The better it gets

the less it’s worth

A history of 20th century media criticism


Publishing critical thought in a newspaper or a magazine or a well-funded website is like mixing a suspension of particles of some useful substance inside a bland, inert medium. The substance and the medium cannot together make a clean, coherent solution, but the substance needs the medium in order to be carried out into a wider readership. Critical writing is often counter-cultural, anti-consumerist, and complicated, yet its publication depends upon media that are funded by advertising and allergic to complexity.

The history of criticism is a history of this suspension — the medium of commercial publishing diffusing out the substance of transformative ideas. These incompatible materials were briefly mixed, and then spent half a century settling and separating out. The same historical tragedy plays out everywhere: the critical substance of writing becomes more coherent right at the moment that the medium of publication becomes more homogeneous. The better the critics get, the less money criticism makes. The more money gets invested in the objects of their criticism, the less risk advertisers can take on publications that won’t simply publish product guides. This is the current situation of games criticism, and indeed of most fields of media criticism.

I’m going to tell the story of how this ill-fitting business model was formed, and how it started to fall apart for three kinds of media criticism that rose in the 20th century: film criticism, TV criticism, and rock music criticism.

The early years: media magic

Newspapers started to publish film criticism in the US and UK at the end of the 19th century, starting with pieces about how exhilarating it was to go and see a moving picture. At the same time, industry journals sprang up, beginning with a technical focus on the magic lanterns and the other moving image tools that were emerging into the market. By 1915, these trade journals and newspapers had moved on to incorporate regular features reviewing different motion pictures and evaluating their merits. In both cases, criticism was funded by advertising.

At this early stage, it was essential for a successful critic to be good at hustling for fame and money as well as being a skilled writer. One of the first film criticism sections in the US press — in the New York Dramatic Reader — was written by one Frank E Woods, who worked in advertising and moved on to work in cinema himself. Robert Sherwood was another early film critic who became a powerful media personality in his own right. He started with a weekly column reviewing films in Life magazine in New York. Everything was a skilled PR maneuver: even his wedding was attended by big film stars in a bid to show off his media power. He went on to write well-reknowned screenplays, and won perhaps more Pulitzer prizes than any individual in American history.

Mid-century: Reviews as a commodity

It was as a result of these early critics’ efforts to establish their own value in the greater industrial machine that “film critic” became an established job title. For a brief time, critics were in demand. In “the great studio era” of the 1930s and 1940s, lots of films were being made, and people wanted their newspaper to tell them what to go and see. Reviews were something that newspapers competed with each other over, trying to offer criticism that their readers would value.

Meanwhile, a growing cadre of intellectual writers developed criticism as an art form. Some were advancing a high-modernist art form, praising masters from Europe. Others used film criticism as a lens for journalism about American society and culture. Manny Farber started work during the Second World War, writing stylistic topsy-turvy prose in examination of cheap films that, he felt, got to the heart of American life. “The best thing that can be said of a critic is that what they write is so singular and interesting that you can’t turn it into advertising,” critic Jonathan Rosenbaum said of Farber’s work in 2009 documentary For the Love of Movies. “You can’t even tell if he loves the movie or hates it — it doesn’t matter!”

The development of artistic criticism created a fissure point between the goals of writers and the needs of newspapers. Film critics started finding their work underfunded and undervalued by the newspapers that hosted them, treated as a gift to advertisers rather than valuable writing in its own right that should be protected from the interests of the newspaper’s funders.

Criticism started budding around this time for TV as well. New York Times TV critic Jack Gould was one of the foremost advocates for the emerging medium, but was focused on live drama performances, a topic that appealed to upper east side intellectuals. This style of television quickly declined, and by 1958 he was saying that there was nothing left for critics to discuss.

Populists and auteurists

In 1961 Television Age criticised Jack Gould’s elitism, saying that he would “despise anything that is popular” and that nothing he was writing was relevant to the majority of Americans. This division between populism and ‘serious criticism’ underpinned the way that many media were discussed in the 1960s. Cinema critic Pauline Kael became a film critic for the New York Times, praising films that were often maligned by the critical consensus and defending the idea that popular art was valuable and didn’t need to adapt itself to meet the tastes of a high art elite.

At the same time, this was “the golden age” of cinema, supported by directors and critics ever more interested in the artistic potential of the cinematic form. The French journal Cahiers du Cinema developed auteur theory, the idea that the director has more influence on the spirit of a film than anybody else. Focusing on the work of the director helped critics and readers to understand what gives a film its unique feeling, separate to its screenplay or the acting. It also elevated the director to the role of an artist — with many Cahiers writers also being directors of art films, auteur theory was a way for these writers to form identities for themselves that supported their craft and career. Andrew Sarris and Jonas Mekas took this approach to the US in the Village Voice, using auteur theory to show that cinema was a legitimate artistic medium.

Early in her career, Kael called out this application of auteur theory as little more than “an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence”. The way these critics used auteur theory wasn’t about art, according to Kael: it was about ego. The auteurists certainly acted like their egos were bruised: even half a century later, critics such as Sarris who were featured in For the Love of Movies dismissed her as a frivolous gossip, insinuated that she was a flirt, and insulted her appearance. Discussions of Kael’s leanings toward populism were flavoured with sexist insults and an insinuation that she wasn’t doing serious writing.

