Writing Right with Dmitri: Responsible Criticism
Back in 1877, the Atlantic Monthly magazine gave a dinner in honour of the 70th birthday of a then-famous American poet, John Greenleaf Whittier. All the pre-eminent authors and poets were there, some of them quite aged. In particular, Longfellow, Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes graced the head table. Lots of famous people read speeches and excerpts from Whittier's poems. The whole affair was really dignified, except for two problems: alcohol and Mark Twain.
The alcohol was served with the multi-course meal, and the Women's Christian Temperance Union fussed about it the next day in the newspaper. The other thing the newspapers started fussing about was Mr Twain, whose speech, they opined, was vulgar, rude, and insensitive. See, he sort of roasted the dignified guests.
…Mr. Twain has been scored for his exceedingly bad taste, and there is a disposition to deal anything but tenderly with him. It is assumed that he ought to have known better; that even with his innocent desire to enliven the proceedings with something humorously quaint, and mix it with quotations from the respective writings of the poets, the instincts of a gentleman would have forbidden its presentation in a character-sketch so coarse and absurd in every incident. It will require a good deal of ingenuity on the part of the humorist to extricate himself gracefully from the predicament in which he is involved, and soften away the painful sensations that followed his unique performance.
The Boston Daily Globe, 26 December 1877.
Whew. Harsh criticism. Oddly, some people seem to have thought the sketch funny, and even the targets of the humour laughed. (It may have been all that alcohol.) When Twain wrote them notes of apology, all of them except Emerson replied, in effect, 'don't worry about it.' (Emerson was suffering from dementia at the time.) So who was right? Was the sketch funny? Judge for yourself. It seems harmless enough. Apparently, some of the critics were way too much on their dignity. They didn't like Twain clowning around with Great Authors.
Which brings me to the question: when you write criticism, how much responsibility do you have to react in a way that's fair to the audience? Or can you just go off on a tear about whatever gets up your nose about a book, play, or film? In other words, what distinguishes a rant from a critique? Do you care?
Personally, I do. I rarely read critiques before I watch a film, say, or read a book. I don't want to know what the maven or guru thinks before I get a chance to see what the writer/director thought. After forming my own opinion, though, I often read reviews. Sometimes, I'm astonished. Did this person really read/view the same work I did?
Bad criticism tells you a lot about the critic's prejudice, and nothing about the work. For instance, 'When I watch a movie, I want to be entertained. This isn't entertaining.' Okay. But what was the author/director trying to do? Did they do it? If you wanted to be entertained, and weren't, fair enough. But unless it's your job, you don't have to read or watch. As a piece of art, did it work? Why or why not?
Recently, I watched an independent documentary by Israeli filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger, called The Flat. I really enjoyed the film, for two reasons. First, the filmmaker had a skillful way with a camera and his subjects. Second, the film was warm, human, and honest.
What I appreciated most about the film was that it illustrated the dilemma of modern people, whether in the US, the UK, Germany, Israel, wherever, when confronted with 20th-century history they didn't live through themselves. How do they figure it out? What lessons do they take away from the experiences of their grandparents? Goldfinger obviously didn't know everything that I knew about the Second World War. He wasn't a scholar, and he hadn't had a chance to talk to the participants. I found his methods and conclusions illuminating, and I had sympathy for the people involved.
Then I read the reviews. Almost no one had bothered to watch the film Goldfinger made. Instead, they criticized it on the grounds of what it didn't do: it didn't blame the Germans enough, it blamed them too much, it didn't get into the question of Zionist responsibility for mistreatment of Arabs, etc, etc… The whole thing reminded me of the politically-motivated response to the film Hannah Arendt, a film I'd also liked, which got a similar treatment. As I often say, the air becomes thick with the sound of the grinding of axes.
Of course, you and I would never write that way. It's irresponsible. Someone writes a book, or makes a film. You review it. When you do, you are careful to discuss the work itself, rather than using it as an opportunity to tell all that you know – or think you know – about a subject. You follow these guidelines for a successful review:
- You review the work the author produced, not the one you wish had been there.
- If you are unfamiliar with the subject matter, you do a bit of quick research, so that you place the argument in its proper context.
- You try to ask yourself: what did the creator intend? Did they accomplish this? Why or why not?
- You refrain from using the creator of a work as a straw man to act out your own frustrations on a topic.
- You stick to the topic at hand, and don't use the review as a springboard for a wider rant on the subject of 'what's the matter with X these days?'
Of course you do all these things. And because you do, you write really worthwhile reviews. In fact, I might even read yours before I watch the film or read the book.
Do you have any favourite awful reviews? Or even good ones, which are rarer? Share the links with us below, please. We can all learn something.