(NB: this essay was originally published in 2011.)
A mentor, and friend, died last week.
I choose the exceedingly unwelcome occasion of his passage to mount a passionate defense of the critical, of the unconstructive, and of the negative. (Yes, this is wine-related…to a point.)
Clif Garboden was not my first boss, nor was he my first editor. He wasn’t even, as a boss, my editor for the vast majority of our time working together. My early attempts at wine writing (oh how glad I am that most of them aren’t available on the web, and oh how I wish that I could choose which of the rest weren’t) were done for someone else, who was patient and excellent in his own way. But I did, on occasion, write for Clif on subjects non-vinous.
Clif was a journalist. A real journalist, of a type that’s very nearly extinct. He was also a crusader, which is all too common these days, except that crusading’s many, many practitioners usually lack the previous skill. In the alternative press, in which he spent the majority of his career, he was a giant. A towering figure. He had history, he had passion, and he had True Belief. In alternative media, where the hours are punishing, the pay laughable, and the positive outcomes an epic narrative of disappointment, only a True Believer could thrive as he did.
Click on Clif’s name in the third paragraph. You’ll pick up the style, the skill, and the inexorable, bulldozing passion right away. You’ll notice the humor. You’ll also see the unfiltered, often seething, occasionally boiling-over rage. He wasn’t just like this on the page or screen, either. Woe to anyone who ran afoul of Clif in person. More clever, incising, and precisely-directed acid I’ve rarely heard from any tongue.
The thing is, most people who worked for or with Clif loved the hell out of the guy, and respected him even more. So did I, even when he was yelling at me (which was not infrequent), because his venom was neither spiteful nor pointless, and it was never misdirected. The target was, each and every time, someone who disappointed him. Who let him down. Who wasn’t doing their best. Who wasn’t doing the right thing…which, for Clif, was not usually separable from the previous standard.
One of the longest things I’ve ever written – and regular readers of this blog may feel a certain measure of fear at that notion – was edited by Clif. It was for a single-subject supplement to the regular newspaper, which meant even lower freelance rates than the penny-pinching norm, more attempted interference from the sales department than usual (supplements were always stuffed beyond their gills with ads, and the constant tug-of-war between sales and editorial grew muscle-straining at such times), and as a result, a less-free hand at the keyboard than was afforded within the paper’s regular areas of coverage.
I wrote accordingly. Much sweat, much toil, and much second-guessing ensued. By the time I turned over the finished product, I lacked any sense of perspective on the quality of the piece. Not even a half-hour later – Clif could read faster than Watson – my phone rang. Could I swing by Clif’s desk?
“First of all, it’s good. Really good, especially for something this long.” I started to feel a warm suffusion of pride. “But…”
“There’s an incredible amount of bullshit. For instance,” he pointed at his screen, “you spend two whole paragraphs avoiding saying that this technology sucks.”
“Well…” I paused to muster a defense. What followed was weak, and I knew it as I said it. I think I offered some mealy-mouthed sauce about not wanting to bite hands that fed and so forth. He cut me off.
“Who are you writing for? Them?” The way he said “them” carried decades of withering scorn. “Is this a job interview or a newspaper article?”
“I don’t care if they’re your friends. You’re a journalist. You’re writing for the readers. No one else. If you can’t stop bullshitting and get right to the point, if you can’t say something’s crap, if you can’t tell the harsh truth, then you shouldn’t be writing.” I wanted to argue, but I couldn’t. He was right. “Your job is the truth. You don’t go out of your way to be an asshole, but you can’t be afraid of calling somebody one.”
We spent the next two hours going over the piece. I’d say nine out of every ten comments were more or less identical to the above. I went back to my desk, chastened. After which followed a lot of soul-searching, deleting, and rewriting.
When I sent the piece back to Clif, it was so much better. Not because it was tighter, crisper, or any of those buzzwordy things that garner editorial style points, but because I was finally in the words. What I thought, what I felt. What I really wanted to say, once I dropped the filters and the evasions.
I won an award for that piece. I should have given it to Clif. I still would, if I could.