This tension between a drive to defend popular art, and the desire to lift up the tastes of the public and push for a better art form, was even harder to shake in TV criticism. In the 1970s, highbrow programming resurfaced on PBS, feeding critics hungry for something substantial to talk about. John J. O’Connor championed this for his 25-year tenure at the Times. He had a preference for British imports like Upstairs, Downstairs, and was dismissive of the “paucity of imagination” of American TV, despite this being a time that many memorable US shows were being aired.

Meanwhile, a new generation of magazines was rising in part thanks to the ascendancy of a different kind of populist media criticism. “Rock criticism was the backbone of the most successful magazine startup of the late ’60s, Rolling Stone,” wrote music critic Robert Christgau in 2008, “It was a staple of the nascent alternative weekly business, de rigeur in short-lived lifestyle monthlies like Eye and Cheetah, raison d’etre in such fanzines-going-commercial as Paul Williams’ seminal Crawdaddy, Robert Somma’s cerebral Fusion and Dave Marsh’s gonzo Creem.” Rock music criticism columns were featured in The Village Voice, Life, The New Yorker, Saturday Review and Esquire.

The countercultural bent of rock music gave its critical writing an edge. It looked at a populist art form and took it seriously. It blended auteurist approaches with embedded social commentary. It was relevant and exciting, and film criticism was quick to learn from it.

Countercultures and subcultures

Against the backdrop of the Vietnam war and the student protest movement, film criticism became political, analytical and ambitious. The alternative press in Boston in particular has been credited as a great home for film criticism at this time. If populism in the 1960s had established that media criticism didn’t need to be about tastemaking from on high for the improvement of the masses, the subcultural critical movements of the 1970s showed that it could be part of the effort toward raising something up the grassroots.

As cinema criticism learned how to be political, rock criticism learned how to be pragmatic. Jon Landau, who started at Stone, was managing Bruce Springsteen. Rolling Stone adopted an auteur theory perspective that played into marketing of rock personalities. It established to the mainstream press that media criticism could be a media empire in its own right, and as a result there was more uptake of rock criticism at the major newspapers. This didn’t simply mean that rock criticism was going mainstream: the mainstream was increasingly interested in the subcultural.

Companies started to learn how to nurture subcultures around their own products, with Star Wars becoming one of the first media franchises to have a fandom associated with it. Into the 1980s, technological changes played a role in this too: with video, people could watch and rewatch movies from years hence, causing a dramatic shift in patterns of consumption and reducing the relevance of reviews focusing on the week’s cinematic releases. Photocopying made it possible for anybody to produce an amateur fanzine, publishing commentary and criticism that could speak to people with the same niche set of interests as themselves. Professional critics had to reconsider their role.

TV also became more niche, with different channels on satellite television allowing more TV to be made for more specialised demographics. In response to the increased competition from niche DIY publications, British newspapers built out their lifestyle sections to appeal to sought-after demographics, which became a new home for TV criticism. “As TV and press went niche, so did the critics.” Paul Rixon argues that from this point on, critics were there to give postmodern reviews, putting media in conversation with the reader’s desired subcultural lifestyle and identity.

The growth of niche culture didn’t just allow criticism to respond to media: media could also respond to critically-minded niches. Indie rock and alternative music developed in part thanks to a conversation with critical writing. Music critics were becoming proficient at discussion what makes a thing matter, when you’re not interested in commercial success as a benchmark. Critics’ music became a staple part of the industry: an REM album was more likely to receive press coverage than a disco album that might sell more copies. This turn away from populism in favour of high-minded artistic discourse came at a cost: as Christgau points out, the exclusion of disco from 1970s and 1980s critical writing reflected a subtle racism about whose work was truly art.

The end of monoliths and the rise of megacorps

With the rise of the internet, amateur critics got greater access to readership, and the professional critics were ever more aware of them. Harry Knowles was one of the first online critics noticed by the studios. “I’m an important piece of the advance buzz of a film,” he remarked in For the Love of Movies. More recently, in Buzzfeed, Anne Petersen argued that online TV criticism “exploits the boundlessness of the internet”, building up writing that is in-depth, fan-centric, and generate loyal followings who can then talk back on Twitter.

There is no longer a monolithic “popular culture”, and that’s a good thing. As Knowles pointed out, if anyone can become a critic, then that means critical thinking has spread — people increasingly know not just what they like, but why they like it, and they don’t need to be talked down to by a cultural expert. Older critics can come off as not just elitist, but jaded, spoiled and out of touch. As print media lost money to an increasingly fragmented audience, many of these established critics were retired in favour of younger models. Younger writers who came up through the internet were able to generate audiences of their own, and had an affinity with the films being released that didn’t appeal to the slow-paced, methodical sensibilities of the old guard. But the new media business has not been rosy for younger writers either: as print media’s business model began to break down, these newly-hired critics were often the first to be fired.

