However, that criticism simply does not have to come from paid professionals. I have read just as much intelligent film criticism from gifted amateurs, and just as much stupid, inane criticism from paid professionals, as vice versa. A "pro" critic can be great, of course, but this is not an inevitable consequence of the position.

    My main problem with critics is that far too many of them aren't actually "critics," they're simply "reviewers." They're opinionated without being illuminating. I don't want some blowhard telling me I SHOULD like this movie and I SHOULD hate that one, I want someone who will illuminate the movie with a rich, stimulating, precise interpretation of the artwork.

    "So when stuff like "50 Shades of Grey" comes out, someone can say: "Yeah, enjoy it if you want, but it's the saturated fat of the literature world and - hey! - wouldn't you like this Kobe steak equivalent better?""

    No, we DON'T need more of that, since anyone with any taste at all can see that 50 Shades of Grey is pulp fiction, and was never intended to be anything else. That Shades is not "quality" lit is so obvious as to be a redundant statement. No, we DON'T need anyone to "say" this, since it's a self-evident truism. Shades doesn't need to be reviewed at all, any more than an amusement park ride needs a professional "review" the way a new opera or new art gallery opening does.

    What the hell is the point of "reviewing" and snarking on 50 Shades of Grey, or the kind of reader who wants that kind of book? Isn't it a bit like snarking on the dietary habits of an obese trailer-park dweller waiting at the drive-thru at Burger King? You're not changing anyone's mind, you're just getting a little thrill over your own "superior" taste. This person already knows she's not consuming "quality" food, but she doesn't care: the fast food is filling some kind of void in her life. The readers of pulp fiction don't care that these books are the literary equivalent of McDonald's Happy Meals, they just want their pleasure centers to light up. To sneer about that - to lecture them they should be eating "Kobe steak" instead of Big Mac's - is both snobbish and futile. The readers of these novels are the sort of people who don't care about reviews, and don't pay attention to critics, in the first place.

    What we actually need are more critics who can build a strong case for great literature and film - through the strength and precision of their INTERPRETATIONS, not evaluations. More hermeneutics, less grade-giving. More dialogues, fewer monologues. I don't care what a critic doles out an A plus or a C minus to: I care WHY these grades were handed out, what it is that exegetically underpins the evaluation.

  • john lichman | June 12, 2012 11:40 AMReply

    i, for one, champion the upcoming days where i don't need to shave, can wear shorts, get fat and can get Hulu to sponsor my show about criticizing critics while sucking up to major studios while promoting my series of podcasts to promote my production studio while not making films while going on tour and telling stories about giant robot spiders.

  • Da7e | June 12, 2012 11:40 AMReply

    If someone doesn't say "save criticism" we'll start seeing art go down the path of other realms of public opinion that have been functioning without a monitoring force. Like financial systems, the rules of the US Senate or Local, state-level politics. People's perception of what is happening in these spheres of interest are so twisted by sloppy reporting and cable news that they're quickly approaching a disgusting loop where it's more theater than policy, even when policy is passed because there's no one to reliably contextualize. That's why art needs critics. So when stuff like "50 Shades of Grey" comes out, someone can say: "Yeah, enjoy it if you want, but it's the saturated fat of the literature world and - hey! - wouldn't you like this Kobe steak equivalent better?"

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