So was “At the Movies” — which was also called “Sneak Previews,” “Siskel and Ebert,” “Ebert and Roeper” and other names during its long, storied run — the start of a slippery downward slope or the summit of the critical art? Neither, of course. The circumstances in which the art of criticism is practiced are always changing, but the state of the art is remarkably constant.
Which is to say that, from a certain angle, the future of criticism is always bleak and the present always a riot of ill-informed opinion and boisterous disputation. Some gloomy soul will always wish it otherwise and conjure an idealized picture of decorum and good sense. Early in the last century, T. S. Eliot wrote that “upon giving the matter a little attention, we perceive that criticism, far from being a simple and orderly field of beneficent activity, from which impostors can be readily ejected, is no better than a Sunday park of contending and contentious orators, who have not even arrived at the articulation of their differences.”
A hundred years before Eliot, Samuel Taylor Coleridge thundered that “till reviews are conducted on far other principles, and with far other motives; till in the place of arbitrary dictation and petulant sneers, the reviewers support their decisions by reference to fixed canons of criticism, previously established and deduced from the nature of man; reflecting minds will pronounce it arrogance in them thus to announce themselves to men of letters, as the guides of their taste and judgment.”
Both Coleridge and Eliot, who were writing about print, sound uncannily like ranters against the Internet and television. And, like present-day old-media scourges of the blogosphere, they had a point. But they were also projecting an impossible and self-undermining wish, because it is only through the confusion and noise of the public sphere that criticism has advanced, discovering its principles and best practices, preserving tradition and embracing the new.
I have to say, I love reviewing and writing criticism. I don't know that there's any better way to decide what you like (or don't) and why you like it (or don't). In some ways it's like a good, old-fashioned examination of conscience. Reviewing and critiquing allows me to reflect on my motives for liking something, motives which are not always sound. In my book, "A Good War is Hard to Find," I discovered, upon returning to "Pulp Fiction"--a film I revered as a college freshman--that it had some serious problems involving its moral calculus. That may sound laughable--to look to the director of "Reservoir Dogs" and revenge film "Kill Bill" for a morally emboldening film--but I was revisiting the film ten years later in light of Iraq War II and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal photos, and its winking, blinking, po-mo irony left me cold. However, revisiting "Deliverance" and Lynch's "Blue Velvet," I found that they still stood as great works of art.
I also love a good take down--a review that calls a spade and a spade and doesn't make any apologies, like David Foster Wallace's deliciously savage review of Updike's 1997 novel "Toward the End of Time."
Maybe the only thing the reader ends up appreciating about Ben Turnbull
is that he's such a broad caricature of an Updike protagonist that he
helps us figure out what's been so unpleasant and frustrating about this
gifted author's recent characters. It's not that Turnbull is stupid -- he
can quote Kierkegaard and Pascal on angst and allude to the deaths of
Schubert and Mozart and distinguish between a sinistrorse and a
dextrorse Polygonum vine, etc. It's that he persists in the bizarre
adolescent idea that getting to have sex with whomever one wants
whenever one wants is a cure for ontological despair. And so, it
appears, does Mr. Updike -- he makes it plain that he views the narrator's
impotence as catastrophic, as the ultimate symbol of death itself, and
he clearly wants us to mourn it as much as Turnbull does. I'm not
especially offended by this attitude; I mostly just don't get it. Erect
or flaccid, Ben Turnbull's unhappiness is obvious right from the book's
first page. But it never once occurs to him that the reason he's so
unhappy is that he's an asshole.
Wallace, the great genius of his generation, does what so many of us dream of doing: giving the bird to great, seemingly unassailable, literary lions. He cuts the great Updike down to size; reveals him to be mortal.
Maybe this is one of the ways that criticism still matters: it puts the whole enterprise of making art into perspective, lest artists get too full of themselves.