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I’m not a critic by profession, but I am by nature. We all are, unless we are so undiscriminating as to like everything in equal measure.
First of all, I agree with Jason Cherkis wholeheartedly about Dave Eggers (“Novelty Rock,” 7/8). Eggers is, at best, a middling writer who has been fantastically overhyped. Personally, I couldn’t care less about his view on any matter. I’ve no idea who Rick Moody is, but he sounds like a columnist for one of Rupert Murdoch’s dodgier organs. Nick Hornby and Jonathan Lethem are definitely high-second-division writers. Jonathan Franzen is first division. However, let’s cut to the chase and figure out what Cherkis is really saying.
Mainly, he’s jealous that better writers than him have the effrontery to write about rock music. That’s just sooo unfair, right, because it makes his prose look bad. Which actually isn’t that difficult, since his prose is bad. But worse than novelists presuming to be part-time journalists is novelists only writing about what they like! I mean, come on people! Review that Eminem record! Even if it’s unlistenable crap, and you don’t like anything post-1980. As Cherkis himself puts it, “The working critics get marginalized to the back of the book.” Well, diddums.
I think the writer suffers from a belief that’s quite common among his peers, to judge by their output, and that is that in order to critique something, you need a deep knowledge of its cultural context and the competition. So everything is set against something else—“think David Byrne fronting the Shins.” Of course, the professional critic who doesn’t have a novel to write or promote can spend her time listening to absolutely everything around in order, she thinks, to gain the critical armory necessary to do the job.
But that’s not the way to judge art. It either moves you or it doesn’t. If it does, and you have the facility with words to describe it (as certainly Lethem, Hornby, and Franzen do), then the reader may gain an insight into the work prior to hearing it for themselves. Or, in the case of Hornby’s 31 Songs, get a new perspective on old and much-loved/-reviled friends. The writer is also just plain wrong about Hornby’s reaction to Radiohead’s Kid A; Hornby simply admitted that it wasn’t for him. It would have been dishonest at worst, and disingenuous at best, to essay to come up with the goods qua “a critic’s basic job description.” In other words, to pretend a reaction that he didn’t have.
Of course, we readers are interested in what Franzen et al. think of rock music because we like their books. Their sensibilities (insofar as we can infer them from the writing) seem to chime with ours, and naturally we feel an affinity that would be further strengthened to find that they, too, think that Richard Thompson’s Across a Crowded Room represented songwriting of the highest caliber. Since it’s practically written into the job description of all critics, rock or otherwise, that “You will not recognize, nor comment upon, the emperor’s new clothes,” they very often end up as mere poseurs, vying with each other to embrace the outré for its own sake and ignoring anything vulgar enough to contain a melody, or good lyrics, or craft of any kind. By that token at least, for this aging rock fan, they’re unlikely to like what I like or to write about anything in terms that will resonate with me.