The Critical Economy (correspondence from Richard Riegel)

Richard Riegel writes:

“I’m really impressed with Jennifer Szalai’s review of a collection of Dwight Macdonald’s criticism, in the December 12 issue of The Nation, the paper version of which I still subscribe to. It’s a good discussion about Macdonald himself, and his concepts of ‘Midcult’ and ‘Masscult,’ but Szalai’s comments about the current state of criticism are even better for our purposes. She’s talking about literary criticism, of course, but a lot of what she says applies to rock criticism & its fade too. I’d been thinking all along that ‘we’ were being hollowed out by the general economic decline, and that’s exactly what Szalai says here, especially in the two paragraphs I’ve excerpted below:

If one were to point out that the wider authority of literary criticism is barely discernible today, one could hardly be accused of courting a controversy or kicking up a fuss. There certainly is a coterie of Americans for whom literature and its criticism is a matter of urgency or livelihood or both, but the notion of the literary critic as a cultural gatekeeper, whose judgments shape tastes and move units, sounds either fanciful or anachronistic, depending on whether you believe that such a creature ever really existed. Our culture is now so big and so varied, the population so diverse and so fragmented, that the very idea of anything or anyone having “wider authority” sounds silly, if not absurd.

The critical landscape has since been denuded of a whole class of reviewers — the professional critics for those many newspapers and magazines that have cut down their books pages or else eliminated them. Optimists have pointed to the proliferation of online reviews as an indication that criticism is flourishing, but the payment for most reviewing these days is meager to nil. When writing a review becomes a diversion instead of a vocation, or else an arena for book authors to horse-trade and log-roll—the literary world’s penurious equivalent of the financial world’s “revolving door” — then reviewing will list toward clubbiness, bitterness or mushy praise. There are clearly some brilliant exceptions, and even a few determined critics who make a living from reviewing; but like the society of which it is one minuscule part, criticism has largely become a winner-take-all profession. Those who wonder what happened to criticism should wonder what happened to the economics of it.

11 thoughts on “The Critical Economy (correspondence from Richard Riegel)

  1. Thanks for your comment, Steve. I was more concerned here about the virtual collapse of professional rock criticism in recent years, but I’m also interested in taking a new look at “our” creation myths, so I have both the Avery book on Paul Nelson, and James Wolcott’s memoir on my to-read list. I’ve heard good things about them from another rockwrite colleague.

    Almost hate to tell you, though, but I agree with a lot of what Paul Nelson wrote about Patti Smith. I first learned of her when CREEM published a selection of her writings in early 1973. That was my favorite mag at the time (or ever), but I found Smith’s writings so unbearably pretentious that I quickly dashed off a vicious, sexist parody of her style, which I bylined “Patsy Spliff.” Lester Bangs was going to include it in his “SCREEM” parody issue of America’s Only Mag, but that project never got off the ground.

    When Smith went r’n’r a year or so later, I started liking her a little better, as the bombast of her words was finally balanced out with the bombast of electric guitars, and I thought her four Arista LP’s of the ’70s were pretty good after all. Still, Patti Smith’s fatal flaw for me is that she’s never seemed to develop much of a detectable sense of humor, and that’s exactly when you need to keep those guitars roaring, so that the b.s. meters will stay out of the red zone.

    You can tell Paul Nelson was really influenced in this piece by his early pal Bob Dylan (“Dying Swan Motel,” etc.), but what he gen-gap seems to miss in dissecting Smith is how she stuffed way too many of the worst pretensions of her heroes the Rolling Stones into her own badass-poet persona. That’s where Lester Bangs came in again, as he could both celebrate and then skewer Jagger AND Smith, giving us the 3-D critical portraits we really needed.

    Incidentally, my now-nearly-39-year-old parody of Patti Smith still makes me laugh, so I may unleash it on the internet yet.

  2. I didn’t totally disagree with Paul on Patti Smith, actually; I love her, but even I’ll concede she has a very sizable bullshit quotient.

    And speaking of a bullshit quotient, this NYTimes review of the Paul Nelson book is beyond reprehensible.

    I owe its author, David Hajdu, a lot, professionally, but the words I would use to describe my reaction to it are “spitting mad.”

    Anybody know if there was a personal score being settled here? Because I can’t think of another reason to call Paul Nelson a Nazi because he never wrote about Joni Mitchell.

