By Martin Bosworth
Yesterday my esteemed colleague Denny wrote an eloquent essay discussing how the removal of criticism from the newspapers contributes to our cultural and social erosion. The keystone for his essay was a column by Time magazine book critic and reviewer Richard Schickel decrying the democratization of criticism via the blogosphere.
There’s a right and a wrong here. Denny is absolutely right in that diminishing exposure to and exploration of the arts lowers our intellectual bar, as it were. Schickel is absolutely wrong in blaming the blogosphere for the erosion of criticism as an art form, when he should be looking at the move by newspapers to reduce themselves to advertising centers–as well as himself for coming off like a total elitist, egotistical asshat.
Let me elaborate: How does one become a critic or reviewer? Is there a degree or diploma certifying such? Is there specific training or credentialing you have to go through? Not to my knowledge.
Then what makes a good critic from a bad one? The same thing that makes a good writer, a good musician, or a good director–the content. If the content appeals–if it provides amusement, insight, education, or entertainment–if it makes you think, it can win the day, and thus win a following to it. That’s why, despite the constant stream of spoon-fed pablum we are subjected with in movies, music, art, and literature, the good always shines through.
My favorite movie reviewer is a fellow named James Berardinelli, who runs a movie-review site called ReelViews. I’ve been reading his work since he published his critiques on the rec.arts.movies Usenet group over a dozen years ago. As he himself says, he has no formal training or degree in journalism, writing, arts, or anything of the kind. He’s just a guy who loves movies, sees a lot of them, and built a site to share his thoughts. His work appeals because he has such a knowledge of the subject and a comprehensive understanding of what makes a good movie and what does not–and that can only come through hard experience, through love of the craft.
I myself write regular reviews and recaps of television shows and movies I like on my personal blog. They regularly get attention from my readers and other passersby. Why? What makes my opinion more worthy of digestion than the next guy’s? Not a damn thing. Yet they have credentialed me as the guy who knows a lot about “Heroes,” or comic books, or “Battlestar Galactica.” It’s the content. You create something worthy, and people will notice.
Schickel’s angst comes from his realization that his area of employment no longer values him–to them, he is just a commodity that can be downsized and reduced to save profit margins. As commenter Melinda Barton (who has a cool blog of her own) notes in Denny’s post:
Unfortunately, the problem is not just the decrease in the amount of criticism but also a decrease in its quality even in major papers and magazines. Anyone remember the discussion of Wesley Clarkâ€™s sweaters in the 2004 elections? Or how about the media blitz over John Edwardsâ€™ haircut?
Newspapers are no longer in the business of reporting news, providing commentary, and offering opinion. They are fueled by advertising and designed to get people to spend money. That means playing it safe, avoiding any controversy, and sticking to the simplest and most facile discourse–thus stupid fluff like Edwards’ haircut, Clark’s sweaters, and such. Anything more substantive will get people questioning assumptions, and we can’t have that.
It’s a vicious paradox….readers have fled mainstream news sources for the blogosphere and online journalism because they’re DESPERATE for real content, and yet newspapers, radio stations, and media conglomerates continue to gut and destroy everything that makes them what they are, and wonder why they’re losing ad revenue, eyeballs, subscriptions, etc.
Schickel knows this–yet he knows he can’t bite the hand that feeds him, because he’s hanging on when others are falling to their deaths–so he vents his frustration at the unwashed masses of the blogosphere. But it’s not our fault that your profession is no longer valued, sir. We’re simply venting our own frustration for how the formerly trusted media institutions are letting us down on every level, and realizing that we don’t need them to develop interesting discourse–we can do it ourselves.
Schickel and those like him are either going to have to step their games up and make their content compelling, or take a hard look at why their valuable work is no longer valued in a profession now dominated by MBA bean-counters and bottom-line Philistines.