The media business is demanding not just a different kind of writer, but a different kind of writing. Christgau phrased it well with regard to music criticism: “Rock criticism’s literary dimension has been squeezed hard by a design-driven journalistic marketplace where print is seen as ‘gray’… Even in the alternative press, the drive to transform ‘arts coverage’ into ‘entertainment guide’ is visible everywhere. Only on the web, where the few critics with paid gigs suffer similar strictures but hobbyists enjoy more latitude, are the gonzo first-person and the med-harangue tolerated.”

Many of the alternative presses that used to house some of the most groundbreaking criticism were bought up by the media conglomerates that own the daily newspapers, which then fired the salaried critics in order to cut costs. In the past few years we’ve seen the same happening to blogs that were similarly brought into big, efficient commercial machines: talented writers get laid off right as they start hitting their stride, so that the same site can generate the same amount of traffic with a team of younger, cheaper writers supplemented by freelance pieces.

Criticism is struggling not under populism, but under an extraction economy whereby huge companies buy out media resources, make them run as cheaply as possible, and consolidate the resulting profits at the top, without investing in growing something of quality that will actually contribute to society.

Web’s broken business

In his book on the history of TV Criticism in the UK, Paul Rixon asks: If everyone can speak equally easily and find any information at all, why do we need critics? Why listen to a critic when you can just as easily spout your own useless opinions? His answer is that a critic can help you to read the things you love differently, rather than simply telling you what is worthy of your attention. “To parse these pieces of art, whether in the form of The Real Housewives or Pretty Little Liars or Game of Thrones, you need someone willing to see the once denigrated as the now important and, by extension, worthy not only of proper copyediting, but sophisticated writers at the very top of their game, befitting a publication of its stature.”

Online distribution of TV is starting to lead to further niche-ing of what is produced: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says that the same site means different things to different users, appearing wholesome to conservatives and edgy to liberals. Despite this all-things-to-all-people demand of a scalable business, and despite the fact that this goal could be achieved simply by acquiring content made at someone else’s financial risk, original content is becoming an important part of the business, as the only way they can ensure that they offer something that truly cannot be gotten elsewhere.

Similarly, writing on TV appeals to small lifestyle niches even more readily than in the 1980s. Yet the same importance is not given to funding good quality original content in critical writing. The reason for this is not solely that, since anyone can write on the internet, the value attached to the work is lower. Anyone can make videos too. The problem is that while Netflix and their competitors can fill out most of their service with old content already published elsewhere that is being sold cheaply, online publishers of written content need to constantly produce new content. Everything is original content. This means that in order to keep the business sustainable, all new content has to be cheap to acquire. In contrast, Netflix’s strategy is having a cheap bulk of old content funding a service that can then afford to spend money on a smaller number of expensive originals.

Criticism as unpaid internship

Increasingly, critical writing exists to promote the writer as a source of wisdom for hire — typically the desired hire would be by a publication which will then limit their ability to write at length, and/or will fire them to cut costs as soon as they become too valuable. Another way to sell one’s intellect is to join academia — the hope is always that serious criticism can become truly robust by baking in the colossal kilns of the ivory tower. Yet academia is its own suspension, with the substance settling to the bottom with the grad students and the adjuncts while the money floats to the top. The risk of personal financial ruin for critics is there regardless of where they turn.

For over-qualified experts with no permanent source of support, the answer to the extraction economy is often consulting. A small number of attempts to build small consultancy firms out of niche critical publications have succeeded: for example, Church of London is a media agency that publishes magazines and does bespoke work for big corporate clients. They promise an affinity with culture that is available for purchase at a number of different price points: buy their magazines, buy their books, buy their services. I recently joined Silverstring Media, a small, young company that is built on a similar premise: support critical writing, make niche original projects, sell consultancy services.

If this is the only way forward for critics who need to make a living from their unique skills, then this takes us back to the early days of film criticism, when critics had to establish themselves as powerful players in the media industry — not journalists, but consultants and creatives. Criticism was viewed in For the Love of Movies as a job: middle class, salaried, nice work if you can get it. The requirement for entry into paid work was a proficiency at writing about culture. It captured a moment that had already passed. Already it is almost as if the job of the critic had never existed.

For media critics today, the writing itself isn’t the job anymore. Criticism is the unpaid internship of consulting. I worry that a successful critic is one who no longer has the time to write.

References

Jerry Roberts, Awake in the Dark: a Complete History of American Film Criticism

Variety Film Criticism 1907–1920 http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015028985441

For the love of movies, 2009 documentary

NAJP, “A history of rock criticism” http://www.najp.org/publications/conferencereports/140-167criticalpers.pdf

Buzzfeed, “Why is the Times TV criticism so bad?”
http://www.buzzfeed.com/annehelenpetersen/times-criticism-so-bad

Paul Rixon, TV Critics and Popular Culture: A History of British Television Criticism

NY Times, “Netflix is betting its future on exclusive programming”
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/20/business/media/netflix-is-betting-its-future-on-exclusive-programming.html?smid=re-share&_r=0