Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘New York magazine

Critical thinking

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When you’re a technology reporter, as my wife was for many years, you quickly find that your subjects have certain expectations about the coverage that you’re supposed to be providing. As Benjamin Wallace wrote a while back in New York magazine:

“A smart young person in the Valley thinks being a reporter is basically being a PR person,” says one tech journalist. “Like, We have news to share, we’d like to come and tell you about it.” Reporters who write favorably about companies receive invitations to things; critics don’t. “They’re very thin-skinned,” says another reporter. “On Wall Street, if you call them a douchebag, they’ve already heard seventeen worse things in the last hour. Here, if you criticize a company, you’re criticizing the spirit of innovation.”

Mike Isaac of the New York Times recently made a similar observation in an interview with Recode: “One of the perceptions [of tech entrepreneurs] is A) Well, the press is slanted against us in some way [and] B) Why aren’t they appreciating how awesome we are? And like all these other things…I think a number of companies, including and especially Uber, get really upset when you don’t recognize the gravitas of their genius and the scope of how much they have changed.” Along the same lines, you also sometimes hear that reporters should be “supporting” local startups—which essentially means any company not based in Silicon Valley or New York—or businesses run by members of traditionally underrepresented groups.

As a result, critical coverage of any kind can be seen as a betrayal. But it isn’t a reporter’s job to “support” anything, whether it’s a city, the interests of particular stakeholders, or the concept of innovation itself—and this applies to much more than just financial journalism. In a perceptive piece for Vox, Alissa Wilkinson notes that similar pressures apply to movie critics. She begins with the example of Ocean’s 8, which Cate Blanchett, one of the film’s stars, complained had been reviewed through a “prism of misunderstanding” by film critics, who are mostly white and male. And Wilkinson responds with what I think is a very important point:

They’re not wrong about the makeup of the pool of critics. And this discussion about the demographic makeup of film critics is laudable and necessary. But the way it’s being framed has less helpful implications: that the people whose opinions really count are those whom the movie is “for.” Not only does that ignore how most movies actually make their money, but it says a lot about Hollywood’s attitude toward criticism, best revealed in Blanchett’s statement. She compared studio’s “support” of a film—which means, essentially, a big marketing budget—with critics’ roles in a film’s success, which she says are a “really big part of the equation.” In that view, critics are mainly useful in how they “support” movies the industry thinks they should like because of the demographic group and audience segment into which they fall.

This has obvious affinities to the attitude that we often see among tech startups, perhaps because they’re operating under similar conditions as Hollywood. They’re both risky, volatile fields that depend largely on perception, which is shaped by coverage by a relatively small pool of influencers. It’s true of books as well. And it’s easy for all of them to fall into the trap of assuming that critics who aren’t being supportive somehow aren’t doing their jobs.

But that isn’t true, either. And it’s important to distinguish between the feelings of creators, who can hardly be expected to be objective, and those of outside players with an interest in an enterprise’s success or failure, which can be emotional as much as financial. There are certain movies or startups that many of us want to succeed because of what they say about an entire industry or culture. Black Panther was one, and it earned a reception that exceeded the hopes of even the most fervent fan. A Wrinkle in Time was another, and it didn’t, although I liked that movie a lot. But it isn’t a critic’s responsibility to support a work of art for such reasons. As Wilkinson writes:

Diversifying that pool [of critics] won’t automatically lead to the results the industry might like. Critics who belong to the same demographic group shouldn’t feel as if they need to move in lockstep with a movie simply because someone like them is represented in it, or because the film’s marketing is aimed at them. Women critics shouldn’t feel as if they need to ‘support’ a film telling a woman’s story, any more than men who want to appear to be feminists should. Black and Latinx and Asian critics shouldn’t be expected to love movies about black and Latinx and Asian people as a matter of course.

Wilkinson concludes: “The best reason to diversify criticism is so that when Hollywood puts out movies for women, or movies for people of color, it doesn’t get lazy.” I agree—and I’d add that a more diverse pool of critics would also discourage Hollywood from being lazy when it makes movies for anyone.

