Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Pioneers in the Digital Snow


Yeah, yeah, no time to think. Gimme gimme now! Thumbs up, thumbs down. Should I buy it or should I not? These appear to be the essential frames for modern criticism to function in today. Just serve the ever-shrinking moment and get the hell out of the way of the pleasure stampede. And please don’t bore us with an idea, let alone an essay disguised as a review. Please don’t bore us, period.

Not that ‘the critic’ has ever been a greatly appreciated or understood figure. Some fat toad with a feather in his hat who thinks he is a modern-day Oscar Wilde. A bearded dweeb with a bad tie boring us senseless with his obscure expertise. An uptight librarian type with cats-eye reading glasses taking her revenge on the world. All in all, as the saying goes, a great bunch of faces for radio.

Leading the pack are the assassin and the leech. Producers of the dead-body review where a critic murders a work of art and stands on top of the corpse saying look-at-me! Or the P.R. oriented rave that sees certain critics become notorious for their blurb-worthy copy and all the fringe benefits it brings them.

There’s another standard view around the traps that a critic is some form of reverse mechanic, taking apart a play, piece of music or film, leaving all the pieces everywhere and grunting down at the dismembered mess he or she has made, ‘Well it’s clear that doesn’t work.’

And yet it’s always been my contention that great criticism is about love more than hate, construction more than destruction. That in many ways what a good critic does is nearer to the task of a translator who has found a way of channeling one form of language into another. And in some cases even improving on the original source, sacrilegious as that might sound.

In that regard I’d be so bold as to claim a great critic can, and should be a responsive poet, balancing judgment and empathy in an art of evocation. Though I doubt many people will buy my notion of ‘the critic as artist’ over the stereotypes I just mentioned. Still I must quote that quote-machine Oscar Wilde in support of what I say: “Is criticism really a creative art? Why should it not be? It works with materials and puts them into a form that is at once new and delightful. What more can one say of poetry?”

There are of course plenty of other quotes that put us in a very different light. George Bernard Shaw said a theatre critics is someone who “leaves no turn un-stoned”. Samuel Beckett was brutal, describing most critical acts as “hysterectomies with a trowel.”

When it come to rock criticism, which is where I find my own grubby origins, Frank Zappa was scathingly funny: “Rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” Elvis Costello put it marginally more kindly: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture… it’s a really stupid thing to do.”

This kind of Puritanism begins with the mystery of art at its core, something we can all appreciate. But it ends in support of an impenetrability of form that ultimately excludes audiences too from fully enjoying and appreciating something – with only fellow practitioners of an art-form supposedly able to understand or articulate what’s occurring. Across the chasm of various and contesting forms we critics reach out anyway. Trying to describe the sound of a guitar, the movement of a body across a room, the mystery of a colour on a square of canvas and what it makes us feel and think.

It’s a little easier when the narratives of a film or a novel are laid out before us. Indeed the less talented critic will lean on this, regurgitating an entire summary of events and ruining the reading or viewing experience for all and sundry. Don’t you just hate them for that? From a reviewer’s perspective, though, it’s a bind: how much to tell, how much to hold back, in order to give people some grip on what this thing is about, as well as what it is like?

Some preserving respect for the narrative arc and its elements of surprise are nonetheless vital, I think. Good reviews then become a tightrope act between a degree of judgment and a retelling, and something more ambiguous, a gathering of narrative clues and red herrings akin to the way a crime writers sets up an opening chapter someone might wish to pursue further. As a critic reviewer you often suggest as much as you say, trying to write between the lines as much as a person may indeed read between them.

But all this is perhaps arcane philosophy, the equivalent of discussing brush strokes on the Illuminated Manuscripts when all around you the Gutenberg press is changing the world. In such revolutionary times we do live.

Tweets, blogs, social networking sites… if it can’t fit in your iPhone window and be grasped at a glance it ain’t worth your time of day. The trend perceptions on this electronic revolution have leant towards the obvious – more communication on every front, a greater necessity for speed in every act, the compression of information to match that speed, and with all that rapid-fire pressure a corresponding desire to find some alleviating air-space for the mind whenever and wherever possible. Zero sum game: triviality, gossip, and porn are king. Not to mention the brilliant sub-editor who can keep story titles like “Headless woman in a topless bar” rolling across the news breaks when you log out of your email. Click. It works.