Say what you mean often enough, and someone will get angry enough to call you a name. It’s part of the package, the free-gift-with-purchase of the opinion-mongering membership card. For every name that you’re called to your face (actual or virtual), you can be sure that dozens of unheard imprecations have been uttered your direction.
This is normal. It’s how it’s supposed to work, frankly. People who cannot handle the rebounds shouldn’t be in the game, or at least shouldn’t be taking shots. Should the sting of a rhetorical slapback be felt? Yes, and even more so when a critique of a critic is on-point. Any good counterpunch, any blow soundly-struck, needs to lead to betterment. And if the damage is no longer sufferable, it’s time to cede the field.
Some writers really can’t deal with this sort of thing, and practice various methods of avoidance. For example, saying nice things or nothing at all, per the motherly advice we’ve all received. That’s a worthy, and socially graceful, way to navigate one’s life. But it should not, except in an impossible Panglossian world, be confused for telling the truth.
I’m not suggesting that everyone should be mean, or even that anyone should say exactly what they think regardless of the consequences. That’s an ideologically fundamentalist position that would result in a lot of bloodshed, both metaphorical and actual. Most people should be nice, most of the time.
But critics aren’t most people. Critics are tasked with saying what they think. It’s their job, and more importantly it’s their mission. As such, while they may prefer to be nice, that preference must submit to the necessity of being honest. While honesty does not mean one must be willfully savage, it also means that one cannot avoid saying bad things if bad things are what need to be said.
How much concern has been expressed, over the years, about the dangers of compromised judgment among critics? What most people incorrectly call bias (as if bias is avoidable, which it isn’t), but is actually an problem of entanglement vs. independence? Whether it’s insisting that all tastings must be conducted blind, or that a critic must avoid social contact with those who make or sell what they critique, there is almost no subject capable of getting wine consumers more exercised than the possibility that their critics are not giving them the straight story.
What this really boils down to is honesty. Whatever standards to which one insists a critic must hold, the shared foundational concern is that a critic is telling the truth. I’ve written, many times, that I think people get wrongly hung up on the minutiae of process when what they’re actually interested in is integrity. Does a critic have the personal integrity to call things exactly as he or she sees them?
(Even though I keep using the word “critic,” this question applies in equal measure to the writer, because bias is unavoidable and information is no less malleable via external influence whether or not one is engaging in criticism without trappings.)
If this is all really so frightfully important – and though there’s much disagreement on standards and practices, I think most of us agree that honesty and integrity are crucial – then why should we trust a critic who allows honesty to be filtered, even if it’s through politesse? I doubt many would trust a critic who took the opposite tack and held back commentary that wasn’t venomous. But because we like politeness, because we think we should be nice (and again, in most cases we should), we forgive the everything’s-sunshine-and-roses approach. Let’s be honest with ourselves, though: if we apply such a filter, if we file away at our most negative expressions, we probably don’t exercise corollary pruning of our most positive thoughts.
In other words, we put our fingers on the scale.
Where’s the integrity in that? In the real world of weights and measures, there are punishments for doing this sort of thing. In many judged sports, the highest and lowest scores are thrown out before a final tally is reached. Would those results be improved if we only threw out the two lowest scores? Of course not. So why should critics be encouraged to do exactly that?
Posit a critic who, working with an alleged point rating scale that runs from 50 to 100, only publishes scores above 85, or 88, or some other arbitrary cutoff of superior quality. Do people appear to find this to be serving their interests? Or do they complain about the deliberate holding-back of information they feel they can use…knowing, for example, whether a product was judged inferior (and why) or was simply not encountered by that critic? People are up in arms, of course. They don’t like the imbalanced scale, the unrealistic skew towards smiley-faced positivity. They want the whole picture, blemishes and all. And if that’s what they want, critics are the ones who are supposed to give it to them.
So maybe negativity is not only defensible, but necessary. Maybe it’s the only truly honest way to approach commentary. Still – some will object – do critics have to be so negative about it? Can’t they at least be a little more genteel as they slip a stiletto into the already-bleeding guts of a critical victim? A little less mean?
Here’s an example. A little while ago, someone in the industry accused me of expressing myself in an “antagonistic” way.