Diversity, in criticism as in anything else, is good for the groups directly affected, but it’s equally good for everybody. Writing of Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko, the author Eve L. Ewing recently said on Twitter: “Hire Asian-American writers/Korean-American writers/Korean folks with different diasporic experiences to write about Pachinko, be on panels about it, own reviews of it, host online roundtables…And then hire them to write about other books too!” That last sentence is the key. I want to know what Korean-American writers have to say about Pachinko, but I’d be just as interested in their thoughts on, say, Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. And the first step is acknowledging what critics are actually doing, which isn’t supporting particular works of art, advancing a cause, or providing recommendations. It’s writing reviews. When most critics write anything, they thinking primarily about the response it will get from readers and how it fits into their career as a whole. You may not like it, but it’s pointless to ignore it, or to argue that critics should be held to a standard that differs from anyone else trying to produce decent work. (I suppose that one requirement might be a basic respect or affection for the medium that one is criticizing, but that isn’t true of every critic, either.) Turning to the question of diversity, you find that expanding the range of critical voices is worthwhile in itself, just as it is for any other art form, and regardless of its impact on other works. When a piece of criticism or journalism is judged for its effects beyond its own boundaries, we’re edging closer to propaganda. Making this distinction is harder than it looks, as we’ve recently seen with Elon Musk, who, like Trump, seems to think that negative coverage must be the result of deliberate bias or dishonesty. Even on a more modest level, a call for “support” may seem harmless, but it can easily turn into a belief that you’re either with us or against us. And that would be a critical mistake.

We lost it at the movies

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Over a decade ago, the New Yorker film critic David Denby published a memoir titled American Sucker. I read it when it first came out, and I honestly can’t remember much about it, but there’s one section that has stuck in my mind ever since. Denby is writing of his obsession with investing, which has caused him to lose much of what he once loved about life, and he concludes sadly:

Well, you can’t get back to that. Do your job, then. After much starting and stopping, and considerable shifting of clauses, all the while watching the Nasdaq run above 5,000 on the CNNfn website, I put together the following as the opening of a review.

It happens to be his piece on Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich, which begins like this:

In Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts appears in scene after scene wearing halter tops with a bit of bra showing; there’s a good bit of leg showing, too, often while she’s holding an infant on one arm. This upbeat, inspirational melodrama, based on a true story and written by Susannah Grant and directed by Steven Soderbergh, has been bought to life by a movie star on a heavenly rampage. Roberts swings into rooms, ablaze with indignation, her breasts pushed up and bulging out of the skimpy tops, and she rants at the people gaping at her. She’s a mother and a moral heroine who dresses like trailer trash but then snaps at anyone who doesn’t take her seriously—a real babe in arms, who gets to protect the weak and tell off the powerful while never turning her back on what she is.

Denby stops to evaluate his work: “Nothing great, but not bad either. I was reasonably happy with it as a lead—it moves, it’s active, it conveys a little of my pleasure in the picture. I got up and walked around the outer perimeter of the twentieth floor, looking west, looking east.”

I’ve never forgotten this passage, in part because it represents one of the few instances in which a prominent film critic has pulled back the curtain on an obvious but rarely acknowledged fact—that criticism is a genre of writing in itself, and that the phrases with which a movie is praised, analyzed, or dismissed are subject to the same sort of tinkering, revision, and doubt that we associate with other forms of expression. Critics are only human, even if sometimes try to pretend that they aren’t, as they present their opinions as the product of an unruffled sensibility. I found myself thinking of this again as I followed the recent furor over David Edelstein’s review of Wonder Woman in New York magazine, which starts as follows:

The only grace note in the generally clunky Wonder Woman is its star, the five-foot-ten-inch Israeli actress and model Gal Gadot, who is somehow the perfect blend of superbabe-in-the-woods innocence and mouthiness. She plays Diana, the daughter of the Amazon queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and a trained warrior. But she’s also a militant peacenik. Diana lives with Amazon women on a mystically shrouded island but she’s not Amazonian herself. She was, we’re told, sculpted by her mother from clay and brought to life by Zeus. (I’d like to have seen that.)

