The king of the post-ironicists, Dave Eggers, has been holding an email
conversation on his website
this week all about how we really should stop criticising people and
start encouraging artists. It’s called Some Complaining About Complaining,
and so far there are 1,
sections; I think more are forthcoming.
It’s a very long conversation, which I would recommend you read,
and a short quote can’t really do justice to its breadth or its general
flavour. All the same, here’s one entry from Eggers:
I’ve been in LA this week, and as horrible as it was staying
on Sunset, I do really like the city’s enthusiasm for just about everything,
every stupid ugly cheap thing. I like that they get excited about
making TV shows. That they want to make things, and make them quickly,
and then make more things, and reach people, and make them laugh or
cry or whatever. It’s nice Ò it’s jumpy and desperate in a healthy
and wide-eyed sort of way. They obviously fear death, and this is
Critics in general (and, it must be said, the interlocutors do not
exempt themselves) are, well, criticised for being mean about artists,
be they pop stars or writers or whatever. It’s silly dismissing large
chunks of Bob Dylan’s oeuvre, we’re told; Norman Mailer embarrasses
himself when he pans Tom Wolfe’s A Man In Full; liberals should
stop carping on about where Michael Moore (Roger and Me) sends
his kids to school.
My friend Matthew Rose attuned me to this sort of thinking back
in December, when he made some very unflattering noises about the
New York Press critic Godfrey Cheshire, who had just devoted
a column to criticising the New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane. Whether
Cheshire was right or wrong was beside the point, Matthew said: film
critics have much more important things to do than indulge in public
infighting between each other.
Now, I’m sure I’m nowhere near being on the McSweeney’s radar screen,
but I felt as though the dialogue on the website was aimed straight
Twice in the past few days I’ve penned long screeds tearing apart
the design of certain websites; follow this link to my “Dancer in the
Dark” piece and you can see me in the same polemical voice
taking apart Jonathan Foreman’s review of Lars von Trier’s latest.
Furthermore, I’m generally a big fan of negative criticism. Anthony
Lane, for instance, is never better than when he’s panning a film:
his Independent on Sunday review of Sammy And Rosie Get
Laid remains, in my mind, the best and funniest film review I’ve
ever read. Or consider Clive James’s review of Judith Krantz’s Princess
So my initial reaction was to try to pick holes in the arguments.
One thing missing from the McSweeney’s debate so far, for instance,
is to be any consideration of criticism as an artform in itself, something
in which quality and artistry can inhere every bit as much as it can
in a novel or a film. I subscribe to the New York Review of Books
not because I want to know which books are good and which bad, but
because the quality of the writing in the Review is so high
in itself. And if criticism itself is raised to the level of an artform,
any imperative not to criticise art would apply equally to negative
There’s also a certain element of hypocrisy in what Eggers writes.
He’s just as guilty of putting people down as any of us: consider
this from his website.
Speaking of messes, we would like to invite readers to
visit Slate.com, because your McSweeney’s
Representative last week did a Diary
on that site, and the reaction to it — see “The
Fray” — provides for much fun. Why? Well, see, in a sort of running
theme of the diary, the diarist muses aloud about why there has not,
to date, been someone courageous enough to produce an all-black remake
of The Wizard of Oz.
It seems there are a number of people out there, reading Slate, who
are aware that there already is an all-black Wizard of Oz.
And some of them — including one frequent (though, thus far unsuccessful)
submittor to McSweeney’s — were not happy that the diarist was seemingly
unaware of this. Go see and have yourself some fun. You deserve some
fun, with how hard you work and all.
Eggers admits he’s failed to live up to his new high standards in the
past, of course, although this is the relatively recent past. But what
he did in this instance was more than just laugh at people: it was he
who incited those people to do the laughable thing in the first place.
It’s tantamount to asking an entire room to sing, and then having fun
at the expense of those who are tone deaf.
But what’s really important here is not whether Dave Eggers is a
perfect human being or not; it’s whether we (and, more immediately,
I) have been corrupted to the point where there’s more fun to be had
criticism than there is in positive appreciation.
For all my sarcastic tendencies, people often make fun of my positive
hyperbole, telling me that not everybody in my orbit can be the most
fabulous person I know, that not every movie I’ve seen can be the
best film ever made. Presumably, the New Eggers Philosophy wouldn’t
mind that tendency at all: better to wax lyrical about how Breaking
the Waves reignited my faith in cinema than to snipe about the
shortcomngs of Three Kings.
But I have a feeling that no one holds only positive strongly-held
opinions. If we’re to have a healthy intellectual life, it’s better
that artists grow thick skins than that critics self-censor. I’m not
saying that good criticism is a necessary condition for good art,
although I’m partial to that argument. What I am saying is that good
criticism is worthy in and of itself, and shouldn’t be circumscribed
by exhortations to civility.
If, Mr Eggers, that is, you don’t mind me saying so.