Two weeks back I wrote about The Advanced Genius Theory, a book by Jason Hartley that’s a plea in defense of the late careers of proven artistic talents—and, a little more subtly, a kind of critique of negative criticism. To be clear: I think Hartley has written a fun and entertaining book. I just don’t think he’s written an especially useful one in terms of helping readers think about musicians or writers. I’m oversimplifying, but Hartley is essentially exhorting readers and critics to give artists we love a second chance whenever they do things that baffle or annoy us. Fine, but what if giving those second chances are overly contrived and more trouble than they’re worth?
There’s nothing wrong with approaching movies, books—everything, really—in a spirit of optimism. But I confess my attempt to channel my inner Hartley failed miserably about a week back, when I was in Newport, Rhode Island, for the annual Newport Folk Festival. The fest’s closing act was a band led by Levon Helm, the great drummer and singer in the Band. I love The Basement Tapes, all those classic Band singles, and The Last Waltz, though not so much that I felt a need to consider anything he’d done since the late 70s. But that was an asset here: I could approach Levon Helm circa 2010 as a blank slate of endless artistic possibility. Optimism!
About two songs in, Helm and his band—a largish group of unimpeachably competent country and folk specialists—performed a cover of “Long Black Veil.” There was nothing especially bad about it, but nothing especially good about it either—it was the Kenmore washing machine of covers of “Long Black Veil.” Now, Advanced theory doesn’t demand that I love this cover, even if Helm is the guy who sang “The Weight.” But it does ask that I not reject it out of hand for the usual criticky reasons—that Helm’s best work is behind him, that the song’s tempo was irritatingly slow even for a mournful ballad like “Long Black Veil,” that covering “Long Black Veil” is kind of a cliche, and so on. Helm may very well be up to something that I’m just not getting, and it’s only a poverty of imagination on my part—or a pernicious cynicism, unique to critics, from which I suffer—that’s preventing me from grasping it.
At least, that’s the Advanced way of looking at things. But finding the positive in that song would require delivering the kind of praise fit for press releases and weekend shoppers (“Helm, now 70, is to be much admired for keeping the spirit of country history alive, as he and his band did on “Long Black Veil”…), engage in some grade inflation (“Considering Helm’s recent struggles with throat cancer….”) or conjure up some clever way to contextualize the performance (“‘Long Black Veil’ may be the only thing Levon Helm, Taco, and Diamanda Galas ever agreed on…”). Something, at any rate, besides saying what he actually did—play drums on a dull version of a worn-out song. What good would fake optimism do for me as a listener, or for a reader of any review I might write?
I thought about all this in the context of Hartley’s second response to my post (here’s the first), which rightfully challenged me on the glib way I ended my post. I’d written that the book is “a powerful counter against critics who come up with contrived reasons to dismiss things. But how much better is it to come up with contrived reasons to like them?” To which Hartley writes: “My take, though, is that it is far, far better to come up with contrived reasons to like something than to dislike them because liking things is more pleasurable.” He then writes that “if you need to trick yourself into liking Advance art by pretending to like it, that is fine.” Trying hard to see the good in Helm’s cover in “Long Black Veil” gave me no particular pleasure. It just made Hartley’s brand of optimism seem like a whole lot of work—not just in terms of teasing out whether or not an artist is Advanced in the first place (I concede that Helm may not be, though he seems to fit the general criteria), but then in terms of “tricking” myself into liking it, until I actually like it. Maybe.
And to what end? To prove that critics had it all wrong about Bob Dylan‘s Christian records? To not appear “stuffy,” “tweedy,” “unimaginative,” “smug,” or any of the other adjectives people use when a critic dislikes something other people enjoy? Optimism is an essential attribute in a critic—if you’re not approaching any new book, movie, record, whatever, in the hope that it might be your new favorite thing, it’s time to look into a new line of work. But optimism shouldn’t—needn’t—be so effortful. If it seems like I’ve drifted well away from this blog’s purview, it may be worth pointing out that a Hartlian argument makes its way in literary circles. While I was in Newport experiencing Helm’s mediocrity, I was also thinking about “Going Rogue,” in which Steve Almond considers the negative review he recently received from the New York Times Book Review. Almond can’t help but feel that some kind of darker agenda is occasionally at play in the NYTBR‘s star chamber. In assigning Jay McInerney to review Joshua Ferris, Almond writes, “You could just see the editors sitting around with this one going, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll get the old It Guy writer to take on the new It Guy writer!'” When Will Blythe didn’t like a book by George Saunders, Almond writes, “I felt this creeping suspicion that he simply had it in for Saunders.”
Almond isn’t arguing that all negative criticism (including the criticism he received) is agenda-driven, but he draws no small amount of comfort in calling out the times when he believes it does. Almond is admirably self-aware about his conflicted feelings, and he makes a point of calling attention to a few negative reviews he admired. But the question I’m left with, from reading both Almond and Hartley, is this: Do they believe that only negative reviews are written from a posture of insincerity and craven agenda-setting? Can’t a positive review be just as insincere, just as cravenly agenda-setting? The answer to that question might go some way toward clarifying how much they want to respect quality criticism, and how much they simply want to dismiss negative criticism as mean-spirited and dishonest.