Edelstein was roundly attacked for what was perceived as the sexist tone of his review, which also includes such observations as “Israeli women are a breed unto themselves, which I say with both admiration and trepidation,” and “Fans might be disappointed that there’s no trace of the comic’s well-documented S&M kinkiness.” He responded with a private Facebook post, widely circulated, in which he wrote: “Right now I think the problem is that some people can’t read.” And he has since written a longer, more apologetic piece in which he tries to explain his choice of words.

I haven’t seen Wonder Woman, although I’m looking forward to it, so I won’t wade too far into the controversy itself. But when I look at these two reviews—which, significantly, are about films focusing on different sorts of heroines—I see some striking parallels. It isn’t just the echo of “a real babe in arms” with “superbabe-in-the-woods,” or how Brockovich “gets to protect the weak and tell off the powerful” while Diana is praised for her “mouthiness.” It’s something in the rhythm of their openings, which start at a full sprint with a consideration of a movie star’s appearance. As Denby says, “it moves, it’s active,” almost to a fault. Here are three additional examples, taken at random from the first paragraphs of reviews published in The New Yorker:

Gene Wilder stares at the world with nearsighted, pale-blue-eyed wonder; he was born with a comic’s flyblown wig and the look of a reddish creature from outer space. His features aren’t distinct; his personality lacks definition. His whole appearance is so fuzzy and weak he’s like mist on the lens.

There is a thick, raw sensuality that some adolescents have which seems almost preconscious. In Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta has this rawness to such a degree that he seems naturally exaggerated: an Expressionist painter’s view of a young role. As Tony, a nineteen-year-old Italian Catholic who works selling paint in a hardware store in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge, he wears his heavy black hair brushed up in a blower-dried pompadour. His large, wide mouth stretches across his narrow face, and his eyes—small slits, close together—are, unexpectedly, glintingly blue and panicky.

As Jake La Motta, the former middleweight boxing champ, in Raging Bull, Robert De Niro wears scar tissue and a big, bent nose that deform his face. It’s a miracle that he didn’t grow them—he grew everything else. He developed a thick-muscled neck and a fighter’s body, and for the scenes of the broken, drunken La Motta he put on so much weight that he seems to have sunk in the fat with hardly a trace of himself left.

All of these reviews were written, of course, by Pauline Kael, who remains the movie critic who has inspired the greatest degree of imitation among her followers. And when you go back and read Denby and Edelstein’s openings, they feel like Kael impersonations, which is the mode on which a critic tends to fall back when he or she wants to start a review so that “it moves, it’s active.” Beginning with a description of the star, delivered in her trademark hyperaware, slightly hyperbolic style, was one of Kael’s stock devices, as if she were observing an animal seen in the wild and frantically jotting down her impressions before they faded. It’s a technical trick, but it’s a good one, and it isn’t surprising that Kael’s followers like to employ it, consciously or otherwise. It’s when a male critic uses it to describe the appearance of a woman that we run into trouble. (The real offender here isn’t Denby or Edelstein, but Anthony Lane, Kael’s successor at The New Yorker, whose reviews have the curious habit of panning a movie for a page and a half, and then pausing a third of the way from the end to rhapsodize about the appearance of a starlet in a supporting role, which is presented as its only saving grace. He often seems to be leering at her a little, which is possibly an inadvertent consequence of his literary debt to Kael. When Lane says of Scarlett Johansson, “She seemed to be made from champagne,” he’s echoing the Kael who wrote of Madeline Kahn: “When you look at her, you see a water bed at just the right temperature.”) Kael was a sensualist, and to the critics who came after her, who are overwhelmingly male, she bequeathed a toolbox that is both powerful and susceptible to misuse when utilized reflexively or unthinkingly. I don’t think that Edelstein is necessarily sexist, but he was certainly careless, and in his routine ventriloquism of Kael, which to a professional critic comes as easily as breathing, he temporarily forgot who he was and what movie he was reviewing. Kael was the Wonder Woman of film critics. But when we try to channel her voice, and we can hardly help it, it’s worth remembering—as another superhero famously learned—that with great power comes great responsibility.

