No sooner do I write a piece that in part defends higher-brow art and in part criticizes the fanboy/geek mindset than Troy Patterson writes this and makes me want to start sleeping on Star Wars sheets again.I was going to go into one of my anti-Slatey screeds, but I want to stick to the point here.
True confessions: I'm not really into high fantasy. I dug it some when I was younger. I've never read anything by George RR Martin. And, yes, I have broad complaints about the way in which fanboy/geek properties have come to dominate pop culture. But Patterson's review, aside from failing for many of the reasons articulated by Matt Zoller Seitz, is making in my view a wrongheaded critique of fantasy art, and in a way that only enables the fanboy paranoia that they are being sneered at from afar.
Look, I'll lay my cards on the table: one of my complaints about the ascendancy of pop culture is that too many pop culture enthusiasts defend the potential of pop culture genres and media to be transcendent while ignoring the reality that most pop culture is nothing close to it. It's an old formulation and one I have enjoyed for my entire reading life. What is superficially silly, juvenile, sexless, and shallow in pop culture venues like comic books, science fiction, fantasy, and superhero stories can--can -- in the right hands and with delicacy, be used to access a second order seriousness, maturity, romance, and depth. In the best pop artifacts the absurdities of genre conventions are cast into relief with the most meaningful of human experiences, in a way that straight drama often can't access without succumbing to the maudlin, or the portentous. With rare exceptions (Terrence Malick springs immediately to mind), stories told in the "realist" mode have to deploy their romantic or tragic intentions tangentially, since audiences are on the lookout for didacticism or the heavy handed. Meanwhile, in sci fi and fantasy, emotion and drama can hide in plain sight. There's something about the way a romance plays out in contrast to, say, a druid beheading a dragon that allows for a guileless, direct exploration of love that is nevertheless (sometimes) satisfying. As I've argued, I think this is one of the primary appeals of young adult fiction-- including, yes, the Twilight phenomenon-- that it allows frank and unapologetic access to discussion of deep emotions for young people struggling with a period of great intensity.
The problem comes from two directions. The first is, yes, attitudes like Patterson's, where there is a kind of studied refusal to countenance the complexity of narrative, emotion, and drama behind the superficial childishness of the subject matter. Sci fi and fantasy can't survive readings that aren't charitable enough to consider them on their own terms, but then very few works of art can. Patterson's review is so gleeful in its superficiality, and so grating in the incongruity between the show it is describing and the show I saw last night, that I can only think that he made up his mind before he watched it. (And by the way, if you don't go out with a young woman you're attracted to because she likes to go to Renaissance fairs, you're just a loser. I imagine Patterson and Ross Douthat, sitting around complaining about the women who had the temerity to be attracted to them.)
The other side of the problem comes from the defenders of fanboy culture, who are in turn not discriminating enough about the actual narrative and dramatic content worked into the genre elements. This may in part be a reaction to exactly the dismissal of people like Patterson, though as I've long said, fanboys seem altogether too quick to imagine that dismissal everywhere, and to their discredit. Personally, I find most geek/fanboy art-- and I use those terms because in my experience, that is how such people self-identify-- to be, well, pretty shitty. Lots of bad sci fi and fantasy never actually gets around to dealing with anything that is important to me as an adult consumer of media. And if you'll forgive me for painting with a broad brush, it really is true that these genres and media have a consistent problem with expressing human romantic and sexual relationships in a way that adults care about. Many do, but in my limited experience, many more don't.
Attitudes like Patterson's do certain aggrieved geeks the favor of confirming their suspicions that the world is full of people who dismiss individual works because of their genre or media. It's those generalized dismissals that people rightly rail against. I will continue to insist that this is actually committed much more often against art that is considered difficult or high brow, and I will also insist that it's far better to get the kind of art you want produced, as sci fi, fantasy, and comic book geeks do, than it is to achieve some sort of nebulous concept of critical respect. But that's no reason for reviewers not to get it right.
Ultimately, I've just got to say-- I think Patterson's piece is perfectly typical of the particular pathologies of Slate. I've long been struck by the fact that being a permanent arts and culture writer for Slate seems to require a general contempt for every actual artistic or commercial product. It's not that they never produce positive reviews, but that the general posture of Slate's criticism seems to be the defensive crouch. And there is a kind of fussy relationship to cultural signaling that makes it all worse. I used to listen to Slate's Audio Book Club a lot. One of the permanent projects of my adulthood is to spend less time hating myself, so I had to give it up. But if you listen to more than a few of these podcasts-- featuring a rotating cast of characters like Patterson, Stephen Metcalf, and Katie Roiphe-- what will strike you is the relentless negativity demonstrated towards these great books. In a completely unscientific way, I'll suggest that the dominant majority of the opinions in the podcast are negative, if not outright hateful.
I'm less concerned with the spectacle of a bunch of writers complaining bitchily about talents like Cormac McCarthy or Joan Didion or F. Scott Fitzgerald than I am with the way in which this represents a growing trend of criticism oriented towards resentment. Observe someone like Nathan Rabin, who let slip today that he sees being a film critic as an exercise in perpetual disappointment; this is in keeping with my general sense of his work at the AV Club. My intuition, which is perhaps unfair, is that this is likely a product of anxiety based on having your professional life dedicated towards considering other people's art.
That might sound like a blanket condemnation of reviewers, but in fact it's anything but. Good, muscular criticism is crucial to the artistic enterprise. I think being a professional critic can be a deeply valuable enterprise. Without critics, media can very easily devolve into perpetual ass-kissing. I like and respect Tina Fey, for example, and am eager to read her book, but I've been put off by how often, in the promotional tour she's doing, she comes back to the slights she's received on the Internet. Particularly because she gets, I would say, rather glowing press in general, it makes me wonder what unanimity of praise would satisfy her. There's no sense in which a critical eye is unnecessary or unwanted. But weariness-- which I find more and more reviewers trying to cultivate in their work-- is fatal for a critic. If you are too weary of bad art to give charitable readings to good or middling art, time to hang 'em up.