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On Not Being a Crank

How do you be a critic without turning into a crank?

Any kind of critic. Social, political, cultural, whatever.

George carlin
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?

Your movie sucks
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.

Anatomy of criticism
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.”

Any thoughts?

Olympics
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!

Comments

  1. says

    I’d be in favour of a “Things I like” series. Your Olympics post was something I would’ve liked to have written.
    I think crankiness is a recognised issue. IIRC, The Fast Show (British comedy) had a character who was a gardener who when asked by fellow gardeners about any piece of culture (say, Les Miserables) would respond, “Ah, it’s all bollocks, innit”. Maybe I misunderstood, but this looked like a recipe for insightless criticism.

  2. says

    Perhaps one strategy is to occasionally write about good stuff you come across even about things you don’t like, even if it’s just really short. E.g., for religion, it’s usually the most ridiculous and atrocious things that rouses me to write about it, but I try to write about the good things about it, too. (Although that only happened once, so far.)

  3. says

    I would love to see you write “atheism, good luck, and the comfort of reason”
    Your piece on bad luck was spot on, but from the typical view; bad things require explanations, good things are normative. I started a rewrite to address the Problem of Good–why no one asks “why do good things happen to us when we don’t deserve them……but I don’t write like you, obviously. (^.^)

  4. says

    You are an excellent writer. Of course I’d love to read about Things You Like.
    I find that one strategy which helps is to simply look for the good stuff. For example, if the only blogs I read are those trashing religion, then it becomes difficult for me to think about the positive side of religion. But if I occasionally Google something like “secular muslim” or “humanistic christian”, then I get a window into a world that may be religious, but is almost entirely built on ideas and values that I share. Then it’s harder for me to make blanket criticisms, and easier for me to acknowledge the positive side of things. Acknowledging and even celebrating the good side of religion doesn’t hamper my capacity to criticize what’s truly bad about it. It just forces me to a more realistic balance.

  5. says

    This reminds me of a point made by a New Zealand academic about British academia. He said that it’s very easy to be critical but it’s not worth much if you don’t come up with new ideas or ideas for improvement. I think it’s okay to be critical as long as you remember to make helpful suggestions and give positive feedback and encouragement when people get it right. I think you do have lots of posts where you celebrate the world and what’s in it, especially your work celebrating sex and sensuality. You’re still more of a cool, life-affirming mentor than an institutionalised curmudgeon. :)

  6. Jason Failes says

    MARGE: You know, Homer, it’s easy to criticize.
    HOMER: Fun too.
    (Keep up the good work, Greta. You are far less cranky than myself, so I’m in no position to give you any further advice)

  7. Anonymous says

    I have the same complaint about Carlin. He became a crotchety old man, despite retaining all of the brilliance of his youth, and that made him more difficult to watch.
    I think that’s the important point. Watching or reading predominantly critical, negative stuff wears you down. Either it gets old, and you stop reading, or it infects you and you get stuck in that same negative rut.
    To be truly happy, I think everyone needs the positive to balance the negative. Focusing on the negative is just a stone’s throw from wallowing in misery, and to be honest, most people’s lives simply don’t warrant that degree of negativity. Sure, things are bad. Sometimes really, really bad. However, if it’s *all* bad, then what are you living for? You have to find the positive in something, even if it’s of the “things can’t get any worse” variety, to have a reason to go on.
    I’m rambling, but what I mean to say is, “Yes, yes, things Greta likes would be wonderful! I’m not just here for the snark and the negative, I like the happy stuff too.” By all means, continue to criticize where appropriate, but if you have something that makes you happy, that you enjoy, share that with us as well.
    -Femetal

  8. monique says

    Just starting to read through your blog and I’m enjoying it.
    I get what you say about crankiness. I catch myself being absurdly surly about things that annoy me some days. It’s tiring to be that negative and tiresome for the people around me. But, the real world seems to be an increasingly negative place to be and I think constructive criticism is a thought process most people never developed. Some people never see the good job.