The Ian Malcolm rule

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Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park

A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Last week, at the inaugural town hall meeting at Facebook headquarters, one brave questioner managed to cut through the noise and press Mark Zuckerberg on the one issue that really matters: what’s the deal with that gray shirt he always wears? Zuckerberg replied:

I really want to clear my life to make it so I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except best how to serve this community…I’m in this really lucky position where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people. And I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life…So even though it kind of sounds silly—that that’s my reason for wearing a gray t-shirt every day—it also is true.

There’s a surprising amount to unpack here, starting with the fact, as Allison P. Davis of New York Magazine points out, that it’s considerably easier for a young white male to always wear the same clothes than a woman in the same situation. It’s also worth noting that wearing the exact same shirt each day turns simplicity into a kind of ostentation: there are ways of minimizing the amount of time you spend thinking about your wardrobe without calling attention to it so insistently.

Of course, Zuckerberg is only the latest in a long line of high-achieving nerds who insist, rightly or wrongly, that they have more important things to think about than what they’re going to wear. There’s more than an echo here of the dozens of black Issey Miyake turtlenecks that were stacked in Steve Jobs’s closet, and in the article linked above, Vanessa Friedman of The New York Times also notes that Zuckerberg sounds a little like Obama, who told Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” Even Christopher Nolan gets into the act, as we learn in the recent New York Times Magazine profile by Gideon Lewis-Kraus:

Nolan’s own look accords with his strict regimen of optimal resource allocation and flexibility: He long ago decided it was a waste of energy to choose anew what to wear each day, and the clubbable but muted uniform on which he settled splits the difference between the demands of an executive suite and a tundra. The ensemble is smart with a hint of frowzy, a dark, narrow-lapeled jacket over a blue dress shirt with a lightly fraying collar, plus durable black trousers over scuffed, sensible shoes.

Mark Zuckerberg

If you were to draw a family tree between all these monochromatic Vulcans, you’d find that, consciously or not, they’re all echoing their common patron saint, Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, who says:

In any case, I wear only two colors, black and gray…These colors are appropriate for any occasion…and they go well together, should I mistakenly put on a pair of gray socks with my black trousers…I find it liberating. I believe my life has value, and I don’t want to waste it thinking about clothing.

As Malcolm speaks, Crichton writes, “Ellie was staring at him, her mouth open”—apparently stunned into silence, as all women would be, at this display of superhuman rationality. And while it’s easy to make fun of it, I’m basically one of those guys. I eat the same breakfast and lunch every day; my daily uniform of polo shirt, jeans, and New Balance sneakers rarely, if ever, changes; and I’ve had the same haircut for the last eighteen years. If pressed, I’d probably offer a rationale more or less identical to the ones given above. As a writer, I’m called upon to solve a series of agonizingly specific problems each time I sit down at my desk, so the less headspace I devote to everything else, the better.

Which is all well and good. But it’s also easy to confuse the externals with their underlying intention. The world, or at least the Bay Area, is full of young guys with the Zuckerberg look, but it doesn’t matter how little time you spend getting dressed if you aren’t mindfully reallocating the time you save, or extending the principle beyond the closet. The most eloquent defense of minimizing extraneous thinking was mounted by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who writes:

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle—they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.

Whitehead isn’t talking about his shirts here; he’s talking about the Arabic number system, a form of “good notation” that frees the mind to think about more complicated problems. Which only reminds us that the shirts you wear won’t make you more effective if you aren’t being equally thoughtful about the decisions that really count. Otherwise, they’re only an excuse for laziness or indifference, which is just as contagious as efficiency. And it often comes to us as a wolf in nerd’s clothing.

