Critical Condition

Stephen Fry has a book called Paperweight, which is a collection of newspaper and magazine articles. One of these is titled “A Critical Condition”, and in it he writes, critically, about critics:

As a child I saw on television a film starring Alistair Sim called The Green Man. Like almost any picture featuring that incomparable genius it contains moments of as absolute a joy as one is ever permitted on this sublunary plane. Watching it made me wriggle with delight, but more than that, it made me want to have something, anything, to do with a world where such pleasures were possible. The film was again shown recently on television. In the listings column of a Sunday newspaper the other week it was described as ‘a thin, ultimately unsatisfactory vehicle for Sim’. Now I would never claim that my liking for the film is definite, de gustibus and all that, but look at the style of this remark. How typical it is of everything that must displease and revolt about critics. The vile possessive impertinence of this jumped-up hack referring to the man by his surname, the ex cathedra dismissal, the cold contempt, the complete absence of anything approaching enthusiasm or love.

It may be true that critics perform a service, that actors and writers and artists need their egos deflating, that the public needs to be advised about how, where and when to spend their money on artistic activities, that ‘standards’ must be maintained. All the foregoing may be fine and convincing reasons for the existence of critics. The point is that no one would volunteer for this dreadful trade but the kind of worthless and embittered offal that we, by and large, get. What decent person would want to spend a life picking and cavilling? Picture this scene. A critic arrives at the gates of heaven. ‘And what did you do?’ asks Saint Peter. ‘Well’, says the dead soul. ‘I criticised things’. ‘I beg your pardon?’ ‘You know, other people wrote things, performed things, painted things and I said stuff like, “thin and unconvincing”, “turgid and uninspired”, “competent and serviceable,”…you know’.

I think we can guess Saint Peter’s reaction.

How is this related to blogs and blogging? Well obviously I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that writing or reading a blog provides you with moments of as absolute a joy as one is ever pemitted on the sublunary plane, but you do get to experience the odd bit of picking and cavilling, and you wonder why, of all the things the picker and caviller could be doing, they bother to visit a particular site – of all the possible billions there must be – simply to say stuff like “thin and unconvincing”, or, in the case of this site, to say things like:

One wonders what purpose Graham’s post on Linda’s serves, apart from Graham hinting for the umpteenth time he doesn’t like middle class people.

Yes, another amusing gossipy tidbit from the lukewarm alphabet soup filled backwater of British leftism. I’ve come to the conclusion that if all out nuclear war broke out tommorow, HP will still be chuntering away about such irrelevant fancies.

Well, this post is simply HP restating for the zillionth time how horrible the SWP are, and what nasty people the Hizbollah are. Hey ho…This smacks of repetitive propagandising of the crudest kind. Yes, Gene, we know how awful the tiny SWP is, and we know how horrible Hizbollah are. But have you got anything else to say beyond that?

Well, being interviewed by an outfit run by one of nuttiest righwingers in the US (David Horowitz) makes many look reasonable and balanced. I am not sure what you are trying to prove here Venichka? That Geras and Cohen look sensible in comparison with the unhinged Horowitch? Nice one, Centurion.

No independent analysis is offered, or even discussion of the serious analysis out there. The first mention of Mumbai is to berate a nondescript CiF commenter, and launch into the usual whinge about the British left. I suppose this parochialism is understandable to a degree, but its very inadequate.

There is, of course, a great deal of value in much criticism; I frequently refer to the album reviews on All Music Guide, for example. But without wanting to single out any one particular individual – although by sheer coincidence it turns out that the five comments quoted above appear to have come from the same contributor – it would be nice if that criticism, instead of simply carping and complaining, demonstrated the merest hint of cordiality, warmth or goodwill. Assuming, that is, that one’s actually capable of that.


This is categorically not aimed at anyone in particular, but there’s an excellent post at CiF by Andrew Brown on why “people are such arseholes online”: Why are we all so nasty?

“If I want to write a postcard to someone to express my loathing of their latest book review, I have to find the postcard, write it by hand, find a stamp, walk out and post it – all of them time-consuming or troublesome moments which give me plenty of time to wonder whether I really mean to do or say these things and to conclude that I probably don’t. Responding by email or on CiF, on the other hand, is almost frictionless…All your future enemies are out there, waiting to be made”.