  9. says

    Hello Greta. I really enjoy reading your blog. A lot. I find that you say things that are at the tip of my tongue that I could never get out in simple terms. And you help me with that. I’m also an atheist, and it’s wonderful to read your articles about religion.
    I have an example of what you’re talking about. I love the site feministing.com, and for the longest time it seemed like EVERY article was depressing and about how hostile the world was to women. And I realized how much anxiety and depression the posts were causing me. Not a significant amount, but still noticeable. It was all tied to the GLOOM AND DOOM news that I’m used to hearing on the news. Recently it seems like their articles have been a lot more positive (they now have Thank You Thursdays and Friday Feminist Fuck Yeahs, not just Fuck Yous) and I find that I breathe a little easier when reading the site because I feel like I get a more balanced, hopeful view of the future for women and people in general (but not one that’s sugarcoated).
    So long story short … I think that the key is balance. Again, thanks for this blog.

  10. says

    “Would you, in fact, like to see a ‘Things I Like’ series in this blog?”
    Not really, since I don’t like the idea of cordoning off the blog posts about things that you like into some explicit category. I like it as is, where the positive posts are just part of the normal flow of the blog.

  11. says

    With respect to George Carlin, I think it might be helpful to understand that his (and my own) exposure to negativity has increased significantly with the development of communications technology along with the devolution of news programming into its current state: sensationalist crappola. When Carlin was coming of age, there were three, (count ‘em 1-NBC, 2-CBS, 3-ABC) television networks. Everyone one of them showcasing 1950s and 1960s “feel-good” programs like Leave It To Beaver, Ozzie And Harriet and Donna Reed. And even then, not everyone could afford a teevee set. So to get mad about something in the news, you most often had to read about it. But today, how many people even read a newspaper? And with the loss of quality in education now, how many could even read one and understand it?
    What’s worse, today we can’t go through a single day without seeing the seamy side of humanity thrust into our faces. Indeed, one of the factors that accounted for the increase in terrorism was the fact that improved communications gave voice to small desperate groups no one had heard of before. And the terrorist groups began to find this out at the Olympics in Munich in 1972.
    I’ve always held the view that humanity (in-general) is probably no worse today than its always been. At least over the past 200 years or so. And if it is worse, its only because we’ve become much more efficient and creative in the way we go about abusing, discriminating and killing one another. In the past (in Carlin’s timeframe), its just that many things never achieved any kind of notice or acknowledgement — but today with 500 channels to choose from, hardly anything can go unnoticed — even if we tried. With cameras everywhere, right in our own hands, it stands to reason that we’d be deluged with more negativity. As many in the area of television news programming have been known to say: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
    There are quite a few good things going on in the world, but they hardly ever get mentioned as they are swept away in a tide of blood and gore. But I think that some of the other suggestions above are a great way to counter this. It seems that we must actively pursue good things to write and read about to achieve some sort of balance. My own view is that your writing approach never tends toward negativity, but rather blatancy — which is a good thing. We need more blatancy instead of code words and political correctness. And your topics almost always point to positive ways or suggestions about how some things “should” be changed. And that’s something else we need, but rarely see. The fact that you’ve noticed a tendency of leaning toward the negative within yourself, is itself exceptional. Just keep doing what you’re doing….

  12. says

    Greta,
    I much enjoyed the Olympics post, though I’m not quite sure you’re keeping sight of the problem with Carlin. You say he attacked:
    “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…”
    and became:
    “…an old man railing about modern technology and how nobody does things right anymore, and yelling at kids to get off his lawn.”
    Was he ever all that positive in his early days? I can’t envision it. I suspect it’s just that he went to lashing out at any old thing. So focus on not doing that. Ask if the criticism you’re tempted to make is really warranted, and you’ll do fine.
    (I suspect the diagnosis of Carlin here is really what was going on with Feministing too–I can’t think of any examples of it for that site specifically, but sometimes I do see feminist groups get worked up about non-causes.)