Thoughts from an excellent sheep

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Widener Library

I spent this past weekend with a handful of my closest friends from college, in an apartment in Chicago’s Lincoln Square that we’d rented for an informal reunion. We’ve been getting together every few years since graduation, and although the makeup of the group has remained largely the same, shaped mostly by marriages and availability to travel, there have been some big changes along the way: this time around, there were no fewer than three kids in the house, and I expect the number to grow. We’re at a point in our lives when these gatherings start to feel uncomfortably like The Big Chill, and we spent about as much time sharing toilet-training tips as we did playing Cards Against Humanity. Looking around the room, though, I felt curiously proud of where we’d been and what we’d accomplished. My friends and their spouses have carved out meaningful careers in public service, academia, technology, and whatever it is you want to call what I’m doing these days. And while I think these people would have done remarkable things no matter where they went to college, I’d like to believe that our experiences as undergraduates had at least a tiny bit to do with it.

As it happens, New York Magazine published an item yesterday saying that Harvard ought to be stripped of its nonprofit status, on account of both its massive endowment and the fact that “it charges its rich students—and they are mostly from rich families, with many destined to be rich themselves—hundreds of millions of dollars in tuition and fees.” It’s an odd argument, especially because it appeared on the same day as a New York Times piece noting that Harvard is among the most economically diverse of top universities in the country, and it charges less for tuition for lower- and middle-class families than any other college on the list. But it’s also part of a larger conversation, which comes around every decade or so, about the role of elite universities and what they owe their students. Last month, Yale professor William Deresiewicz published the book Excellent Sheep, which warns that top colleges are producing a generation of risk-averse overachievers who excel at working within a system of incentives but find themselves helpless beyond it. If this sounds a little familiar, it’s because I devoured similar books fifteen years ago, from Who Killed Homer? to The Closing of the American Mind, and they shaped my own decisions as much as Deresiewicz is likely to do for a few members of this year’s class.

William Deresiewicz

But as I soon discovered, this kind of argument only reflects part of the story. In an insightful, if skeptical, review in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller lays out the core of Deresiewicz’s case:

Even after graduation, elite students show a taste for track-based, well-paid industries like finance and consulting (which in 2010 together claimed more than a third of the jobs taken by the graduates of Harvard, Cornell, and Princeton). And no wonder. A striver can “get into” Goldman Sachs the way that she got into Harvard. There is no résumé submission or recruiting booth if you want to make a career as a novelist.

I’d like to think that I know a little about this, because I’ve been on both sides of the equation. Shortly after graduation, I went to New York without much else in mind except the ambition to become a writer, and within a few months, I’d fallen into exactly the kind of job that Deresiewicz decries: I ended up at a hedge fund mostly because it was willing to hire me, and I spent close to four years in finance. For a while, I tried to have it both ways, working by day and writing by night, but I ultimately had to choose. And the fact that I decided to leave and try my luck as a novelist doesn’t mean that I think any less of those who stayed. Heller says it well: “When an impoverished student at Stanford, the first in his family to go to college, opts for a six-figure salary in finance after graduation, a very different but equally compelling kind of ‘moral imagination’ may be at play.”

In other words, a university education can be either a launching pad into the upper classes or a means of channeling smart kids into odd, challenging fields and ideas. The glorious thing about a place like Harvard, Yale, or any number of other colleges is that it can be both simultaneously, sometimes to the very same student. Still, I may not agree with everything that Deresiewicz says, but his voice deserves to be part of the conversation, in opposition to the forces that would rather push graduates into comfortable lives and careers. As with so much else in life, you only achieve a sensible mean by allowing passionate viewpoints on all sides, and a book like Excellent Sheep serves as a necessary counterbalance to the arguments that speak louder with money than with words. What we all need, in the end, is a college that serves as a machine for enabling such choices. And even as a student, I knew that the potential writers and artists in my class were the outliers, and that life itself had some surprises in store even for the conventional superstars, often from seeds that their educations had planted in secret. As Heller concludes: “College seniors leave with plans for law careers and then, a J.D. later, find their bliss as graphic artists. Financiers emerge as novelists.”

Written by nevalalee

September 10, 2014 at 9:04 am

Buckminster Fuller on not earning a living

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We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

R. Buckminster Fuller, in New York magazine

Written by nevalalee

May 8, 2011 at 12:03 am

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