There’s a certain truthiness in that. The accusation does not go unacknowledged. It also does not pass without some regret at its applicability, because only sociopaths really like being mean. Especially…and this finds great application in the genial wine world…to people one likes.
But there’s falsehood, as well. Mostly, because it’s untrue: there is never an intent to antagonize in what I write, so anyone who sees antagonism is in error. As I wrote earlier, someone willing to dish out commentary both constructive and un- must be willing to receive same with generous spirit. Thus, I could see this very accusation as antagonistic, but I don’t. Aggressive? Pointed? Sure. But I’m not antagonized, and since I can’t read the mind of the person who uttered the criticism, I can’t accuse him of being antagonistic either. Merely wrong.
Further, for something to be effectively antagonistic, it must be written with self-assurance that antagonism will result. Deliberate untruths will usually do it, but active dishonesty is so easy to spot that this is rarely attempted. Another is to critique motives or intent (especially imagined versions of either) rather than a work, which is at best a logical fallacy and, at worst, a sleazy way to spread insinuation in lieu of argument.
The latter is something I’m sure I’ve done, at some point. It’s wrong, and I shouldn’t have. I try, as one should, very hard to make the only important pronoun in a commentary the first-person singular. I almost certainly fail, at times. But the effort and intent are there.
Do I like saying unkind things? No. I doubt anyone does (and if they do, I have concerns for them that go well beyond the ethics or practice of criticism). Do I have special sadness for relationships damaged or lost as a result? Yes, absolutely. A few seemingly irreparable breakages are a source of ongoing regret; some now linger well over a decade or more, others glisten with fresh ink.
Still, I accept this as one of the costs of offering honest commentary. “Who are you writing for?” asked the most influential crafter of my motivations. Were I writing with no hope of dissemination and no interest in response, the answer might be “me,” and then I could legitimately trump the demands of integrity with a desire to be thought of with kindness by as many people as possible. But no published commentator can do this with their honesty and integrity fully intact, and this is true whatever the subject of commentary, and whatever the grandiosity and remuneration (or, more likely these days, the decided lack of either) of the dissemination.
And yet, despite this, I and most other commentators continue to have friendly relationships with many, sometimes even most, of the subjects of our commentary and criticism. Why?
The opposite of love (goes the cliché) is not hate, but indifference. I wonder if the same might be true for respect…that its true antonym isn’t just oppositional disrespect, but the greater disrespect of apathy. The ultimate act of disrespect is thus to ignore, rather than to criticize.
This leads to another anti-negativity argument, though perhaps it could be more generally characterized as an anti-criticism argument, that hinges on the issue of respect. It claims that to be negative can demonstrate a lack of respect for a work. With this I could not disagree more strongly, and the major reason is contained within the previous paragraph: an actual lack of respect is demonstrated by deeming something unworthy of response. The very act of criticism is to, in some sense, accord respect.
To address this complaint properly, however, one must ask: respect for what? There are four entities that may be an object of potential respect: a work itself, a work’s creator, the effort behind a work, and a creator’s feelings about a work.
Respect for a work is inherent in bothering to craft a critical response to it, so that can’t be it. Conflating a work and its creator is a logical fallacy. Emotions? Well, what if the creator hates a work and I love it? Would I be disrespectful for me to say so? I doubt most would think so…in fact, I suspect many would think it an act of kindness. After all, we generally applaud the value of supportive words when a more honest assessment might be negative. Since this is the case, concern about feelings really boils down to the same old argument about whether or not we should say negative things, which has already been addressed (a few thousand paragraphs upward) and can be summed thusly: concern yes, dishonesty no.
So it’s the third entity that’s under examination, and the assertion is that it is disrespectful to criticize a work because of the effort that went into that work. Most often, the complaint is one about proportionality…that the duration or blood/sweat/tears that go into the crafting of a work are not met with a critical assessment reflecting similar effort. As, for example, criticizing a wine with a several-sentence tasting note.
It’s true that wine has a rather long temporal existence before it’s even available to be criticized, if one counts time from grape to glass. One might also consider vine age, a winemaker’s lifetime of experience, even generations of inherited knowledge to be creative factors. Viewed through a narrower lens, the production of a wine is considered “harder” than the production of critical responses to that wine, especially as most will come in the form of tasting notes.