  13. says

    Ugh, tell me about it. I’m a crank.
    Example: Wife and I are watching TV, some show about how this lady with a rare disease finally, after decades of false diagnoses, got correctly diagnosed by a persistent doctor. Who does she thank for her diagnosis and recovery? You guessed it “Father in heaven.” She said that. Thank Father in heaven. (and mentioned God, etc.)
    What’d I do? I pointed at her and said to my wife, “See! Why can’t she thank the doctor who pretty much saved her life? Why not thank her husband for insisting she keep going to different doctors until her problem was figured out? Why do they always have to thank God?”
    My wife shushed me. “Stop that!” she said, with that tone in her voice indicating that although I might be right fundamentally, I don’t have to keep being a jerk about it.
    You ask about how we can temper our crankiness. I think it might just take someone putting us in our place.
    When I get to the point where, while watching the Olympics, I sit on the edge of my seat not in excitement about who will win, but my anticipation of the winner looking skyward upon winning, with upward arms, making the sign of the cross, thanking God or Jesus when interviewed, and basically ignoring all personal responsibility or accomplishment, I wonder if I should be so bitter and angry.

  14. says

    Some ideas:
    Start any “debate” conversation by finding common ground. List the things you both agree on. If you’re talking about god, you can agree with the theist that atheists have killed lots of people throughout history too, that no knowledge is certain, that there are many things that are true and yet lack evidence, etc.
    You can also ask them why they disbelieve in Zeus. Or, to be less obvious, why they don’t buy all those alien abduction stories. Hopefully they’ll start listing things like, “I just can’t believe that aliens crossed millions of light years of space to capture some farm boy and probe his ass” and “It’s more likely they’re crazy or lying than that intelligent aliens came here and only revealed themselves to a few whackos.” You can add suggestions.
    Then you can gently point out that the reasons they reject alien abduction stories are they same reasons they should reject god.
    You can also try to get them to say they MIGHT be wrong, not that they ARE wrong. There are over a billion people who are convinced Allah is God. There are a billion people who think there are no gods. There are hundreds of millions of people who believe in many gods. Are they all deluded, or is your opponent, or are you?
    You can also point out that even Christians/Muslims/whatever, throughout history, were convinced of very different things than your opponent currently is. Your opponent’s worldview is actually quite precise to their time, culture, and place. Were all humans in the past and in all other cultures wrong, only to have culminated with the True View in your opponent’s mind, right now?
    And of course, you can try to be friendly and not condescending.
    But sometimes, it’s appropriate to ridicule stupid beliefs.

  15. says

    I know how you feel. A while back, I found myself growing bitter and cynical, and didn’t like that. I decided that while cynicism may be fashionable, I wasn’t going to be a slave to fashion. Fuck the cynics. (Yeah, yeah, I’m still a cynic. So fuck me.)
    One thing that worked for me was photography: walking around, trying to find something to shoot, you tend to notice little things, whether it’s a flower growing in a crack between two tiles, or the texture of the bark on a tree, or the way the evening sky is the same color as a brick building. I like to think of my approach to photography as “here’s a little piece of the world that’s worth looking at”.
    I don’t know how you’d translate this into writing, or even whether you’d want to (maybe you’d be happier baking or skydiving or learning ancient Egyptian or something). But if you’re looking for ideas, I noticed that Blowfish has a line of artistic dildos and butt-plugs; you could write about why anyone would want one, or even care whether a sex toy looks good.

  16. says

    You, a crank? No. You’re too self-conscious to be a crank. You’re too good at recognizing your own flaws and biases. I don’t think it’s necessary for you to start writing about “things you like”, unless you just really want to.

