Monday, April 18, 2011

you're doing it wrong

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.


paul h. said...

Martin's writing is pretty painful, but I thought that the acting/cinematography of the televised version actually helped it a great deal. Anyway I eagerly await the day when someone comes along in the fantasy genre who can really, truly write.

Anonymous said...

i think 'temerity' is exactly what it would take to be attracted to douthat

Andrew said...

I think AV Club has some really really solid reviewers. Rabin is awesome--he's an excellent writer and nothing os funnier than reading a takedown of a really crappy movie. But I agree, I sometimes feel like I'm reading gawker with all the snark and just general negative energy. I find AV Club mostly tolerable and most in line with my tastes. But yes as much as I like Rabin that tone towards all things takes its toll. The rest of the reviewers you mentioned are awful, they can all go to hell. Who do they think they are? I'll gladly take their jobs. Smug elitist assholes. Right on, Freddie.

And I agree in general. Gravity's Rainbow, Ulysses--excellent books that I HAVE read, and no I am not an academic or English major. Get over it.

Joel said...

Perpetual disappointment is about right, however. Consider worthless, superficial dreck like Gran Torino and The Blind Side. Stories with the potential to be great but were executed like an after school special.

And most critics loved those movies...

Michael said...

Of course we have just seen one episode (I less than that). But from what I have seen, I can't perceive any reason to prefer this particular bit of 'quasi-medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy-crap' to "The Tudors," and I think that says all that really needs to be said.

Michael said...

I'll also say that I think you got the Slate Audio Book Club thing just about exactly right - with Patterson, if I am not mistaken, leading the way by a good distance in the regularity and particular mien of his disdain for just about every text (though when he's goes positive, he goes positive -- it just has to be at contrary times!). Which is just to say that Patterson really isn't doing anything particularly wrong here - he's just being Patterson. And I don't think it's any surprise that you find his work such a representative of Slate's overall critical sound: his is one of the most regular, distinctive, and strongest critical voices defining that sound! (If you think you have a background sense of the generic Slate-itude apart from Patterson's contributions, in any case, I think you need to do more to describe and base that sense in criticism of your own - if it's worth it to you).

I'm not a fan of Patterson's, but I don;t think he's doing any particular harm with the particular negative attitude he brings to pop culture, and indeed, mostly, when he applies it to higher texts as well. He is a critic, after all. My main objection to his modus operandi is his slavish devotion to a surprisingly un-nuanced contrarianism defined by aversion to press hype in the case of new pop works, and by revisionist reaction to establishment critical acclaim in the case of established art.

I find no fault with him for not necessarily conceding artistic merit to works only on the basis of their theraputic value to teens and tweens.

You also neglect to credit him with the fact that in this piece he cops to an acritical dislike for the genre he is reviewing that amounts to a disclaimer admitting that he can't read this GoT adaptation on its own terms - i.e. saying essentially, 'For a level assessment it is best to go else where; I'll be unable to elevate above snark in this instance."

Troy Patterson's problem is not the he has that incapacity here where he owns to it on account of genre; to the extent he is a fundamentally flawed critic, it is because he perhaps also exhibits that problem elsewhere, where he doesn't.

Michael said...

Oh, I meant to add: good art - whether classic or contemprary - can most certainly survive the onslaught of the Troy Pattersons of the world (a point you have made well w/r/t particular texts and other critics here recently). And bad art? Well, that's what we keep our Troy Pattersons around for anyways! A broken clock...

Daniel said...

Good post.

For some reason though I think it might be worth mentioning Mass Effect 2 as some Science Fiction that is good and good for all the right reasons. Reading your post made me think of your post on ME2 from months back.

Belvoir said...

Wonderfully said. Especially the bit about "what degree of unanimity of praise" Tina Fey might be happy with. I like her immensely, I love her work, but the non-stop kvetching about oh how hard she works, all the time, so hard to be a working mom with nannies and assistants, oh so hard is beginning to grate on me.

Slate's whole reason for being is to annoy, I'm pretty sure. I don't know what happened with Rabin at the AV Club- he was my favorite there but since his book came out, his articles are extremely half-assed and distracted. No one's forcing him to write endlessly about a K-Tel series of pop music from two years ago, finding something new to say about Beyoncé every week. His recent recaps of 30 Rock are terrible - he gets things wrong, you wonder if he was on the phone watching it. "Jellybeans" is a thing now, Rabin . Step it up.

Murph said...

I can't speak for anyone else, but writing a negative review can, in many instances, be much more difficult than writing a glowing one--particularly if you suspect (or know) the piece in question is getting consensus props from the so-called establishment. Of course this stance assumes that the reviewer in question is approaching the enterprise with some degree of integrity.

That there is more snarkiness in blogs and online in general is pretty much indisputable, in part because the Internets have provided any/everyone with an outlet. (I had a few things to say about this regarding some self-righteous remarks Steven Wilson --a musician I greatly admire-- made last year, here:

Nevertheless, I think some of the hipster-ish anti-consensus you may be alluding to (vis a vis Slate and The Onion) is only partly mitigating an increasingly commercialized pop-culture landscape: for every movie with a $100 M budget and corresponding product lines rolled out opening weekend, we have critics calling out the crassness. I guess I'm suggesting that the negativity --if it in fact exists-- is doing little to overwhelm the calculated cynicism of Pop-culture providers.

The fact that the vast majority of genre-based pop culture sucks is beside the point. Or is it?