How to Be a Critic

Roger Ebert

At the risk of greatly oversimplifying matters, if you want to be a critic, you have two options: to proceed either in good faith or in bad. Both approaches have their limitations.

Roger Ebert was perhaps the epitome of the “good faith” path. It’s hard to imagine a warmer and more outgoing critic than him. Have no doubt: his approach invited problems. He was arguably generous to a fault, eager to love every movie, and so on many occasions (especially as his career advanced) he praised lots of forgettable films. He also wasn’t the most adventurous film critic out there. He worked in the mainstream, and it’s no surprise that he went for artists like Steven Spielberg while dismissing David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, and Abbas Kiarostami (to cite just three of his most notorious reviews). He also wanted to love every one of his readers, and sometimes risked falling into a sunny-shiny “we are all of us beautiful snowflakes” kind of pandering.

But none of that stopped him from having and voicing his own opinions, or from making subtle and sophisticated arguments. (Anyone who claims he dumbed down movie criticism hasn’t read him.) More than one film snob has dismissed the man and his work to their peril. Ebert was, simply put, one of the finest film critics in the land, and one of the finest critics in the land, and the fact he was widely recognized as such is some indication the land is healthy.

What made Roger Ebert an excellent critic, and so beloved by so many, including myself, was his tireless commitment to critical discourse. He invited others to disagree with him. He wasn’t afraid to change his mind. He gladly admitted his mistakes and limitations with easy humor. He never behaved as though he had it all figured out, and that his mission was to explain why everyone else around him was wrong. The man knew scads more about movies than most folks he found himself in conversation with—but rather than lord that knowledge over them, he tried to bequeath it to others, even as he realized he still had things to learn himself. He also wrote extremely beautifully—I’m haunted by stray lines from his work, such as the paragraph in his review of Green Street Hooligans where he paused to remember how “years ago, late on nights of drinking […] anger would come from somewhere and fill me.”

Today, thanks to the Internet, everybody’s a critic. HTMLGiant, “the internet literature magazine blog of the future,” is one of many roiling hotbeds of rollicking criticism. Its ranks include the formidable and sharp-tongued critics Christopher Higgs, Seth Oelbaum, and A D Jameson (myself). “Just what are those fiery young critics up to?” you may have wondered while purchasing cheap wine at Trader Joe’s, or while caught in the grips of a great existential fear, unable to sleep late at night. Are any of them critics in the spirit of Roger Ebert, capable of stepping into the gulf left by his passing?

I’ve read every HG post by Chris Higgs, and they never fail to engage and provoke me (and often move me to write my own posts). Rather like Ebert, Chris possesses a passion for art that’s irrepressible and contagious—he inspires others to rush out and read a book, to dance exuberantly in front of a painting, embarrassment be damned. Chris has also put forward some intriguingly provocative ideas that have challenged a fair number of his readers: that art isn’t about communication, that artworks are meaningless, that interpretation is destructive and judgmental and awful. To make claims like this takes courage, especially as other people have voiced their disagreement.

Chris’s problem, however, is that he’s made it increasingly evident that he isn’t committed to good faith critical discourse. When others try to engage him, disagreeing, critiquing his arguments, Chris disappears. Sometimes he jots down an excuse before absconding—“I’m busy presently; I’ll return to this matter later”—but Chris never returns to engage with the critique. Recently he’s refashioned himself as someone above getting caught in such a “cesspool.” Meanwhile, his busyness consists not only of his schoolwork, but making endless lists of the things that he likes, both here and on Twitter, where he easily finds people who will congratulate his good taste. Those who wish to critically engage with Chris are forced to shrug and, disappointed, resume whatever they were doing before Chris posted. And only then, after the critical conversation that Chris inspired dies down, does the man return with some new gleaming blogicle that repeats his previous assertions, acting as if he’s never made precisely those points before, or that anybody has criticized them.

