I recently read "My Disappointment Critic," a short essay by Jonathan Lethem in The Los Angeles Review of Books (November 7, 2011). I particularly appreciated the four quotations Letham prefaced his piece with. The first of these was drawn from "The Perils of Pauline," a consideration of celebrated film critic Pauline Kael's career by Renata Adler. In 1980, when Adler published the essay in The New York Review of Books, her dismissal of much of Kael's criticism divided readers. But whatever one makes of Adler's Kael-specific critique, the excerpt Lethem picked out is unassailable.
“The job of the regular daily, weekly, or even monthly critic resembles the work of the serious intermittent critic, who writes only when he is asked to or genuinely moved to, in limited ways and for only a limited period of time … What usually happens is that (the staff critic) writes for some time at his highest level: reporting and characterizing accurately … and producing insights, and allusions, which, if they are not downright brilliant, are apposite … What happens after a longer time is that he settles down. The simple truth — this is okay, this is not okay, this is vile, this resembles that, this is good indeed, this is unspeakable — is not a day’s work for a thinking adult. Some critics go shrill. Others go stale. A lot go simultaneously shrill and stale. A few critics, writing quietly and well, bring something extra into their work … Some staff critics quit and choose to work flat out again, on other interests and in intermittent pieces. By far the most common tendency, however, is to stay put and simply to inflate, to pretend that each day’s text is after all a crisis…”How does a critic avoid going "shrill and stale"? Art bloggers, who often feel the need to write about the same "crisis" several times over the course of one day, are especially at risk.
A week before I read Adler's diagnosis of critical slump, I'd finished Atul Gawande's most recent New Yorker essay, "Personal Best." (Does anyone else wonder just how Gawande does it? He's a highly regarded surgeon, a professor, a staff writer for the New Yorker, a federal health-policy advisor, and just about 101 other things!) Gawande begins his essay by admitting that, as a surgeon, he'd reached cruising altitude.
"I’ve been a surgeon for eight years. For the past couple of them, my performance in the operating room has reached a plateau. I’d like to think it’s a good thing—I’ve arrived at my professional peak. But mainly it seems as if I’ve just stopped getting better. [...] Over time, you learn how to head off problems, and, when you can’t, you arrive at solutions with less fumbling and more assurance. After eight years, I’ve performed more than two thousand operations. [...] As I went along, I compared my results against national data, and I began beating the averages. My rates of complications moved steadily lower and lower. And then, a couple of years ago, they didn’t. It started to seem that the only direction things could go from here was the wrong one."Gawande surmises that surgeons, like athletes and singers, could benefit from good coaching. To test the idea, he recruits a coach of his own.
"Since I have taken on a coach, my complication rate has gone down. It’s too soon to know for sure whether that’s not random, but it seems real. I know that I’m learning again. I can’t say that every surgeon needs a coach to do his or her best work, but I’ve discovered that I do. [...] In the past year, I’ve thought nothing of asking my hospital to spend some hundred thousand dollars to upgrade the surgical equipment I use, in the vague hope of giving me finer precision and reducing complications. Avoiding just one major complication saves, on average, fourteen thousand dollars in medical costs—not to mention harm to a human being. So it seems worth it. But the three or four hours I’ve spent with [my coach] each month have almost certainly added more to my capabilities than any of this."So, I wonder, why not have coaches for critics, too? Certainly, a good editor is a kind of coach, and today every other comment-leaving reader seems to know what the critic could have done better and or how she got it wrong, but I'm thinking of another dynamic, a relationship that is more coaching specific. What if critics coached one another? For example, I could plow Critic X's work for flow, strength of argument, original thinking, and all the other elements we desire of critical writing, then provide X with a thoughtful response. X could do the same for Critic Y. These relationships would surely help the coached writers, but they'd also benefit the coaches. Acting as a bullshit detector and whip-cracker, the coach is likely to carry an invigorated critical capacity into his or her own writing.
Still, as Gawande points out, "the greatest difficulty...may simply be a profession’s willingness to accept the idea. The prospect of coaching forces awkward questions about how we regard failure." True, but our culture is also a invested in results, and good ones will change skeptical minds.
Image credit: Sylvester Stallone and Burgess Meredith as boxer and coach in "Rocky," United Artists, 1976