Warning: meandering think piece ahead with minimal coherence or argumentation. Proceed at own risk.
One topic that has been on my mind lately is the role of criticism in a digital media environment. My open browser tabs have mimicked this mind set. Some are simply examples, especially in the ritual of reading weekly Lost reviews and conversations. Some are in preparation for my upcoming workshop presentation at SCMS on digital publishing, in which I will grapple with the question “why a book?”
But others are focused on the question of criticism and critics more directly. Like the rest of the internets, I was enthralled with the Esquire profile of Roger Ebert, as well as Will Leitch’s personal recount of his interactions with Ebert. These profiles highlight how Ebert, like all great critics, matters through both his written voice, even as Ebert’s physical voice has been taken from him, and his generous attitude toward their subject matter – Ebert wants to love movies, and wants to share that love with others.
In light of those thoughtful meditations on the life and influence of a critic who has traversed and transformed the multiple media of newspapers, books, television, blogs, and Twitter – as well as influencing the media object of his criticism, film itself – Thomas Doherty’s lamentation on the “death” of film criticism reads as so remarkably wrongheaded. Others have been piling on Doherty, whose published scholarship is generally solid media history but here has fallen into the dangerous trap of “it used to be better in the past”; I’d point to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s comments on Doherty’s post, and blog posts from Chuck Tryon and Jim Emerson for more thorough rebuttals.
What has stuck in my craw in Doherty’s piece concerns the line-drawing between the categories of academic criticism, press criticism, and blogging. Over the few past years, I have found those lines (which Doherty wants to reaffirm) becoming increasingly blurry, especially over my favored object of analysis, television. Television criticism has had a much less rich history than film and literature, in large part due to its lowbrow cultural valuation, but also due to the ongoing process of its textual form – if you write criticism of a television series, where do you start and where do you end? The episodic series resists the unified critical discussion that most art forms embrace, and the publishing environment made ongoing criticism unlikely to flourish – the daily newspaper lacks the space to publish weekly (or daily for soaps) criticism for a series, and the lag time on magazines and journals made it unfeasible beyond just the paragraph blurb in TV Guide or Entertainment Weekly. It’s not coincidental that the most celebrated television criticism stemmed from (and helped define) the so-called “Golden Age” of 1950s anthology dramas, with critical writings treating the individual episodes more like stand-alone plays – which, of course, they were.
We can think of a reductive but useful distinction between criticism and reviewing: reviews help us decide if we want to consume (i.e. read/view/purchase) something, while criticism helps us think about what we’ve already consumed. Before the internet, television reviews typically served to preview an upcoming show, or perhaps assess a recently launched one that viewers might want to consider. Actual television criticism of ongoing series was far more rare – perhaps an appraisal of a series upon its conclusion (series or season), or perhaps a critical account of a show long after the fact from a more academic source.
The internet has changed this scenario enormously. Now there are dozens of active blogs focusing on television criticism. Many are from journalists who write for traditional publications and extend their writings online via the publication’s official site (Maureen Ryan for the Chicago Tribune, James Poniewozik for Time), or on their own personal sites (Alan Sepinwall). Others are online-only publications that feature detailed television criticism on the episodic level, like The AV Club or HitFix. And a few are just dedicated amateurs self-publishing their thoughts, like Myles McNutt (more on Myles later…). The instant publishing environment of blogs allows such criticism to be published in short-order without space constraints, and fosters an engaged conversation in the comments field, making the critical discussion of television arguably more public and robust than ever before.
Alongside this robust online critical sphere, the academic television studies community has taken to the blogs with a different focus. Most academic blogs, including my own, are not focused on overt criticism – at times (especially at the end of the year/decade), we might write-up critical overviews of a number of series, or attempt to offer a critical perspective at the conclusion of a series. But few academics aim for the regular critical commentary of ongoing series or a range of programs with the breadth of the journalistic critics, in large part because of the time that it takes, but also because there is no real reward structure in academia for being an active blogger writing up regular commentary on ongoing series.
The newest platform for academic media criticism is Antenna, a product of my alma mater program in Media & Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin – Madison. Most of the posts there are short reaction pieces to recent news and/or programming in the world of television or other media, designed to provoke conversation and create community. I’ve tried to emulate the online critics by blogging a series, with my weekly Lost Wednesday posts. What I’m most struck by is how hard it is to crank out thoughtful critical commentary each week without feeling like I’m repeating what’s being said at other TV criticism sites. I don’t view such pieces as academic writing, although I try to inflect them with my knowledge of television history and scholarship – although this is by no means exclusive to “academic sites,” as demonstrated by Noel Murray’s excellent discussion of a classic Honeymooners episode at The AV Club.
The place where these various realms seem to come together is Twitter. As discussed in the comment thread of Max Dawson’s recent Antenna piece on TV & Twitter, the practice of TVittering (per Christine Becker) has created a robust real-time critical dialogue across these constituencies of fans, critics, and scholars. The brief 140-character missives of the TVitterati (per me) should not be misconstrued as actual criticism (as I imagine Doherty might rush in to castigate another straw man), but rather a conversation among active viewers with a critical bent, creating a virtual salon for debating and discussing contemporary (and classic) television.
This is not to say that the differences between academics, professional critics, and amateurs are meaningless. Obviously the crisis economics of both the academy and journalism is a good reminder that there are vast structural differences between people who can make a living through criticism and those who cannot. But I don’t see the distinctions between professional and amateur, print or online, or academic versus popular critic, as being tied to quality of insight or discourse – the best of breed in all realms consist of excellent writers offering meaningful insights.
Rather the distinctions seem more tied to questions of access and audience. I’ve been reminded of this in my attempts to secure some interviews with television producers while in Los Angeles for the SCMS conference next week. The few interviews I have been able to set-up have been secured through academic connections, other faculty who know producers and have been willing to help me network. My attempts to cold-contact producers have fallen flat, as I assume the allure of talking with a television academic is minimal. But if I were a journalist, the publicity machine would provide much more access to the industry. Similarly, even though this is a fairly well-read academic blog, my numbers of commenters and page views are minimal compared to the traffic of journalistic and many other critical bloggers.
But while many academics are envious of how journalists can engage with the industry and generate a large readership, many journalists and amateurs long for the comparative respect and potential stable employment open to academics (or at least us lucky few that are fortunate enough to land on the tenure-track). And this returns to the case of Myles, who is a grad student on the road to becoming a television scholar. What does it mean when a grad student has a much larger readership than his professors? How does the academy adapt to scholars who are also critics with a dedicated non-academic fan base? How does a blog like Myles’s function differently than highly-read scholarly blogs by established major academics like Henry Jenkins and David Bordwell?
Traditionally, the impulse would be to draw the line that Doherty and others do, suggesting that limited readership and long publishing delays are an asset rather than a liability. But in today’s media environment, that seems like such an antiquated and counter-intuitive position that will have to change. Alas, I have few insights as to what norms will be established in its place – any thoughts from my (limited but beloved) readership?
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Filed under: Academia, Film, Media Studies, Meta-blogging, New Media, Television | 12 Comments
random thoughts from media scholar Jason Mittell
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