In this week’s Loser City prompt, we ask our staff who inspired them to take criticism seriously. The answers range from devoted thank yous to specific critics, whimsical looks at the fictional critics and even some personal connections. We hope you enjoy and will be inspired to tell us which critics continue to stimulate your own critical faculties.
Criticism is in some ways the art of understanding. A critic tries to find an understanding (and there are as many understandings of any given thing as there are people to critique it) and then share the understanding with others. Criticism is an enormous, eternal cultural conversation. And I love a good conversation. The people that first helped to pull me into the conversation–completely unwittingly, I should add, though I have tried and failed through the years to get them to pay attention to me on Twitter–were Todd van der Werff and Steven Hyden. When I was in college, these dudes were basically running the A.V. Club (or at the very least, it felt that way to me). These days, I still read the A.V. Club frequently, but for a few years I was basically reading every single piece on there, so I quickly developed favorites.
TvdW and Hyden stuck out to me because when I read their pieces, I felt like they were having a great conversation with themselves and the world. It’s like they were saying, with equal parts joy, passion, and grave commitment, “Let’s treat what we like–and what we don’t–with intellectual respect. Let’s acknowledge how what we watch and listen to and read affects what we do and say and feel.”Now, most good critics approach their work like this, but for me, it was these guys at this time–about three or four years ago–that really brought it home for me. There are many pieces of art and pop culture that I associate just as strongly with the critic as I do the creator. For example, I find Todd van der Werff’s weekly Mad Men reviews at the A.V. Club are inextricable from the show itself. It’s an incomplete show without his insights and the comments section that follows. Similarly, I can’t think about what I hate about Don Henley without thinking of Steve Hyden. The A.V. Club helped me recognize criticism as valuable, necessary, and really really fun, and it sparked an envy and admiration inside me (I have Stray Observations to share!) that led to my eventually actually doing something about it. Thanks, AVC pals, for helping me understand.
I never really had an author or a publication that really made me rethink pop culture.
I just had three idiots quipping at a screen. Their names?
Tom, Joel and Crow.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 was Kind Of A Big Deal for me. I watched it during a time where we were learning about words like “character development” and “themes” and “LITERATURE.” I was an avid reader of Goosebumps and other timeless works of its ilk. But there was always a disconnect between what exactly the fuck Boo Radley’s deal was and how I totes felt for Carly Beth when her kid brother put on that haunted mask after all that work she did to get it off herself!
Seeing MST3K was like consuming some weird soup made from criticism, entertainment and viewer participation. It made me realize how important a viewer or reader’s response was to a work they were immersed in. I was pretty much over talking about Harper Lee’s authorial intentions at that point. What I got out of the silly B-movie sendup was that criticizing art was intimately linked to creating it. I then knew that I wanted to yell at dumb art. But more importantly, I knew that I wanted to yell at good art because I could hopefully improve things for the future. And I would be looking forward to the day when people would yell about my stuff, for better or worse.
I don’t remember the exact details, but at some point in 9th grade I, uh, “acquired” from Barnes and Noble a punk scrapbook issue MOJO or some other British glossy music mag put out. I grabbed it because the cover was sort of Sex Pistols inspired and there were some bands listed on the side that I recognized from Kurt Cobain’s Insecticide liner notes and from Sonic Youth thank yous but didn’t know much about. This issue actually wound up being a pretty useful map of British punk, but it also ended up being something more important than that: my first exposure to the brash, excitable world of ’70s NME music writing.
I wasn’t even alive when the critics that made the NME a rousing success in the ’70s were operating, but I think it says something when their frenzied screeds still reached out to me decades later and packed as much of a punch as they did to the teens they were yelling at in their own time. Nick Kent, Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill and Paul Morley became as notable to me as the punk bands I was swiftly becoming obsessed with, but it wasn’t just because of their musical tastes (frankly, they were hilariously off on that quite a bit), it was because their writing was so much more exciting than anything in the pages of Rolling Stone or SPIN, both of which my dad subscribed to. It’s difficult to really describe how incredible the NME’s staff was for basically the entirety of the ’70s and early ’80s, but think of them as the Beatles of rock journalism, commercially successful but also groundbreaking, innovative and brave. And that extended to who walked through their doors and made cameos. After all, it was through the NME that also discovered Lester Bangs, who did a sprawling interview with the Clash for the magazine (which was conveniently included in this mysterious punk scrapbook I pocketed). Bangs’ heady adventures with the band and his attempts through them to understand punk pretty much sealed my fate as an unhinged pop rambler, doomed to be perenially broke and forced to live on festival swag and free sponsor party hors d’oeuvres forever after.
For most folks, the phrase Ebert and Roeper and the Movies is unlikely to inspire adulation or even appreciation. The movie buffs who loved the Siskel and Ebert era often saw Roeper as an unfit heir to the S&E legacy, a buffet-grade interloper who crashed the most beloved movie-talk banquet in TV history. And those who hated Siskel and Ebert hated Ebert and Roeper even more. For them, the whole concept of a thumbs-up thumbs-down TV show was responsible for the degradation of film criticism, for a downward trajectory from rational discussion to gladiatorial thwacking.
Perhaps there’s some truth to both claims. But all I can say is that, for me, Ebert and Roeper weren’t gladiators; they were evangelists. Whether they agreed or disagreed about the film under discussion, they were always on fire with enthusiasm for the act of assessing human creativity. And that holy fire was hella contagious. After catching my father watching their show one blurry-eyed, back-packed third-grade morning, I started recording each week’s episodes on old VCR tapes that my parents would let me watch before school each day. They loved those tapes because they got me up on time; I loved them because they got me in, giving me access to a world where every person wanted to wax poetic about the cinema screen just as much as I did. Ebert and Roeper and the Movies was my intellectual gateway drug, and, in time, it inspired me to experiment with critical substances both obscure (shout-out to WFAA Dallas’s Gary Cogill, y’all) and highly prized (maybe you’ve heard of Pauline Kael and that Van Der Werff guy?). But in the end, it was TV Emeritus Ebert and his puffy-haired new companion who taught me the sappiest, simplest, and most important critical lesson of all: namely, that every act of criticism should convey, at some level, an exuberant passion for the art form that one is critiquing. And in an age of Armond Whites and mean-spirited blogger’s-doggerel, I think we can all say “thumbs-up” to that.
It’s funny how much one bacon wrapped turkey can change ones life. It was my first Thanksgiving in Austin and I decided to plan a potluck. I cooked this amazing turkey but didn’t have a car so I needed a ride to the house where it was happening. My ride also needed to pick up two others. One of the passengers just happened to be Nick Hanover. Here I am, hot turkey in my lap in a car with this guy and we’re chatting about comics. Low and behold he writes for this publication called Comics Bulletin. We spend the rest of the evening talking about games and comics that we loved as kids. Next thing I know I’m covering the Star Wars Old Republic beta. I had no idea what I was doing and Nick proved to be an amazing mentor. Everything I became as a critic, from the bottom up I owe to him. He taught me how to talk about art in comics and encouraged me to take chances and to take off the kid gloves. Nick pushed me to be a better writer and a better critic. I found my voice thanks to him and I’m not sure if I ever thanked him for that. So… thanks guy. Since then I’ve had the honor of adding my own meager voice to the world of comics and video games, I’ve covered SXSW, talked with astrophysicists, met Kevin Eastman, and lived too many more amazing moments to name in a paragraph. And if I hadn’t cooked such an amazing turkey it probably would have never happened.