Generous Critics

Last night I got into an interesting back-and-forth with my friend Matt on Facebook about Roger Ebert. Matt was arguing that Ebert wasn’t a “discerning (read: critical)” critic, which he later elaborated on by saying that he “gives positive reviews to a lot of dreck”; also, because “he has a sliding scale that reviews films relative to the rest of their genre”; also, because (and I didn’t know this) “he gave Godfather III a better review than Godfather II.”

I countered by saying that Ebert was a “generous” critic, an adjective I had to try twice to flesh out, as it just sort of came to (and made sense to) me without putting much thought into what it actually meant. Here’s me fumbling around for an explanation:

  1. “Granted, [Ebert] maybe comes across a little soft on TV, but I prefer to think of that as ‘generosity,’ which is something I never take for granted in a critic–someone who can see beyond the obvious. (For instance, I think he’s right in placing so much emphasis on actor’s looks; it’s an essential part of movies, and most critics are too ashamed to admit it.)”
  2. “I don’t really explain ‘generosity’ well: Ebert’s the sort of critic that is willing to acknowledge the good stuff you often get in bad movies. So, by pointing out something that works in an otherwise negligible movie (a particular performance, say, or some of the camera work–whatever), he may come across as not all that ‘discerning,’ or perhaps too easy, but in fact, I’d say he’s being more discerning. He’s digging further into the movie and looking beyond what is just plainly lousy about it. So he ends up sometimes saying positive things about second rate movies–but I don’t think that’s all he does, he also acknowledges what’s bad. “

To be honest, this was one of those arguments in which we were both probably over our heads a little. I don’t think either of us has actually read enough of Ebert to talk knowledgeably enough about him as a critic, though I’ve read enough of him to at least argue that you don’t really get the best of Ebert on TV, and that the Thumbs-Up/Thumbs-Down thing is the most meaningless and unfortunate aspect of that program (reducing critical judgments to grades is one thing; reducing them to either-or choices is ridiculous).

I like the idea of a critic being “generous,” and I think my second attempt at defining it isn’t too far off the mark of what it means. But I decided to go on a brief Google excursion to see how others use the phrase “generous critic.” Here’s a few interesting examples:

  • From a review of Peter Singer’s The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush, by Paul Mattick in the New York Times: “Singer is a generous critic. In discussing Bush’s reverence for life, evidenced in his opposition to stem cell research, he constructs the most plausible arguments possible against the sacrifice of unwanted embryos, to demonstrate convincingly how unsustainable they are. But he can hardly help observing that Bush’s ‘culture of life’ cohabits jarringly with his enthusiasm for capital punishment and readiness to inflict civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. Singer is led, on issue after issue, to a double conclusion: Bush’s views are not intellectually defensible, and his behavior shows he doesn’t believe in them anyway.

The definition of “generous” seems reasonable enough: “construct[ing] the most plausible arguments possible” about an idea to demonstrate why the idea is ultimately flawed. Trying not to disprove the other side’s case, but to prove it–in order to (ultimately) disprove it. I think.

  • From a review of Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays by Joan Acocella, George Fetherling writes: “There is a piece on H.L. Mencken [hey, it’s Mencken! sorry – Ed.], a subject that is beneath her, but such are the demands of journalism. Mencken had only one idea in his life but it was really only a notion and, what’s more, a commonplace no serious person could disagree with: that culturally the United States is mostly a society of (a favourite Mencken word) boobs. Writing of him, she is quick to point out that Edmund Wilson ‘was Mencken’s most generous critic‘–a touching fact, for Wilson was almost as far left as Mencken was far right, and though he was fifteen years younger, he was Mencken’s competitor.”

Let’s see, ‘generous” here meaning overlooking personal differences and setting aside one’s ego to critically explore a competitor’s work. (By the way, I know only slightly more about Edmund Wilson than I do about Mencken: is this left-right political split really true? it seems a bit too simplistic, perhaps?)

  • A fan commenting on IMDB about the movie Shi mian mai fu writes: “Normally, I am a pretty generous critic, but in the case of this film I have to say it was incredibly bad. I am stunned by how positive most reviews seem to be.
    “There were some gorgeous shots, but it’s too bad they were wasted on this sinkhole of a movie…”

Interesting. Immediately after declaring himself un-generous, this anonymous poster follows up by saying “there were some gorgeous shots,” which would seem at first glance to dispute the notion entirely–he is perhaps not giving himself enough credit?–but he does go on to slash away at the rest of the movie regardless.