  17. says

    I’d love to see a list of Things You Like.
    I think aging has something to do with it; we get more assertive as we’re older, and clearer on what we don’t care for. But it can also be a personality thing. I’ve noticed, for instance, that Angry Young Men generally turn into mean old ones; one day you’re the blazing voice of the new generation raging against the Establishment, and a few decades later, there you are, sitting in your club, griping about the Jewish waiters and demanding they give you your keys back because you’re quite sober enough to drive home, dammit. (The thought has inspired me to a blog post of my own that I’m working on, so thanks for that!)
    I think this has to do with aggression. Some people like to be aggressive, and get settled into it as they go on. The line between righteous anger and simple pissiness can get blurred.
    The solution, I think, is to remember, always, what you stand for: get mad if something is violating it, but remember that what you’re for is more important than what you’re against; ‘against’ is only a problem because it stands in the way of ‘for’. Anger should serve a purpose. Angry at religious oppression, great, because you stand for freedom of thought. Angry at the new technology because you can’t figure out how to work it, understandable, but possibly not worth sharing with the world…
    Keep your eyes on the long-term goal, I believe. Anger can become an end in itself if you don’t keep a better end in mind.

  18. Nurse Ingrid says

    Damn, Jason Failes beat me to the Homer quote!! Nicely done.
    I think John Waters is an excellent role model for aspiring cranks. I realize most people think of him as a filmmaker, but to me he is a writer and social critic/commentator who also makes films.
    In his wonderful collection of essays, “Crackpot,” he has 2 essays called “Hatchet Piece (101 Things I Hate)” and “Puff Piece (101 Things I Love).” There is also an essay called, of all things, “Why I Love Christmas,” which comes down quite sincerely in favor of parties and gifts and singing and spending time with loved ones. (But NOT the religious aspect of Christmas, of course!!)
    He may be the Prince of Puke, but he has a very big heart, and a lust for life that we could all do well to emulate.

  19. David D.G. says

    I think Kit nailed it with this comment:

    The solution, I think, is to remember, always, what you stand for: get mad if something is violating it, but remember that what you’re for is more important than what you’re against; ‘against’ is only a problem because it stands in the way of ‘for’. Anger should serve a purpose. Angry at religious oppression, great, because you stand for freedom of thought. Angry at the new technology because you can’t figure out how to work it, understandable, but possibly not worth sharing with the world…
    Keep your eyes on the long-term goal, I believe. Anger can become an end in itself if you don’t keep a better end in mind.

    I, too, have a tendency to lean toward the negative, partly because of lifelong depression issues making me something of a natural curmudgeon, but also partly because the world seems to contain an awful lot of stupidity and meanness, and I sometimes have to step back and consider carefully whether a given rant I want to make is motivated by mere cranky petulance or by genuinely deserved outrage. This advice from Kit looks well worth posting in a conspicuous place for frequent reinforcement.
    ~David D.G.

  20. Donna Gore says

    Hey, I’m looking forward to being a crabby old bitch! Don’t go and ruin it for me, hahahaha.

  21. says

    Try to understand the people you’re criticising. Sympathise. Don’t allow yourself to become dependent on the feeling of superiority that you get when you criticise. Don’t assume the worst of people’s motives as a way of making them easier to argue with. Don’t fall into the trap of failing to realise that you have some of the flaws that are causing others to make mistakes.
    Don’t have the same arguments over and over. Look for the opponents who challenge you. You’ll feel stupider, but you’ll be smarter! Life is more interesting when you tackle the harder questions, anyway.
    You’re good at most of this stuff already, Greta. Just keep sympathising and keep being self-aware, the way that you already do.

  22. Ola says

    My Favourite Things.
    One of them is the Greta Christina blog, whatever she writes.

    Echo that.
    Everybody already said many smart things about how not to become a crank, so I can’t add much… except one strategy I saw: when you encounter a statement you disagree with, instead of immediately thinking about refutations, try to think what can you learn from it. It’s really not easy. It doesn’t matter if what you can learn was not what the author originally meant. What matters is that you gain something new. One guy I know often amazes me with this strategy. I hear him having a discussion, for example, and some person makes a stupid remark. I roll my eyes and tear him/her apart in my head… while this guy says “You’re right! In fact, it’s really deep, because…” and then he proceeds to relate the remark to something very interesting which I never thought about. And it’s not that my criticism was wrong: it’s just that being critical kept me in the same place I was before (and feeling cranky) while he learned something new — and taught me as well.
    So, this boils down to another really good strategy for being less cranky is: spend time around awesome people :-) It will remind you what you love about this world… and you could blog about the things you learn.