I’ve concluded from this that Chris’s ideal audience doesn’t include anyone who disagrees with him. Chris fancies himself, I’ve come to think, as someone bringing fire from the heavens to his readers—he’s read this wonderfully maverick writer named Deleuze, and he’s dying to tell you all about him! Well, he’s dying to tell you to go read him; here’s a link! But Chris isn’t interested in talking with others who have also read Deleuze and who have different takes on that man’s work; no, he’s reaching out to people who have never heard of the guy, and whose response consists of the comment, “Awesome! Thanks! I’ll check it out!”

That is one way a critic proceeds in bad faith.

Seth Oelbaum is another intriguing critic. His work is newer to me than Chris’s; I began reading his blog posts and his poetry sometime late last year. (I’ll use this occasion to note that I like many of his poems.) Like Ebert, and like Chris, Seth presents himself as possessing deep-seated passions and concerns, although in his case it’s much more difficult to figure out what they are, and where his critical commitments lie. As such, he’s managed to confuse a lot of readers, who have begun calling him anti-Semitic and sexist.

Seth, it seems to me, is proceeding from certain political motivations that are entirely admirable, albeit also pretty familiar and inoffensive to the kind of people who gravitate to literary blogs (and who have presumably taken a course in post-colonialism, as I am taking this semester—and it’s not my first one!). He’s outraged by centuries of Northern/Western imperialism—the fact that a relatively small percentage of people on Planet Earth enjoy a relatively comfortable but ultimately destructive lifestyle, and do so at the grave expense of the remaining vast majority. That’s very broadly put, but Seth is a broad-strokes kind of critic.

Seth, unlike Chris, is more than willing to engage with people who think differently than him. Indeed, such people are his target audience: he wants to reach all those mediocre human beings living those mediocre American lives. How they enrage him! Just consider their ideal day: wake up, change Facebook photo to signal support for gay marriage, then trot off to Starbucks to sip soy lattes while steadfastly ignoring the genocide in the Congo, not to mention the civil war in Syria. How to make those fools see that their way of life is killing others?

Admittedly, I might be wrong in my assessment. Because Seth’s problem is that when he crafts his critiques—and they appear to be very crafted—his favored critical strategy is to adopt a smug, condescending tone (which he masks somewhat with baby talk), then lean very hard on very big buttons: The Holocaust. Fascism. Anne Frank. Gay Marriage. Capitalism. Occupy Wall Street. Thus he riles people up—184 comments!—and shifts the debate to where he thinks it should be (current genocides, not gay marriage). But he does so in a way that makes it difficult to discern what he’s even critiquing, or where he stands. Debate ensues, yes, but it’s over Seth and his intentions and his deliberately obscure rhetoric, not the Syrian Civil War, or genocide in the Congo.

That’s a problem but it’s an understandable problem, the consequence of a critic still working out the method and the means of his critique. What comes next, however, I find more troubling: Seth delights in the shitstorm he’s created. He sits back and congratulates himself at having muddied the waters, chortling that he’s succeeded in making some vital point about what is or isn’t a permissible representation of genocide. Once again, he’s daringly exposed the inherently bourgeois mentality of his readers! But according to this very bad faith method, any response that anyone makes will count for Seth as a critical point scored.

This is criticism cum trolling, and another way a critic can proceed in bad faith. The critic (and I’m going to use the masculine pronoun because this post concerns Chris, Seth, and me) makes a fatal mistake when he imagines his audience as ignorant—when he believes himself to be the smartest person in the conversation, the only one who knows what’s really going on. Everyone else? They’re morons in need of comeuppance. The critic’s job is delivering that comeuppance.