To this there are several possible responses. One is that unless the producer of the note is a complete novice, both history and effort are no less involved. This may include decades of learning to use words in a competent and stylish fashion, a breadth and depth of tasting experience necessary to write better and more contextualized notes, actual training in the science and history of wine, and so forth. The notion that a tasting note is somehow effortless is demeaning to its author. No, tasting and typing isn’t anywhere near as “hard” as the often backbreaking work of making a wine. But do all winemakers write well? Are all wine professionals’ evaluations eagerly sought by consumers? Clearly not. Good criticism requires a different set of skills than winemaking or salesmanship, but it does require those skills. I don’t seek to elevate them above their value, but to dismiss them is offensive.
A second is to wonder if respect is really the right way to think about this. Posit an industrial wine, made with craven commercial intent from the cheapest possible materials. A critical response proportionate to the respect demanded by such a wine would be minimal, at best. (One could easily argue that to treat such a wine to a long, careful analysis would be disrespectful…not to the aforementioned industrial wine, but to other wines that are the result of greater effort, and especially to a reader who’s time is being wasted by serious consideration of a decidedly unserious effort.) By this standard, the respect due other wines would thus be proportional to the effort expended in their production.
But is this wine criticism? No, it’s not. It’s effort criticism. It’s not the letter grade on a report card wherein a student’s actual work is evaluated, it’s the secondary grade wherein the teacher rates effort, judging (by whatever purely subjective standard they choose to apply) the relationship between results and ability. Is little Johnny working up to his potential, or is Jane slacking off? And if they’re both getting an A in the class, which grade matters? Moreover, is effort vs. potential really what we want critics to be judging? “Well, Françoise, I liked your wine, but I think you could have done better if you’d just exerted a little more effort in the vineyard, whereas Michel is a complete incompetent who just made his best wine ever, so even though I like yours more I’m going to spend most of this article praising his.”
The thing is, that sort of effort- and intent-evaluation is exactly the sort of critical arrogance that drives winemakers and their commercial representatives nuts, especially because it’s oh-so-easy to say from the removed comfort of a tasting note, and far less easy to do when one’s ability to pay the utility bills is at stake. Also, it’s ultimately useless, because critics are never going to agree on what efforts should or shouldn’t have been expanded to improve a wine. More or less oak? A later or an earlier harvest? More acidity, or less? Is this climat red-fruited by definition, or is blackberry within the acceptable range? Should a Beaujolais-Villages be built to age for several decades or should it give its best at release?
This isn’t to say that commentary on intent and effort isn’t welcome. It certainly can be, if treated with the right balance of clearly-identified reportage and subjectivity. But as the object of criticism, rather than a context for it? The notion is as misguided as intuiting nefarious motivation in a critic just because one doesn’t like what that critic said.
A third response is to ask if longer-form criticism is actually more desirable. Is, for example, this an inherently superior form of criticism to this? Why? According to who? Opinions certainly vary, because people consume criticism for different reasons and in different ways.
Furthermore, how does one measure respect by length? There’s a wine book on my shelf, written by Jacqueline Friedrich, that treats noted Savennières producer and leading biodynamicist Nicolas Joly to several pages of detailed commentary, finally concluding that he’s lost in ideology and doesn’t actually like wine. Is that “respectful” at any length? Does Joly think so?
Personally, I’m much more interested in whether or not it’s right. For Friedrich it is, for others it might not be. (For what it’s worth, I agree with Friedrich on Joly & ideology, though I wouldn’t wish to comment on his regard for wine.) But she could have reduced her commentary to a single line, as I just did, and still been just as right or wrong. So how did the addition of so many more words make her conclusion more respectful? Maybe there exists some objective and measurable scale of proportional effort. If this is true, a critic must first assess (or divine) the amount of effort that went into a work, and then craft a proportional response. But in that case, an author’s conclusion that Nicolas Joly doesn’t care about wine nearly as much as he cares about ideology would result in a proportional criticism amounting to an indifferently-delivered one-liner; only criticism of his ideology would deserve the “respect” of length.
