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The Weird Power of Criticism and Reviews in Our Society

They can take on the role of classy gossip, status markers, taste-mongering framed as analysis. They're also a bullshitter's best friend.
 
 
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What do you say to a friend whose work has been panned by a critic?

Until I actually read it, I was thrilled to see a review of the new book by an author I've known since college on the front page of the Arts section of The New York Times, written by the paper's top daily book critic, Michiko Kakutani. They even ran a picture of him. Over his career he's written novels, short stories and essays; other reviews have acclaimed his literary talent and ambition; he's won an award that many, including me, would kill for. But when I read this review, I was heartsick.

I won't quote it; I don't want to amplify her voice. It's not a hatchet job -- she doles out a few passive-aggressive words of approval along the way -- but it amounts to: Don't bother. It's (sigh) too uneven, too mawkish, to be worth your time or money.

This has happened over the years to a number of my friends who are writers, filmmakers, performers, artists. Sometimes I don't mention it, as though I never saw the review. Sometimes I talk smack about the reviewer. She's jealous! He's a hack! Sometimes I'm a contrarian. Wow! The front page! No one reads actually them. What counts is the big-gun treatment you got. And that picture -- you look marvelous!

What I want to say -- but I don't, because it risks seeming too abstract at such an emotionally fraught moment for them -- is that the whole enterprise of reviewing is so strange.

For a dozen years, I was an executive and then a writer-producer at Disney. Whenever a movie I was involved with was released, the marketing department would put me on the distribution list for reviews. Thick packets fastened by industrial-grade staples would hit my desk day after day -- hundreds and hundreds of reviews, from some sources I'd heard of and plenty more I never knew existed.

And whether the movie was commercially successful or a dud, there was one thing I could be sure of. Any aspect of any film that any critic had singled out for praise would also, inevitably, and just as confidently, be totally trashed by another reviewer. It didn't matter whether the films or the critics were highbrow or lowbrow, name brands or nobodies. The one thing I could count on was that for every critical reaction, there was always an equal and opposite reaction.

You can see that operate in microcosm at the  Times, which not only runs daily book reviews, but also publishes a Sunday Book Review. Since daily and Sunday operate independently, it's not that rare to find the same book reviewed by both sections. Recently, for example, a new biography of Roger Ailes, Gabriel Sherman's The Loudest Voice in the Room, got a  daily review from Times book critic Janet Maslin and a  Sunday review by Jacob Weisberg, editor-in-chief of the Washington Post's Slate Group. The two pieces are matter and anti-matter, though which is which is up for grabs.

Maslin's opening salvo -- her first line -- labels the book "disingenuous." Indignant at the number of Sherman's sources who wouldn't let their names be used, she bemoans "the untrustworthiness" of "this kind of journalism." The "frisson of menace" which the people around Ailes exude is "perhaps not enough to explain all those blind items," because though Ailes may be "very fond of making threats, [i]t's not clear how much he bothers with follow-through." She calls Sherman's 2011 profile of Ailes in New York Magazine "nasty"; "understandably," she says, Ailes refused to be interviewed for this "too unauthorized" book, which she writes off as not "thoughtful" enough, "tepid," "rote," "a great wasted opportunity."

 
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