  • From a letter to the London Review of Books: “How, Michael Wood asks, could Gong Li’s character in Miami Vice fall for Colin Farrell’s Sonny Crockett (LRB, 17 August)? Good question. ‘It’s not that Farrell isn’t attractive,’ he goes on. Isn’t it? Well, Wood has always been a generous critic, but I’d say one of the big problems with Miami Vice is precisely that Farrell isn’t good-looking enough to star in it–especially alongside Gong Li, Jamie Foxx and Naomie Harris. He just hasn’t got the bone structure.”

Here, a critic’s generosity is subtly used against him–“Wood has always been a generous critic” having an underlying tone of “this is of course to be expected from Wood,” no?

  • Somewhat closer to home, the generous rock critic, Frank Kogan, recently wrote on his Live Journal: “The New Republic, on the other hand, was a committed liberal-left intellectual magazine, so what [Otis] Ferguson is doing in that context is pretty extraordinary, looking at Hollywood for its art as well as its bullshit (the two quotes above may seem aimed at the bullshit, but in general you’re getting a generous though critical embrace of the subject matter that reminds me a lot of Lester Bangs and Tom Ewing on music). “

(You’ll have to click through to see the quotes Frank is referring to.)

Subject for further exploration: how “generous” a critic was Lester Bangs? He’s not the first critic that comes to mind necessarily when I think of the concept (of his ’70s peers, I would suggest that Christgau is the most generous of them all, given that his interests and his breadth seem more boundless than anyone else’s–he seemed to make that his life’s work). No doubt, however, that Bangs was exceedingly generous with his intellect–but every great critic is that, right? Even a rock critic I would absolutely say is not generous in the sense that I’m mostly talking about here (which, as you may have determined, I’m still working out), Joe Carducci–who I’d go so far as to call “stingy”–the very antithesis of generous–is not at all un-generous in the many insights he brings to the music he cares about in Rock and the Pop Narcotic; but he’s an un-generous critic in the sense that he is also a very dismissive critic.

  • In “Critiquing the Critics,” a top 10 list of classical writers (published in Time Out New York), no less than four of the prized critics are described as generous. Alex Ross is called “our most generous, high-minded and serious critic. ” Allan Kozzin is described as “serious, sober, generous and broad-minded.” Justin Davidson is said to write “witty, earthy prose expressing an engaged and generous but circumscribed mind,” while Steve Smith is “vivid, generous, eclectic and thoughtful, with an ever more elegant and involving style.”

I’ve noticed before that “generous” is a term liberally applied in the classical world. Not exactly sure why.

  • Elaine Showalter on Hermion Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton: “Lee is out to understand Wharton, not to vilify or sanctify her. She gives a much fuller account of Wharton’s working methods than anyone has before, looking at manuscript revisions, and at Wharton’s many tantalisingly unfinished stories and novels. She seems to have read everything Wharton wrote, and all that has been written about her; and she is a discriminating and generous critic who offers full, fresh and incisive discussions of all the novels and scores of the short stories.”

Generosity as a quantified measurable–Lee provides a “fuller account” of Wharton than others, has “read everything Wharton wrote,” etc. And by inference, I suppose, puts all of this background work into her critique.

  • As a critic, Edgar Allan Poe laid great stress upon correctness of language, metre, and structure. He formulated rules for the short story, in which he sought for the ancient unities: i.e., the short story should relate a complete action and take place within one day in one place. To these unities he added that of mood or effect. Poe was not extreme in these views, however. He praised longer works and sometimes thought allegories and morals admirable if not crudely presented. Poe admired originality, often in work very different from his own, and was sometimes an unexpectedly generous critic of decidedly minor writers. “

The implication here being that Poe was such a generous critic–generous with his time, for instance–that he expounded on writers whose work was presumably not taken seriously by less generous critics. Perhaps Poe was writing of himself here?

“The generous Critic fann’d the Poet’s fire
And taught the world with reason to admire.”


2 thoughts on “Generous Critics

  1. Haven’t read or seen much of the guy in about a decade, but I’d say he’s a good critic, in that he gives good reasons and cites what he sees, and I’ve never thought he was over soft. He likes some stuff I don’t like and dislikes some stuff I do like. Surprise.

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