Note, too, that this assumes one has correctly assessed the effort involved in a work; if one has not (or cannot), a respectful criticism is impossible, except by luck. ESP seems like a high bar to set for any critic, and that doesn’t even begin to address what happens when people disagree about how much effort was actually involved.
And here’s yet another problem. Let’s say there is counter-criticism of the original critique. Who gets to judge the critic’s effort? Critics of critics? By what standard? And must their critiques also be proportional? One can see how this reduces to absurdity in short order. Everyone’s trying to judge effort and intent, usually based on woefully insufficient data and often on utter guesswork, when what they’ve been asked to judge are works.
Then again, the possibility is that this isn’t actually about proportional respect at all. Because I think a survey of the complaints regarding same will not yield a plethora of examples in which too much respect and positive commentary, verbose or otherwise, has been expended on unworthy efforts. No, it’s exclusively about negative criticism.
Now, does this seem probable? That if the true issues are proportionality or respect, that every single example of alleged failure in this regard should just happen to be negative commentary about something beloved of the complainant? If it does, I have a Mr. Ockham here that would like to sell you a bridge in Atlantis.
And so, we’re back to no one appreciating criticism of their work, or work they admire. Not artists, not artisans, not craftspeople, and certainly not critics. But unless we’re prepared to reject evaluation in its entirety – and it’s possible some would like exactly this, though they’re in for a rude awakening regarding human nature – we can’t live in that alleged utopia. So the complaint is really no more than it was before: that we shouldn’t say mean things. Which, again, may be both admirable and a way to accumulate friends, but requires an acceptance of dishonesty if one intends to be a critic.
The assertion that work deserves respect is an unassailable one. (It can be questioned, but there’s no standard by which to adjudicate the matter.) The assertion that any given criticism is disproportionate or disrespectful to the works being criticized is by no means unassailable without more knowledge of intent and effort than anyone non-deified possesses. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s true. What, then, is the solution?
It’s not to be found by tinkering with the components of criticism. If the time span of agriculture, knowledge, culture, and effort that go into a wine can be measured in decades (which is quite reasonable), a proportional criticism of that wine might also take decades, or at least years. How is that even possible? Obviously, it’s not. And as I’ve already explained, we can’t avoid negativity without fudging numbers and suppressing honesty. So we’re going to have criticism, it’s going to be generated faster than much of what it evaluates, and some of it is going to be negative. You can fight these truisms, but you will not win. They’re fundamental to the act of criticism.
We can wish for, or even demand, certain words over certain other words. But isn’t this a just a cleverly reversed version of a critic telling a creator how they believe the latter should perform their job? It’s really no more admirable for someone to tell a critic which words they should and should not use than it is for a critic to tell a winemaker which tools they should and should not use. If winemakers object to the latter – and they have a legitimate claim to their agitation on this point – then critics should object to the former.
But this all misses the true answer, I’m afraid. The actual “solution” to the problem of critical negativity was provided by my much-missed mentor. Ask the following: who is it that’s complaining about negativity, proportionality, and lack of respect? Winemakers and the people who sell wine. The very people whose work is being critiqued, whose monetary oxen are being gored. And is it their judgment that we wish to triumph in this debate? Do we really want Universal Studios deciding which film critics can say what about their movies, Atlantic Records telling music critics that they need to be nicer, Todd English hectoring restaurant critics about respect?
If you are the creator of a work being critiqued, by all means speak up. Correct. Defend. Counter. You are as welcome to the marketplace of ideas as anyone…more so, in fact, since you have specific and relevant expertise. But understand the limits of your role. You have control over what you’ve created. You do not have, nor deserve, control over what the critic creates. They don’t work for you.
And if you’re a critic, ask yourself who you’re writing for. It’s a question that must ground every critic’s work, every word from their pen, every judgment from their mind. The answer must never be those who create or derive monetary benefit from the works being criticized, unless they actually sign your checks. The answer must always be the consumers of both the works and your commentary. If one is critiquing subject to the preferences of the targets of that critique, one has already sacrificed their integrity and their honesty.
Or just listen to Clif, who was always good at getting right to the key point: “You’re writing for the readers. No one else.”
No one else.