Chris, I fear, risks ending up in conversations only with his supporters. Seth risks ending up in conversations with only morons. In my experience, non-morons quickly exit trollish debates, because it feels terrible to try and argue with someone who doesn’t understand that you, too, have read Hannah Arendt, and that you, too, are concerned with the devastation wrought by global capitalism. (This is why I stopped watching Michael Haneke’s films after Caché.) But as far as Seth’s concerned, if you support gay marriage, then you’re a moron who’s too busy drooling over Schindler’s List to comprehend Spielberg’s place in an ideology-making industry that renders current holocausts invisible. You miserable fascist, you! But critics proceed in bad faith when they misconstrue debates, either out of ignorance or out of the perverse satisfaction that comes with the feeling that they possess secret information their readers don’t.

That last point is something I sadly know something about. I’ve been blogging for a while and I’m an opinionated guy. I’ve also read a ton of books and watched a ton of movies, from all kinds of places and times. I also know a thing or two about criticism and theory, and am not afraid to wade into debates and shoot my mouth off (see this very post). I know lots and I’m happy to demonstrate my knowledge. And so, very often, I use my smarty-smarts to intimidate other people. It’s easy: just name a bunch of authors/books/titles (the more obscure the better), and people will feel unqualified to continue the conversation. The price of entry becomes so high that very few others can enter.

Here’s another version of how a critic like myself proceeds in a bad faith manner: by insisting too strongly on one’s chosen methods (in my case, a very rational formalism). Disguise this with the claim that you are attempting to be specific (how noble!), when in fact you’re also proposing a debate entirely on your own terms. You thereby insulate yourself from anyone who would question those very terms. Anyone else gets locked out.

A bad faith critic like myself has many tricks—as many tricks as I have insecurities. The length and sheer number of my posts become additional means of discouraging conversation. “5000 words on the latest Batman film” is a pretty fair summary of much of what I do. Again, I can argue I’m being thorough, leaving no critical stone unturned—but haven’t I just found another technique for pushing others away, another way to demand that the conversation occur only on my terms? “Unless you read and process all of this, then pen an equally lengthy response—don’t bother replying! And while you were doing that, here’s another 5000 words on another subject—just try keeping up!” I stifle conversation by exhausting others. (This post is 2376 words long. Go me.) More than a few readers have done me the favor of reading one of my long-winded posts, then told me, “I didn’t comment because there didn’t seem anything left for me to say.” That’s a sign that, rather than inviting others to a discussion, I would rather pronounce final judgments, deliver definitive last words.

And why is that? Do I think I’m the world’s greatest thinker? Yes, sometimes I do. I can be rather vain. I can also be rather insecure (vanity and insecurity probably being but two sides of the same thing). I obsessively revise, trying to eliminate all mistakes from my writing. That itself is a mistake. And sadly, it doesn’t work, because I still make plenty of mistakes—misinterpretations, wrong assumptions, leaps of logic that can’t be defended (plus numerous typos). When I revisit my older posts, I’m often humbled by the overconfidence of my assertions, and my haste to paper over logical gaps with a funny line. It’s been ego all along, I’m forced to admit: “My primary motivation as a critic is to look clever on the internet.” It’s about me, not the community, not the discourse. (And what prompted this post? I have to wonder. I like to think that it’s my commitment to this site, as well as the work being done by Chris and Seth and myself. But you might think otherwise, and I fear—I really do—that you’re more discerning.)

Chris and Seth and A D, then, offer three examples of how bright, caring, and well-intentioned critics can nonetheless end up trafficking in bad faith. But don’t cry for them as all three will undoubtedly meet with vast modicums of success.

Meanwhile, a good faith critic has left the conversation. His work remains as a testament to the courage that such faith takes—to begin with the assumption that, despite the wealth of your knowledge and fiery passions, you might be wrong, and that others might know more than you do. To practice that faith requires pausing, not insisting on your own voice, and doing some listening. This is hard. The nonstop obsession that is the internet encourages otherwise, plying its brash young critics with better and better tools for having things their own way. The future, more exciting than ever, beckons crazily. Roger Ebert, standing now somewhere off on the sidelines, cocks his thumb and gestures with beauty, humility, dignity, compassion, and with grace at how to really be a critic.