I like reading negative literary criticism. There's not enough of it and there's far too much of the positive kind kicking around.
To refresh any readers who may have blotted their own adolescent reading of The Catcher in the Rye from memory, you’ve got the snotty young Caulfield on his way home to his parents on Fifth Avenue to give them the bad news that he’s been bounced from Pencey, not his first prep school. In the meantime, he reflects meanly upon some of the other students, calls up an old teacher, and buys a record for his too cute younger sister. Holden’s famous denunciation of the “phonies” of the world and his own inability to see the way he manipulates the reader is radical wonder. He pierces the veil of appearances that adults are too jaded to perceive. He knows; he understands; he dreams of saving anonymous children. He’s utterly phony.
But I should go back a few steps, because I never addressed your entry before last, when you had just seen a movie you absolutely hated. (Why do I think it was Dancer in the Dark? Not that I've seen it, but it seems to provoke that reaction in so many people.) But of course you're free to dislike the movie. I think the distinction I'd make is this: We're free to dislike movies, TV shows, art, books. But the thing we need to look at is the impulse to publically and passionately rip these things up. I know that on a personal level, one's need to be the person to stand on a high hill and tell everyone else that something is garbage is just not, let's be honest, a healthy one. I might feel good about warning the populace about, say, unsafe cars, or marauding hordes, or killer wasps, or a hurricane named Sandy, but to get up there, demand everyone's attention, then just whip out your pee-pee and urinate on a painting of a kitten... it's a strange impulse. I look back on my own years of doing just that — I wrote a few nasty art reviews while living in San Francisco — and I'm not proud of those times. There are just so many other uses of one's energy.
Allow me two anecdotes to just pound home this idea: You and I have a mutual friend whose book, a great, funny, nonfiction kind of thing — essays — came out about a year or so ago. It was well-reviewed generally, but there was one review, in a major newspaper, written by a man who usually writes about style trends. In his review, he began, in the first paragraph, by stating that he hated the entire genre from which the author's book sprung. Then he expressed his disdain for first-person sorts of essays, which made up the entirety of the book in question. Then he proceeded to slash the book and its author bloody. It was the most shockingly malicious review I've read in many years.
And the question is: What made this person think he needed to get up on the high hill and declare the book unworthy? Why jump out of the style section to tell the world he doesn't like something? Something others clearly do? The author already had tens of thousands of fans, so why would the reviewer, who again first stated his distaste for the author's oeurvre, feel himself a fair commentator, in a national and (we wish to be) unbiased forum? It was much like me declaring that I hate military subject matters, and male characters, and suspense, and books that are adapted into movies starring Harrison Ford, and then reviewing Tom Clancy's latest. What would compel me to do this? It's not a healthy impulse. It's the province of a troubled person. A person that needs to work some things out before he reviews again. Of course, he has a right to his opinion. For instance, I don't read books about kittens wearing baggy clothing, but I know that many people do, so what kind of sociopath am I if I step up to the microphone and say that this thing that so many people like doesn't appeal, personally, to me?
I was just talking a few minutes ago with a friend who works at a magazine. This editor, who we will call, for no good reason, Fred T. Roopaloopa, was asking if I knew any writers who knew about architecture. I named a few and asked why. He said that his magazine was looking to do an article about Frank Gehry. Only, he said their article about Frank Genry would not be "the usual thing" — theirs would "trash him." That's how he put it. He said the editor in chief had decreed that if they were to do a piece about Gehry, it would have to be a "trashing." So now Fred was looking for someone willing to a) insinuate himself into Gehry's world; b) gain Gehry's trust; c) interview Gehry; d) then betray and trash him. The whole thing was already planned — an assassination. I asked Fred if he personally had an objection to Gehry's work. He said he did not. So the trashing of Gehry would be a matter of sport, something done only to do something different from the other magazines.
I urged Fred to reconsider. Besides it being morally and intellectually bankrupt and utterly venal, it was a very poor use of his time — if he was tired of Gehry's good press, why not instead find an architect who he loves and celebrate him? That's not to say that if one has genuine objections to Gehry's style, one shouldn't be free to express them in a respectful way. But to have decided on a conclusion without even having an opinion... so disturbing. But very common.
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