Critics Need Slightly Thicker Skins


When Kurt Sutter attacked Brent Bozell and the Parents Television Council, many in the critical class stood up and applauded. Here's Dustin Rowles at Pajiba, for instance. Wonkette got into it too. As best as I can tell, there was virtually no condemnation from critics on Twitter. Contrast that to last night, when Sutter subtweeted an AV Club writer who has been critical of him. The outrage was swift and righteous:

Et cetera. I could go on like this for a while.

On the one hand, I get it: Sutter was punching down and targeted a guy that many of these people like and respect. No one likes it when the neighborhood tough picks on your friend. And, as Alyssa Rosenberg noted, Sutter does this quite a bit. It seems the critical community finally reached its breaking point last night.

On the other: Come on! Critics spend all day writing about how other people are doing things wrong. They often inflect their criticism with pseudo-psychological talk about what's going on in the heads of creators. I wonder how many times Sutter has read reviews of his work this year that have criticized Sons of Anarchy for being hypermasculine and out-of-control and messier than it used to be? Were I a filmmaker or a show runner I don't think I'd be able to contain myself either. Critics and artists go after each other all the time. It comes with the territory. It's part of the fun!

I write all this because I've been nursing a grudge of my own against a pair of critics for a couple of weeks now. (Irony alert!) I kicked off my writeup of the Breaking Bad finale by (glibly) noting the reaction (some) critics of the show had to (some) fans of the show. Chris Heller and Scott Meslow were not amused:

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To clarify: I wasn't mocking "critics" so much as "the conventional wisdom of a certain set of critics," critics who had themselves spent much of the last month mocking the CW of the "Team Walt" crowd. I was even able to have several totally decent conversations with that particular set of critics following the publication of my post.

Putting my own hurt feelings aside: since when does "mocking other critics never, ever look good"? Who doesn't enjoy going back and reading Kael and Sarris sniping over the auteur theory? Armond White, uber-troll, is at his best when he's going after other critics, either by name or by reputation. Dwight MacDonald spent his whole career ripping other critics (and artists and politicians and dictionaries (!) and Bibles (!!) and everyone and everything else he came into contact with, it seems).* Congeniality is all well and good, but a bit of rough and tumble can be fun as well.

Regardless, critics do themselves no favors when they get all huffy after someone pushes back against their criticism or attacks them personally. Roger Ebert showed us how best to deal with jackass artists in his dispatching of Vincent Gallo:

Vincent Gallo has put a curse on my colon and a hex on my prostate.

He called me a "fat pig" in the New York Post and told the New York Observer I have "the physique of a slave-trader." He is angry at me because I said his "The Brown Bunny" was the worst movie in the history of the Cannes Film Festival. I was not alone in my judgment. Screen International, the British trade paper, convenes a panel of critics to score the official entries. "The Brown Bunny" scored 0.6 out of a possible five–the lowest score in its history, the paper said. …

Gallo all but wept in a Cannes interview as he described the pain of "growing up ugly," but empathy has its limits, and he had no tears for a fat pig and slave-trader such as myself. It is true that I am fat, but one day I will be thin, and he will still be the director of "The Brown Bunny."

Emphasis mine, because that's how you burn a detractor. Tut-tutting and complaining about hurt feelings and yelling "Poor form, sport!" comes across as kind of, well, needy. If we're going to wage combat with our words—and criticism, especially harshly critical criticism, is often just short of "fighting words" when it's done well and when an artist (or critic!) is particularly invested in his work—then let us be prepared to ferociously counter those with whom we disagree.**

*Not that I'm implicitly or explicitly comparing myself to Kael, Sarris, MacDonald, or White.

**For the record: I think Todd VanDerWerff came closest to nailing the spirt of Ebert in his retort. 

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