A Very Strange Moment

Writing about the imminent shuttering of the TV show At the Movies, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott is a little anxious about the future of criticism:

Maybe criticism mattered once, but the conventional wisdom insists that it doesn’t any more. There used to be James Agee, and now there is Rotten Tomatoes. Rotten movies routinely make huge sums of money in spite of the demurral of critics. Where once reasoned debate and knowledgeable evaluation flourished, there are now social networking and marketing algorithms and a nattering gaggle of bloggers.

Thinking about the Internet and literary discourse, University of Chicago English professor Bill Brown is a little anxious about the future of criticism too:

I think one of the problems with digital access to information in general, and lots of people have said this, is it’s difficult to know, especially it’s difficult to know for the people not in a given field, the validity of the information that they’re in the midst of sifting through.

I say a little anxious because their overall tone is optimistic, and they share two reasons why (besides the fact that they’re both still gainfully employed): They’re not looking at criticism strictly as a fungible commodity, and what they mainly appreciate about criticism is how it creates a culture of discussion and argument. Scott admires the early iteration of At the Movies mainly for the squabbling between Siskel and Ebert; Brown admires literary blogs for the moments when they can foster collective concentration on a text. In some ways that’s a return to first principles, a reminder that, in the great mass of words published by newspapers and magazines in their glory days, reviews were still just lagniappe.

But it was lagniappe that once had a certain pride of place, which is why there’s a still that anxiety floating around Scott and Brown’s comments—if they both can feel proud of the work they do, they can’t be entirely positive now that anybody’s really listening. They inhabit an environment where everybody can play but fewer seem to want to. As Brown says, twice, “it is a very strange moment.”

4 responses to “A Very Strange Moment

  1. As someone who reads quite a bit of thoughtful film and lit criticism on the web, the contention that it doesn’t matter or that no one’s listening seems uninformed or at best/least overly bleak. I’m thinking their panic is maybe more symptomatic of the increasing irrelevance of print media and TV than any sort of death knell for intelligent analysis of film or literature…

  2. Ironically, I ended up here because I found a link to my blog that was “automatically generated” from this one. A.O. Scott writes: “There used to be James Agee, and now there is Rotten Tomatoes.” Well, I am a member of the James Agee Critics Circle which presents awards for the best left-oriented movies and actors each year and even suggested that we name ourselves after Agee. I am also a member of New York Film Critics Online and as such my reviews appear on Rotten Tomatoes. I am also very interested in the question under discussion having seen an earlier version of it that took place on the Chronicle of Higher Education (Thomas Doherty, “The Death of Film Criticism”, http://chronicle.com/article/The-Death-of-Film-Criticism/64352/). Speaking only for myself, I don’t find much difference between print and electronic media. Both are prone to fall all over themselves over the latest Hollywood product such as the movies I reviewed in the link above (A Serious Man; The Informant.) In my view, this is a function of a kind of informal arrangement between papers like the NY Times and the movie industry to get people into seats. While the NY Times is by no means the worst offender, I find too many critics veering into Peter Travers territory who never met a movie he didn’t like. My colleague in NYFCO Armond White put it this way and I quite agree with him:

    “Over recent years, film journalism has—perhaps unconsciously—been considered a part of the film industry and expected to be a partner in Hollywood’s commercial system. Look at the increased prevalence of on-television reviewing dedicated to dispensing consumer advice, and of magazine and newspaper features linked only to current releases, or to the Oscar campaign, as if Hollywood’s business was everybody’s business. Critics are no longer respected as individual thinkers, only as adjuncts to advertising.”

    full: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/03/do-movie-critics-matter

  3. I like your phrase “a return to first principles.” Maybe consider putting up a “top ten” list of websites that abide by those principles? Or is that too reductive?

    Hope this isn’t unwelcome on a fiction blog, but I wanted to mention that today is the first day of National Poetry Month!

    • Mark Athitakis

      Not unwelcome at all! I’m not averse to poetry; I just don’t keep up with it.

      I don’t know if it would be reductive to list ten sites. In fact, part of me wants to say all literary websites would abide by that principle, if only because they’re forced to—there’s no money in it, so you have to be into it for something else. I’d argue that most of the sites on my blogroll are in that position.

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