Sunday, October 03, 2010

Karma for Critics

Headline photo from the New York Times, Oct 3 2010 - yours truly can be seen bottom right.

In August of last year, I was asked to write a review for a story anthology, and gave it a generally positive review.

I liked the format of the collection and the majority of the stories in it - although I didn't want it to sound like a glowing puff-piece, so coolly decided that one of the stories in the collection I didn't like was 'contrived' and had harsher words for another.

A short while later, I discovered that the editor of the anthology had written a blog post specifically about my review - and while I expected a nice little pat on the head from a suitably placated editor, she instead surprised me by ignoring all the praise and concentrating on my criticism.

She wrote:
"The reviewer liked the book. Mostly. But eviscerated a few of the contributors in passing. Sort of casually. Like you might swat a mosquito."
And she was absolutely right.

With the grace of a truly world-class editor (which, incidentally, she is) she took me justifiably to task for casually assassinating the contributions of two of her authors.

It was alright for me not to like their work - but to brush it aside as a contrivance, with the sort of casual disregard Donald Trump might have for a panhandler begging for change, ended up saying a lot more about me than in did about them.

I later wrote about that sickening realization when I accepted what she said - and quoted Anton Ego, from Pixar's magnificent Ratatouille, to explain my feelings:
"The bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."
It was an uncomfortable, unappetizing slice of humble pie to be served - but I did my duty and scoffed it down and, in my arrogance, believed that I'd paid my penance.

Apparently not.

Because today I was forced to revisit this chapter in my life yet again - from the deeply uncomfortable position of the critiqued, rather than the critic.

In the Arts and Leisure section of today's New York Times, journalist Matt Haber had a write up of Jacques magazine - the adult publication I've proudly been copy editor of for nearly three years now.

In all, it was a largely positive piece that hinted at the truly undeniable genius of Jacques' photographer, Jonathan Leder, and the creative vision of his wife, Editor in Chief Danielle.

But my contribution didn't fair so well.

"The articles are one of the magazine’s weaknesses," Haber writes with cool indifference. "The first four issues lacked an editorial focus, with articles about the history of marijuana and the dangers of Wi-Fi that read like Wikipedia entries."

Those articles? Mine.

Since the magazine's inception, I've been writing the 'signature' editorial - and was actually fairly pleased with the results until today.

To suddenly have some random bod from the New York Times insinuate that my articles were written with no greater flair than the user-generated content of Wikipedia (or perhaps even suggest that they were plagiarized) was a slap in the face of monumental proportions.

What made it worse - and what reminded me uncomfortably of the way I'd critiqued those short story writers a year earlier - was just how casually and coolly he did it.

It was as if he was completely unaware that a real writer - somebody not much different than him - had interviewed people, assembled data and carefully constructed those articles with an (apparently undeserved) sense of journalistic accomplishment.

Matt Haber tossed them aside as casually as rotten fruit.

It was very difficult working out how to process his casual disregard.

At first I was just angry - ready to send him an email and call him an arrogant, conceited cock for his snotty little put down.

That wouldn't have done my journalistic credibility any good!

Then, after a deep breath, I realised that I should look deeper at what he wrote; and I did.

I don't think it was his intention, but I ultimately gleaned some meaning from his critique. One thing I am guilty of in a lot of my editorial is 'assembling' an argument from third-party sources - establishing an editorial position and then fortifying it with articles and interviews gleaned from the Internet. It's basically just recycling existing material (or cannibalising it, to be more honest) and presenting it in a new way. Don't blame me; I'm a history major.

But I'll admit, that's not journalism by the standards of somebody like Matt Haber (and, in all honesty, I've had one magazine editor raise it as an issue previously.) For a couple of my pieces, I could honestly hold up my hand and accept that as valid criticism.

But while there's a lot of my writing you could dismiss as 'Wikipedia' journalism, the article on Wi-Fi he cited was not included. As I fumed and festered on Haber's criticism, I realised that this was one article that truly wasn't 'wiki' material. I hadn't just recycled existing interviews and materials to write it - I'd gone direct to the source; interviewing a leading authority on so-called 'electropollution' and delivered an article that contained information and opinion which simply didn't exist anywhere else.

It was at this point that my anger and resignation turned to indignation - Matt Haber might coolly have dismissed my contributions as reading like 'Wikipedia entries,' but it sure as hell didn't make it true.

Most likely, he'd done exactly what I did when I was writing the critique of that anthology I told you about earlier. He decided he didn't want to write something completely sycophantic about his subjects, so coolly concocted a neat little phrase to knock those arrogant Jacques characters down a peg or too after he'd built them up so high.

It might never have occurred to him that the peg he was dislodging represented somebody's time, effort and enthusiasm - it certainly didn't occur to me when I did exactly the same thing last year.

That realization was what saved my mental health. Because, you know what? If Matt Haber thinks my editorials were worthless, he's not half the journalist the New York Times thinks he is.

I actually know they have merit. Need an example? How about that my wife brought me a copy of Time magazine home the other month because the headline story was: "Your State: Bankrupt."

It was an article that bore an uncanny resembled to my piece "Rape of the Taxpayer" that appeared in the first ever issue of Jacques. Not that it was copied, by any means (I doubt the writers even knew that my article existed.) But it just happened to be the same story; how as people became unemployed and wages plummeted, townships and states responded by hefting their taxes and fees to cover the shortfall.

It was a great story - I'd just written it at the start of the financial meltdown, while Time waited until the end of it. I was eighteen months ahead of the game.

And that's where I have to pull myself up by my bootstraps and tell critics like Matt Haber that they're welcome to their opinions - but opinions aren't exactly the exclusive dominion of New York Times journalists. I actually happen to write some damn fine stuff; and some of the best of it you'll find within the pages of Jacques .

I do appreciate the New York Times taking the time and effort to give the guys behind Jacques a well-deserved shoutout - I've rarely met more talented people than the Leders and they deserve recognition for all they've done.

However, when it comes to their opinion of my writing, they can go and stuff themselves.

I've decided that I'm not going to lose any more sleep over what Haber wrote - if for no other reason that because Jacques magazine, if current trends are anything to go by, will probably be in print long after the New York Times has gone 'digital only' or been bought by Rupert Murdoch.

Ultimately, that's the only editorial critique that really matters - and I'm on the right side of it.

1 comment:

Expat mum said...

It's awful isn't it? I've always said that if someone doesn't like what I write, or my style for that matter, that's fine. A few months ago however, I read an Amazon review of my book in which a reader had casually pointed out an "inaccuracy" in my book and then wondered (in the title of her review no less) how many more mistakes I'd made. My error? - to say that in the UK, a "sloppy joe" was a baggy sweater worn primarily in the 50s and 60s, and not a messy meat sandwich as it is here. The reviewer was American and had never heard of a Sloppy Joe sweater, so I, a Brit writing about the UK, must be wrong.
I gently took her to task for it, as did another reviewer, and she has since taken down the comment.
The whole thing kept me up for nights - a casual comment, that discredited me as a writer.

Anyway, I love this post for its honesty and I happen to love your writing style too.