On Enthusiasm and Criticism

April 15, 2008 | 1 2 min read

The discussion about the future of book criticism can seem like a bubble sometimes, but I was reminded, in A.O. Scott’s charming tribute to Roger Ebert in Sunday’s New York Times, that book reviewers and their readers should not feel singled out in these challenging times. Scott noted the disappearance of movie critics as well at papers across the country, due to layoffs, buyouts, and cutting costs, adding:

Such attrition is hardly limited to movie reviewers, and it has more to do with the economics of newspapers than with the health of criticism as a cultural undertaking. If you spend time prowling the blogs, you may discover that the problem is not a shortage of criticism but a glut: an endless, sometimes bracing, sometimes vexing barrage of deep polemic, passionate analysis and fierce contention reflecting nearly every possible permutation of taste and sensibility.

I noted a year ago that the this same issue of the “economics of newspapers” had more to do with the demise of newspaper book coverage than anything else:

The important thing to remember, I think, is that the disappearance of book sections isn’t a book section problem, it’s a newspaper industry problem, and the solution to book section woes will come with the solutions to the larger newspaper industry problems.

Scott also takes umbrage at the notion that Ebert’s famous TV career (which first brought him recognition with a show called “Sneak Previews”) was somehow damaging to film criticism as a whole:

It seems to me that “Sneak Previews” and its descendants, far from advancing the vulgarization of film criticism, extended its reach and strengthened its essentially democratic character.

The same, perhaps, could be said of the role of personal publishing in film and book criticism which revels in the “essentially democratic character” of these pursuits.

I also noticed at one point in Scott’s profile that he describes Ebert as an “enthusiast.” This word can be derogatory, comparing the “amateur” critic to the professional one, but Scott uses it in a different sense, making clear a difference in attitudes and aims – enthusiasm versus criticism. This isn’t to suggest that an enthusiast blindly loves every film he sees and that the critic is filled with disdain, it merely describes two different approaches, both useful and neither mutually exclusive and each speaking to audiences in certain ways. Part of the tension felt right now, perhaps, is that blogging and the internet have allowed for enthusiasm to encroach upon the terrain of criticism at a time when the arts landscape itself seems to be shrinking. Ebert (and Scott in his praise for him), however, provide a useful reminder that audiences perhaps gravitate most towards unique voices that are able to offer both enthusiasm and criticism rather than attempt to demarcate the boundaries between the two.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.

One comment:

  1. 'Ebert (and Scott in his praise for him), however, provide a useful reminder that audiences perhaps gravitate most towards unique voices that are able to offer both enthusiasm and criticism rather than attempt to demarcate the boundaries between the two.'

    *vigorous nod*

    Really, you'd think after quoting something that long I should say more than those two words, but that's really all I wanted to say. :)

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