How do you be a critic without turning into a crank?
Any kind of critic. Social, political, cultural, whatever.
When George Carlin died, HBO ran a marathon of all the stand-up specials he’d done for them, from the late ’70s until shortly before he died. We didn’t watch all of them, but we tuned in and out throughout the day, getting sort of a smorgasbord of his career over the decades. And I noticed a pattern.
In his later years, Carlin had improved his craft by leaps and bounds. His mastery of language, his perceptiveness about society, the cleverness of his barbs… all had sharpened to a razor-like edge over the years. (Not that they sucked in his earlier days…)
And yet, his later performances were not nearly as much of a pleasure to watch. The content had become increasingly negative, to the point where the shows got overtaken by jeremiads… not just against great social ills and hypocrisies, but against anybody who didn’t do things the way Carlin did, or who cared about things other than what he cared about. He’d turned from a fiery, uncompromising social critic using his extraordinary skill with language and humor to chip away at the greed and lies of the power structure, into an old man railing about modern technology and how nobody does things right anymore, and yelling at kids to get off his lawn. (Doing it exquisitely, I hasten to add.)
He’d become a crank.
A brilliant crank, but a crank nonetheless.
And I want to know: How do you avoid that?
I’m beginning to see crank tendencies in my own self. And I don’t like it. I’m finding myself more and more likely to see, and think about, and talk about, flaws. In everything. Movies, music, food, books, bourbons, blogs, decaf lattes, ideas, people. Even things that I like, I’m finding myself critical of: not entirely negative, necessarily, but hyper-aware of their imperfections… and hyper-willing to talk about them.
And I’m doing it in situations where it’s not always appropriate. Increasingly, I’m having to remind myself that I am not being asked for a thorough, unblinking, rigorously honest analysis of pluses and minuses when I’m asked a question like, “How do you like the soup?”
And I’m wondering: Is this a natural result of the work that I do? Is one of the job hazards of being a professional critic that you start turning into a personal one? Or a permanent one?
The way of crankery can be very tempting. For one thing, it makes life as a writer so much easier. Any writer worth their salt can write about things they don’t like, in a way that’s entertaining and funny. Witness the success of the Roger Ebert books, “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie” and “Your Movie Sucks”. (Both of which have pride of place in our home, on the shelf in front of the toilet.) The hard job is writing enthusiastically about things that you do like without just stringing together a list of superlatives and sounding like a sap. (And the insanely hard job is writing about things that are mediocre. How many ways are there in this world to write “Formulaic but passably pleasant” without wanting to shoot yourself?)
And some of it is that being critical is a quick ‘n’ easy way to feel smart and superior. Especially if you have any sort of connection to hipster culture, which defines itself by what it doesn’t like almost as much as by what it does. (If not more so.)
And, of course, it could just be that I’m getting older. And for reasons I don’t at all understand, an awful lot of people get crankier as they get older.
And then, some of it may just be that I’m having a very, very, very long year, the sort of year that I hope I’ll be able to look back on one day and laugh grimly about, and my natural perky “glass half full” realistic- optimism has been getting just a tad irritable.
But I think that a lot of it is just habit.
I’m a critic. Professionally, I mean. It’s my job to, you know, criticize: to look at pros and cons, plusses and minuses, goals met and unmet, goals worth and not worth reaching in the first place. And I’m writing a lot on a topic about which I am very critical indeed — namely, religion.
All of which I’m basically fine with. I’m definitely not of the “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” school. I think many not-nice things are important and need to be said.
But I feel like I need to watch this trend. I need to watch the degree to which it affects my personal life. And I don’t want it taking over my professional life completely. Thirty years from now, I don’t want people reading my blog (assuming that I have a blog in thirty years) and thinking, “Wow, she sure is a good writer — but she sure does complain a lot.”
The best idea I’ve come up with about this is to make an effort — a conscious, disciplined effort — to at least sometimes write about things that I like. I’ve even thought about turning it into a series: the “Things I Like” series. That’s sort of what I was doing with my recent Olympics piece. I could easily have written a piece of that length — hell, longer — about all the things I don’t like about the Olympics and the media coverage thereof. It would have been interesting, and it would have been valid. But it wouldn’t have been all that original — my critiques have all been made before, many times and by many others. And mostly, I just didn’t feel like going there. I was already starting to think about this crank issue (I’ve been thinking about it for a while now); and since I was, in fact, having a good time watching the Olympics, I decided that this time, I wanted to go to my happy place.
But I’m looking for other strategies for crankery avoidance, other than just Occasionally Write About Stuff I Like. And I’m wondering how other incipient cranks deal with this. Writers especially, but really anybody. How do you stay critical of society as the years go by without turning into a curmudgeon? How do you stay realistic about the half-empty part of the glass without getting absorbed into it?
What are your thoughts? What are your strategies?
And while I’m thinking of it: Would you, in fact, like to see a “Things I Like” series in this blog?
I’d love to know. It would take me to my happy place. Thanks!