It can seem like our culture being ferried on its own electronic light all the way into hell. The digital equivalent to Aldous Huxley’s “soma” in Brave New World, where we become prisoners to our own desires, and raptured out of consciousness.

But is that really all that is happening for those who worry about such things rather than just indulge and enjoy? I feel more positive even as the house of the modern mind appears to be atomizing around me.

Recent debates posit what is called ‘a crisis in criticism’ as symptomatic of this collapse, as if we no longer want or need thoughtful and specialized reflections on our cultural interests in order to get out there and consume it all.

It seems to me the reverse may be true, that the role of the critic is poised to grow in eminence, that great writers and thinkers are slowly asserting their essential value. Complex debates over intellectual copyright today certainly suggest that behind the scenes there are people who see there is still money to be made in owning valuable, well-written ‘copy’ and ‘content’.

This view goes against the grain of what has been described as the death of the written word, the language apocalypse we have kept hearing about. The symptoms to that are many. Poetry lists were long ago dropped by mainstream publishers. Now the literary novel is being put on the mortuary table as shamefully pretentious, not to mention unsellable.

As print newspapers shed readers like sick chickens losing feathers, to the point where some question if newspapers can survive in print form rather than move online entirely – with American newspapers in particular disappearing, city by city, or at minimum dispensing with having book pages altogether – the place of elegant and extended criticism would appear to be a small change argument.

We’re all moving online now and learning how to fit in a box. So make it snappy. Or die.

Newspapers and magazines long ago surrendered their prime ground to this snappy thinking, moving from a tabloid mentality to a matchbox one as marketing-minded editors strutted in mouthing platitudes about “multiple entry points per page”, reducing the lengths of stories and reviews, enlarging the images and breakout quotes as well shaded boxes with gimmicky at-a-glance insights. Journalists bemoaning these developments began to say they no longer wrote stories anymore, they wrote a paragraph. The format fever that drove the creation of so many sections in papers today also tightened what could and couldn’t be published.

Now that the net has really opened up, those formatted sections look increasingly archaic and limited, not to mention what they often are: advertorial disguised as editorial. Newspapers effectively devolved and dissolved themselves. Or as Tom Waits once put it, “Small Change got rained on with his own .38.”

Ironically the innovations in technology are now hinting at counter-currents to the frenzy for rapid motion and quick consumption, and are suggesting another possibility is opening up. The advent of the Kindle, the Nook and now the i-Pad are yet to be fully digested, but they point to scope for a more user-friendly, extended reading experience in the so-called Information Age. One that actually favours the short story, the essay, the novella, poetry and what I sense will be online magazine structures and stylishly presented reading experiences that recognize people may not be up for the Tolstoyean 800-page trip, but they do want something more than a celebrity chef cooking tip and a gossip orgasm on the commuter trip from the Blue Mountains to Sydney.

In the meanwhile news organizations seeking to survive the digital revolution are beginning to consider possibilities like charging for their ‘libraries’. Day to day, second to second, they will need instantaneous news to sustain their users. But the notion of a library where people visit and pay goes to another level of information, to deep reportage, essays, in-depth interviews, and yes, well written reviews of durable value. The outer skin of things, the surface, well I can get that anywhere. It’s the other stuff I might go back and ‘pay’ for.

All of which returns us to the notion that content is not simply an extruded form or shape, but something that contains within it ideas, feelings, and aesthetics pleasures we might enjoy and continue to visit or depend on and spend time with.

Perhaps that summary of the present situation is a romantic vision. It’s certainly a minority view. But I’d argue that great critics are among the pioneers of ‘content’ out there in the digital snow. Lose them and you will lose your way altogether.


- Mark Mordue

* This is an extended essay based on my acceptance speech on receiving the Pascall Prize for Critical Writing for 2010. Unfortunately I was unable to get it published in print in Australia, but I'm hoping it may be of interest here.


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