Monday, September 01, 2008

Making Sport for My Neighbors

It's always funny to see what does and does not gain traction online. When I posted my review of the October/November issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I expected that responses to it would revolve mostly around the general negativity of my reaction to the issue. Instead, it was my response to the magazine's nonfiction content, and specifically to Lucius Shepard's review of Iron Man, that's got some folks talking. Early yesterday someone on the Night Shade Books bulletin board, where Shepard is a participant, posted a link to the review, sparking a discussion which has, in turn, led to a, shall we say energetic, post by Shepard on The Inferior 4, the LJ he shares with Elizabeth Hand, Paul Witcover, and Paul Di Fillippo.

I seem to have raised Shepard's ire firstly by calling the Iron Man review mean-spirited, which he has taken as a personal insult. I'm frankly puzzled as to how the trip from point A to point B was achieved, but obviously I'm sorry to have given offense. (It's interesting, however, that both Shepard and the person who initially drew his attention to my F&SF piece have fixated on what was actually an ancillary point rather than on my main complaint against the review, which is that it is dated, tired, and contributes nothing new or substantial to the conversation. If I had a time machine I'd go back and delete that sentence, just to see whether, though such an alteration would change very little about the post in general or my criticism of Shepard's review in particular, the current tempest would still have erupted.) Secondly, Shepard is irate because "People who try to intellectualize their opinions about pop culture piss me off. The truth is, pop culture is shite and the most effective way to undermine it is to lampoon it viciously."

The belief that there is something wrong or at the very least wasteful about taking pop culture seriously is hardly unique to Lucius Shepard (hell, it often seems to characterize every professional television critic out there), but it is somewhat perplexing to hear it stated so baldly by someone who has just recently published several thousand words on a pop culture phenomenon. That Shepard's Iron Man review is as insubstantial as it is, I must therefore conclude, is entirely intentional, and in fact if I take his meaning correctly it is only permissible to write about Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Deep Space Nine or any other pop culture artifact if one isn't trying to engage seriously with it.

"if we want to see more good movies, then we ought get nasty with criticism." Shepard says in the comments to his Inferior 4 post. "Nasty and cheap and down in the dirt just like Hollywood's gotten with us. That's been my agenda since day one...not that I'll effect much, but maybe somebody with a more populist voice will dig something I say and run with it, and maybe a good movie will result." I agree wholeheartedly with the first part of this statement. Pop culture reviews should get nasty. The mainstream press has been letting Hollywood get away with ever more stinky piles of manure, and serious reviewers should call creators and producers to task for this, but I don't care for Shepard's variety of nastiness, which is dismissive, thoughtless and shallow. To my mind, it is no more constructive than the kind of review that gives films like Iron Man a pass because they're just populist entertainment. Both approaches assume that popular culture isn't worth getting invested in. I've written nasty, indignant, and irate pieces about pop culture before, but in each one of them I've tried to engage with the work in question. In each case, the reason for my anger was that I truly believed, and still do, that there is no excuse for such failures, that pop culture can and should and will be better.

The idea that the kind of vicious lampooning Shepard champions could ever lead to an improvement in what's coming out of Hollywood strikes me as absurd (please note, I am saying that the attitude is absurd, not the man himself). Sure, it would be nice to think that one day Aaron Sorkin or Ronald D. Moore will read my blog, fall to their knees crying "she's right! She's right!" and fly me to LA or Vancouver or wherever they make the magic happen to act as their personal arbitrator of quality. In the real world, however, the only people I'm ever going to reach are consumers of pop culture, and the only thing that the kind of reviews Shepard calls for can possibly achieve within that group is to maybe get some of them to turn away from pop culture. And where will that lead us? If smart, thoughtful people stop watching TV or going to blockbuster movies, the stupid or inattentive viewers will simply become a larger majority, and Hollywood will have an even greater motivation to cater to their degraded tastes. Refusing to engage--either by turning away or by obviating any chance of a meaningful conversation--will never change anything.

I write seriously about popular culture because... well, because I love popular culture, and writing about it makes me happy, and this is my blog and I'll post whatever I want on it, and there's a whole internet's worth of other options to choose from if that's not something you care for. But on a more intellectual level, I write seriously about popular culture because I hope that my thoughts can persuade other people to take popular culture seriously and to expect and demand more from it. I truly believe that studio-produced films and network television have the potential to be good and even great--that there are, in fact, many examples of good and great films and television shows out there--and the only way that I can see to encourage quality and intelligence in these media is to encourage the perception that quality and intelligence are possible, to take pop culture seriously in the hopes that some of its creators will begin to do the same.

This, I imagine, makes me the enemy, as far as Lucius Shepard is concerned, but of the two of us he's the one who's drawn a paycheck for deliberately substandard work on a subject he feels nothing but contempt for. If you think pop culture isn't worth writing seriously about, then don't write about it. But if you choose to put pen to paper about a certain subject, then have the decency to write to the fullest extent of your abilities. Your readers deserve nothing less.

UPDATE: Shepard responds.

18 comments:

Tredegar Trafalgar said...

This is actually the third time I've seen Mr. Shepard go off like this against people who dislike his movie reviews. It's clearly something he's very touchy about.

TM said...

"Why should we take popular culture seriously?" leads inevitably to the question "why should we take culture seriously?". It seems to be a question of the death or waning of taste, of how criticism can retrieve the meaning of something for someone, and express it, without resorting to idealist or ideological evaluation. I find history funny in this regard. In the sixteenth century there was no question of good or bad taste; no one would ever stand in front of a painting and ask themselves "am I looking at this in the right way?" or "is HE looking at this in the right way?". That idea wouldn't even come up to be dismissed. Isn't that absurd?

