Why Are Today’s Critics So Defensive?

Old television on stand, in front of curtain
Photo: Steven Errico/Getty Images

I’m always puzzled when people strike a posture of defensiveness about their own taste. It’s reasonable when a book or film or artwork you admire is under attack, but lately we seem to be in an age of ambient anxiety about what it means to enjoy things and whether or not others enjoy them, too. There’ve been a few self-scrutinizing essays on the subject pinballing around this week. When Emily Nussbaum writes, “Those of us who love TV have won the war,” I wonder, What war? And who were you fighting? Television has been the dominant medium since its inception. When A.O. Scott writes about rehabilitating the word snob, I wonder why someone who confesses to being a snob would feel any need for the crowd’s validation of his snobbery. He’s a critic of a different kind, but when Fredrick deBoer writes of feeling oppressed by an online culture that misreads James Baldwin, I wonder why he seems to invest so much authority in his Twitter feed.

I suppose I’m a snob, not that I care if anyone thinks so. But then again, I actually like a lot of trash — I listen to a lot of late Aerosmith and early Van Halen — and I don’t consider myself some kind of cop policing what others enjoy. Critics carry pens and keyboards, not guns. A critic could never force somebody to read a book rather than watch television, or vice versa. Taste, however much it feels determined by the conversations and arguments swirling around us, is ultimately a form of freedom. On the matter of television, I haven’t lived with a functioning one for more than a few months since I left home in 1994. I have a Rip Van Winkle relationship to the medium. I’m still always astonished that ads are now broadcast for pills that enable better erections, and whenever I happen to catch an episode of a television show that’s been hyped as something new, I’m disappointed to find that it’s just another sitcom or workplace soap-opera or costume drama, usually with higher production values. I binge-watched Breaking Bad last winter and thought it was about as good as one of my old favorites, Magnum, P.I. Too bad there weren’t recappers around in the 1980s, though if there had been an internet, I’m sure there would have been. In general, I think a lot less has changed about these things than people tend to think. If the lovers of TV have won a war, it’s a war with themselves, and they’ve won by giving themselves permission to take TV seriously in public.

People who enjoyed what were once known as guilty pleasures have absolved themselves of guilt. Arguments that people should be ashamed of lower-order tastes — like Ruth Graham’s attack on adults who read young-adult books — are actually quite rare. Yet anxiety about all this is pervasive, as if everyone’s high-school English teacher were lurking around the corner, ready to scold us for skipping Middlemarch on the summer reading list.

Nussbaum frets about product placement (now called integration) polluting the purity of her favorite programs. She knows TV entertainment has always been commercial at its core and dreams that it could transcend its transactional nature. But she also seems to feel a little guilty or uncomfortable, as a TV-positive critic, lamenting commercialization when she knows — and lucidly explains — that it’s basically TV’s original sin. She invokes George W.S. Trow, resists endorsing his classic essay about television’s effects on American culture, “Within the Context of No-Context,” but comes to identify with his rage about the triumph of the trivial and the celebrity of Coca-Cola. But I think her resistance to Trow is misplaced. “Much of Trow’s essay, which runs to more than a hundred pages,” she writes, “makes little sense. It is written in the style of oracular poetry, full of elegant repetitions, elegant repetitions that induce a hypnotic effect, elegant repetitions that suggest authority through their wonderful numbing rhythms, but which contain few facts. It’s élitism in the guise of hipness. It is more nostalgic than Mad Men ever was.”

It’s true that if you pluck a line or a paragraph from Trow’s essay, his abstract style defies sampling (though I’m about to do it myself). Trow’s is a difficult essay that creates the terms by which we understand it. I think it’s a misreading of Trow to call him a nostalgist, even a declinist. His project was descriptive, and he was an avant-garde unto himself. His ideas about television have a lot to tell us about life under the internet. Does this sound familiar?

The comfort was in agreement, the easy exercise of the modes of choice and preference. It was attractive and, as it was presented, not difficult. But, once interfered with, the processes of choice and preference began to take on an uncomfortable aspect. Choice in respect to important matters became more and more difficult; people found it troublesome to settle on a mode of work, for instance, or a partner. Choice in respect to trivial matters, on the other hand, assumed an importance that no one could have thought to predict. So what happened then was that important forces that had not been used, because they fell outside the new scale of national life (which was the life of television), began to find a home in the exercise of preference concerning trivial matters … In this mist exists the Aesthetic of the Hit.

The Hit, the favorite, whatever you like. Doesn’t this sound like a description of the comfortable and comforting online cultural consensus these critics are variously uneasy about? In Trow’s last book, My Pilgrims Progress, he writes about what he calls “the Assumed Dominant Mind” of the culture, and traces its movement from the New York Times to MTV (this was the 1990s, mind you). Today, of course, the Assumed Dominant Mind has migrated online and morphed into a hive mind formed on social media. But it’s nothing new.

In a response to Nussbaum, deBoer mourns the absence of a cultural resistance that prizes difficulty in the manner of punk or modernism. But if such cultural forces are really absent, then their return is probably, dialectically, inevitable, in fact, possibly right around the corner. Nussbaum sees signs of resistance on television in Mr. Robot. A.O. Scott cites his love of Mad Max as evidence of his snobbery, but in what possible world could enjoying Mad Max make you a snob? If actually difficult movies are being made on such a scale in the form of raucous adventures that don’t skimp on the blood and dirt, can things be so bad? In literature, difficult novels still appear every year, and many of them grapple directly with the world as it is under the internet. (Others are difficult while ignoring that world entirely.) That’s to say nothing of the perennially difficult and controversial world of avant-garde poetry. If these aren’t the sort of things everyone’s talking about, perhaps that’s because it’s easier to talk about television. Maybe that’s why all these critics sound so defensive.

Why Are Today’s Critics So Defensive?