  23. ssjessiechan says

    Hmm… no tips myself, I’ve been a cranky old man since I was a little girl. But! I LOVE it when you write about things you like. You always give me new perspectives on things I had only looked at in passing, or even on things I love already I feel like I’ve learned something new. And in my constant war to stay positive and not put my eye out with a screwdriver, your positivity is a big help! So yes, please do!
    Of course, I love your negative rants too. I find pretty much everything you have to say fun and interesting, so don’t feel like you have to restrain yourself. Rant away on whatever finds your fancy… but if it meets your fancy, I promise I’ll be interested. ^_^

  24. ErinM says

    I agree that sometimes we slip into too much criticism and not enough cheerleading. I think that might be an inherent danger with blogging. After all, most of us blog because it’s the only place we feel we have a voice. We blog because we see something wrong in the way things are, and want to change it. That slants negative, by its very nature.
    I don’t think it would be too fluffy to be a cheerleader, from time to time. A “This is How You Do It!” angle would be refreshing change, for the writer and the readers. Remind us, as has been said above, that we are “for” something, too.

  25. Ender says

    Well, as I promised, a positive (as in at least, I’m not disagreeing with you) post. Maybe to make up for the fact I might return to your other thread again.
    Unfortunately I don’t think that if you are going to keep on pointing out the things in life that are bad or stupid, that you can avoid becoming a crank. It’s just a fact of life that as we get old our brains ‘solidify’ (I’d assume it’s related to loss of plasticity etc), and we get stuck in our ways.
    If that ‘way’ happens to be criticising ‘stupid’ things, then unless you already follow a rigorous and purely formulaic system for deciding what’s wrong, you’re likely to fall into the trap of feeling that your a-priori are the only sensible ones, and anyone deriving different conclusions from different a-priori are as stupid as those who derive different conclusions from the same a-priori, and end up becoming a crank.
    Now you could avoid all of that by becoming non-critical and flowery and friendly, but is that what anyone would want?

  26. Nathan says

    It’s always easy to find someone who has problems that are much more basic than our gripes with society.
    When you witness people that have a hard time feeding themselves, you can appreciate the simple ability to worry about things like inequality and injustice. It’s a luxury to have the comfort to concern yourself with these things.

  27. says

    woah, am I late reading this! I’ve printed out so many of your posts and have them in my stack of articles to read because I have my life crammed full of stuff. Anyway.
    (I wrote to you a couple of months ago asking if I should marry my wife, and you told me it was up to me. I married her and we are doing SO well! I’m very happy.)
    (except about Prop 8. anyway.)
    This is one of the best posts I’ve read in a long time! And I must say, after having read some more recent posts before this one, I do notice that you’ve written a bit more often about things you like. How does your crank feel?
    I tend to be cranky. I was raised around critical people and I tend to analyze and delve deeply into topics I consider important. And, I feel that it’s accurate to say that sometimes, crankiness is habitual, and I think mine is. I do have calm and reasoned discourse about much that I find important, but I do see that I come out with universal pronouncements about views that aren’t within my slowly more narrowing range of acceptable viewpoints. And then find that those global pronouncements don’t always hold up to reality, nor do they really influence anyone to actually THINK.
    Enter: crafting. You heard me! I started painting, collaging, and constructiing things, started a blog to journal and showcase my process, and have since begun to feel much less cranky and…’judgmental?’ than I have been my entire life. And mind you, I’m much older than I was when I was a cranky girl. That’s a lot of years of habitual opinionated vocal and internally-monologued crank.
    I don’t really know what it is; maybe it’s the supportive art community or the subjectiveness of beauty, or maybe it’s just the awareness of process (which I believe I always acknowledged in any case), but I’ve been able to delve, critique, analyze and discuss in a much more measured and encompassing way now. I guess it’s better, maybe it’s neither better nor worse, but I do know that I’m a lot calmer.
    Now, if all those fucking religious zealots and fear-mongering bigots would have just stayed out of Prop 8, we might be able to get some real work done around here, those bastards.

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