Nicholas Tam said...

"But on a more intellectual level, I write seriously about popular culture because I hope that my thoughts can persuade other people to take popular culture seriously and to expect and demand more from it."

Ironically (or not), the reason I read your blog is that it demonstrates how taking popular culture "seriously" translates to calling it out on its pseudo-sophisticated trompes d'oeil, where most would be content to say, "We're satisfied - it's just pop culture, after all."

It's a vicious cycle. If we hold pop culture to low standards, it won't have any reason to improve as long as the money flows. If it's rubbish, we should call it rubbish, but not dismiss the possibility that it could be something more.

Katherine said...

Why not take pop culture seriously? I think the ones who don't are the ones with a case to answer. By definition, "popular" culture is that culture that is accessible to the largest number of people -- which makes it important no matter what its content may be, and makes it all the more important that those who comment on its content should take it very seriously indeed; and that, ideally, its content should be as good as it can be given the constraints under which it is made.

Lee said...

I read your blog, at least intermittently, precisely because you take both pop and literary cultures seriously and are able to move seamlessly between them - and lots of other places too. Do I often disagree with you? You bet!

In my view Shepard's review failed because it didn't meet my first criterion of a good review: to give enough information about what is being reviewed to enable a potential reader/viewer/listener to decide for themself whether to give it a go. A lot of barely literate blathering that says 'look at me, lookie, lookie' rather than offer any incisive commentary. There are plenty of reviewers I read for the quality of their voice rather than their opinions alone, but Shepard is no John Self or Roger Ebert.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

By definition, "popular" culture is that culture that is accessible to the largest number of people -- which makes it important no matter what its content may be

Katherine, that's a very good point, and one that I wish I'd made in the original piece. We live in a world where judges reference Jack Bauer when making decisions about legalizing torture, where the Left Behind books get dragged into election ads. Can there be any question that popular culture is shaping the way people see the world and themselves? And given that, can there be any question that it is vital to consider it, and its effects, seriously?

Foxessa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Foxessa said...

BTW -- His español is incorrect: it's via con dios.

His attempts to be hip and reference cultures not his own are the most tiresome of all. But then they were pretentiously tiresome when he was young too.

Foxessa said...

It's easier to lampoon, it's easier to be negative than it is to think and be thoughtful and, hopefully, help other people to think and be thoughtful too.

It's not so easy: thinking-analysing-checking references AND writing good, clear, easy-to-read prose too.

daverxt1 said...

I'm new to posting on these blogs, but I just want to say that I really enjoy reading your posts. Keep up the good work.

Bob said...

Popular culture is what it is. Trying make it better is trying to control. Smacks of censorship. Analyze it all you want, if it makes you happy, just don't mistake that for doing something important.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'd say there's a boatload of vast generalizations in that comment, Bob. Trying to improve something is trying to control it? Maybe, but why is that a bad thing, much less censorship? What a terrible world we'd live in if everyone recused themselves from doing anything to improve any part of it.

Define 'something important.' I believe that popular culture is important, and that it is important that we take long hard looks at it and what it says to and about us. Is your point that reviewing pop culture isn't as important as ending world hunger? That's clearly true, and just as clearly meaningless.

Bob said...

Popular culture is art made with modern technology or modern ideas. The main difference between art now and then is availability. Criticism is always a step removed, although sometimes criticism transcends itself and becomes art say Pauline Kael or Edmund Wilson or is entertaining like Siskel and Ebert. You were criticizing the critic, what's the point? F&SF pays Shepard for his opinion. If they wanted criticism that transcends criticism they'd hire Fredric Jameson.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

You were criticizing the critic, what's the point?

I believe I've answered that question quite comprehensively in both this post and the original F&SF review, though since you seem to think my complaint against Shepard's review is that it didn't 'transcend criticism,' I'm wondering how closely you read either one.

Bob said...

Once you publish something you no longer control it. Whatever you or any writer intends is irrelevant. It's up to the reader to interpret as they see fit. If I were to say your writing is elitist, empty rhethoric, you might think I was making a poor attempt at irony, try to teach you a lesson. I'm not. You use the royal we as if you speak for the masses. What crap.

You apologized, you said you weren't criticizing the critic then told him his work was dated and added nothing to the conversation. What conversation? Where is this conversation located? Oh I know, remember Chaucers Reeve's Tale, the conversation between the miller and two students:

"Such as it is you're welcome to your parts.
My house is small, but you have learnt the arts
And by your arguments can make a place
A mile in width from twenty feet of space.
Let's see if there is room, or else you may 4125
Make room by using words as is your way."

By the way Chaucer was more than just that character in another Heath Ledger movie. Now you might think I'm talking down to you but I'm not, I'm talking down to your readers. And being ironic using a dated quote no longer part of the conversation

Did you see Serenity, remember the scene about trying to make humans better. Mal don't like it - Quit trying to make us better.

Anonymous said...

Bob isn't even a good troll. :(

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Dear Bob,

I promise not to try to make you better, as I suspect such attempts would bear little fruit. Please stop commenting on this blog.

Bob said...

Okay, but first I want to apologize, I got more and more angry because I felt I was being misunderstood, but upon closer reading of yours and shepards blogs (as you had said) I see I had nothing to offer and definitely off topic. I used poor timing and poor preparation to enter the world of blogging. I went back and read your first archives and see that I misunderstood you and acted quite the ass. I have all these ideas about popular culture zooming through my head I have a hard time making myself understood. Again I apologize to you and your readers who I also insulted.

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