Well now, before I begin I realise what follows will be an example of what I’m about to rail against. This gives me the not too comfortable sensation of knowing how it might feel to be a pretzel. Let us continue.
When I wrote full time about music for a living for three years in my 20s, I never ascended to the lofty height of “critic”. I was careful to never refer to myself as such, either. I was a terrible critic! I would call myself a music writer, and not a music journalist. I don’t think, strictly speaking, that the title “music journalist” is a thing that actually exists (ditto, games/television/film). You write about music for a living. That is not journalism. That is winning the job lottery.
I was terrible at it because I could not hide my biases and I never tried to, either. I only ever wrote about the things I loved or hated, the things that riled or delighted me. That confounded or thrilled or frustrated or enlightened me (this is after all, rock music I’m talking about, and not a finely realised piece of theatre or a 16th century fresco.) Those were the feelings I wanted to impart; I tried to embody the spirit of those things when I wrote about them. I never thought for a second that my opinion would sway anyone. I just went to work every day practically giggling to myself at my good fortune.
Anyone starting out as a writer can do so by writing about culture because the barriers around doing that are extremely low. You need no qualifications beyond an ability to think for yourself and being able to string together entertaining copy. These are low stakes. You’re not trying to break news on the crime beat with no bona fides or credentials. As a result a lot of what is written and published is terrible. No one was steering the ship where I worked, critically speaking. Everyone was under 25 and had no idea, pretty much, what they were doing. Editing, such it was, was really just getting the word count down.
We wanted to put out a good issue week after week, with fun interviews and weird stuff and giving space to bands no one had heard of while balancing the exceedingly difficult books on a shoestring, trying to retain editorial integrity while pleasing the advertisers and touring companies’ demands which actually paid for the thing. This often meant putting some idiotic band on the cover we all hated, but anyway, commerce.
There was certainly no mentoring from above, from people with experience in shaping critical discourses, who could point out what, if anything, the point of modern criticism was and how it should be done well. Still, that did not stop people — older, more experienced people who love the sound of their own fingers typing — from mercilessly slamming the endeavour whenever they could, and publicly*.
Which brings me, I guess, in a roundabout way to my point. (*First, a sidebar: Don’t fucking do this. When someone younger and less experienced than you makes a mistake, it would be a thousand times more helpful to use your position to actually, you know, help them out, as opposed to getting whatever petty satisfaction you derive from piling on them in public. GOD, that shit it pathetic. I suppose though, if you’re that threatened by the people coming up under you — and they will always be there, legion and hungry and willing to do what it is that you do, for free — then, whatever, I guess. Go for it, hope it feels good. It will feel probably less good when you are begging them for commissions down the track.)
And my point, such as it is, is just do things, and do them better. Just do the thing that is the point of the place. What I mean is, it’s things like this, what I’m doing now, that are the problem. Everyone I know has posted this New Yorker piece on what good criticism is (it makes a nice companion to this) in the last day. Which, yay! It’s brilliantly well-written and considered and is a distillation of everything someone could do with the mind to make criticism matter. It is the kind of directive that would have been very useful to younger me, if I’d ever had a serious intent with what I was doing (I never did because I was always aware of the fool’s errand I was on. Plus it never felt like a job, rather it felt like some unending magic pony ride I was paid to take every day.)
But would it not be better and more useful to just write the good criticism itself?
We can hardly hear ourselves in this echo chamber. This is by no means limited to the narrow world of cultural criticism. I’m so alienated also, by what passes for a lot of contemporary “feminist” writing today, and I know as a woman that I am not alone in that feeling. A lot of it is just barely concealed anger onto which some vague connection to feminist rhetoric is bolted. These two separate things should remain unconnected. There is a lot of very angry, “My relationships never work out!” stuff, which though a valid experience for the person writing it, is not a reason to drag a movement into the argument to shift the blame onto where personal responsibility should go.
I read a passage recently in a piece like this which dismissed the legitimate concerns of men as something like, “bros got problems, too,”; the sort of off-hand remark which is so brazenly un-self-aware it puts puts back any legitimate work that has been done. There is so much hand-wringing about what got us here, and how it happened, and what forces shaped it and how everything is still fucked, which is not actually helping to fix the problem; it’s just a lot of people standing around, looking at the problem and arguing about whose vantage point reveals the true cause of the problem and that until we all agree that said person’s view is correct, we can’t actually do anything about the problem. So let’s all get back to the important work of standing around and arguing while the city burns behind us and no one notices.
This is exactly what is happening with newspapers and modern models of journalism. There is so much coverage of the death of the industry — as opposed to producing the work that would actually save it, in that people would want to pay for that, and not the ten thousandth iteration of what the fucking problem is — that as an industry it might as well just shovel its own dirt at its funeral.
All the criticism of criticism; the defending of criticism; the calls for the end of criticism. It’s all one huge, meaningless circle-jerk. Just do stuff. Make stuff, write stuff. Get out there and apply for the position. Put yourself out there, no one is going to come and find you sitting in your room all perfect and genius-like and offer to fulfil all your dreams. Negotiate like a man would. Back yourself. Be vulnerable, and accept the fact that you will fail sometimes.
That shoe manufacturer is fucking hateful, but they were really on to something with that slogan.