  3. Thanks for bringing that to my attention, Steve.

    Wow, “reprehensible” is certainly one way to put it. In case anyone can’t get past the NYT firewall, here’s how the first paragraph reads:

    “Paul Nelson, a propagandist committed to some dubious values, had a gift for imbuing disreputable, even dangerous ideas with discomforting grace. You might almost say he was the Leni Riefenstahl of rock criticism. One of the first writers of the post-Elvis era to take the popular music of his time seriously, he never liked black music and thought the blues were overrated, negligible in comparison with the work of overtly cerebral and conspicuously poetic artists of the ’60s and early ’70s like Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne. Nelson revered Browne. He subscribed, both in his writing and in his life, to the macho outcast myths of noir movies and pulp fiction, and he seemed blind to the importance of the great female artists nearly absent in his writing, like Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin. Nelson loathed the music of Patti Smith. ”

    “The Leni Riefenstahl of rock criticism” — I can’t decide what’s worse, the fact that Hadju wrote that or the fact that some editor at the NYT let it pass. (Even the title, “Bad Boy Rock Critic” is a joke — not even remotely in line with the Nelson that emerges in the book that I read.) That the rest of Hadju’s piece is somewhat milder in tone does not excuse this drivel.

  4. Apparently, if you don’t write about Joni Mitchell, you’re a Nazi collaborator.

    Like I said, I like David, and I owe him personally, but that piece is so beyond the pale I don’t even know where to begin.

  5. Hadju’s review has been bothering me too.
    First off, Paul Nelson was right abou Patti Smith. I always found her stuff shitty.
    I know she is considered too cool for school and important to like in rockcrit circles but who gives a shit?
    Calling Nelson a Nazi because he didn’t like Patti Smith or Joni Mitchell?
    Or black music or jazz?
    A Nazi?
    So what does that make a black music critic who favors hip hop or black artists?
    Can’t a culture critic have his or her favorites and tastes?
    Hadju’s review smells like a stretch for the negative to be contrary. The book has gotten rave reviews from almost everybody. Hadju’s review had to stand out.
    I guess it has.
    Am I biased? Probably. Doesn’t mean I’m wrong though.

  6. A critic who aims to be serious and is willing to be tough, in the name of seriousness, has be willing to take to tough criticism himself or herself. I’m not going to get involved in a debate over my piece on the new Paul Nelson book. I stand by the piece. As I wrote, I consider Nelson an important writer who helped establish the field that we all practice. He elevated the art he criticized, and he wrote beautifully. I recognize and appreciate that, while also recognizing (without appreciation) the facts that Nelson had little regard for black music, little interest in the actual music he wrote about, indifference to women (for the most pat), and a treacherous attachment to the tropes of the male heroism. He was a complicated figure, and I tried to confront the complications in his work. I never met him and had no agenda in my piece other than confronting the facts of Nelson’s work and their meaning. Best to you all,

  7. David —

    Thanks for your comment, as your first-hand clarification of your review is exactly what we need here.

    At the outset, let me clear the deck of any possible “agenda” of my own. I read and liked your biography of my fellow Ohioan Billy Strayhorn back in the ’90s. And now I can thank you for impelling me to go ahead with purchasing my own copy of Kevin Avery’s book, rather than waiting for it to show up at the public library, so that I could try to see for myself where your relative negativity toward Paul Nelson had come from.

    Though we obviously knew some people in common (notably Lester Bangs) during my own years as a rock critic, my only contact with Paul Nelson was that he was apparently the editor who published the one record review I ever sent to Circus magazine. I rarely followed his own writings, which seemed old-folkie/previous-generation to me, compared to the Bangs-Meltzer school of rockcrit I pursued.

    The aspect of your review which has most disturbed me is your sensational comparison of Paul Nelson to the German filmmaker and of course Nazi accomplice Leni Riefenstahl. To me,”Nazi” similes and metaphors are used much too often in American pop culture. As someone of predominantly German ancestry, someone who’s forever looking for further symbolic ways to desecrate Hitler’s evil grave, I want “Nazi” reserved for the actual thugs of the Third Reich. I wouldn’t vote for Newt Gingrich if he were the last candidate on earth, but to me he’s not a “Nazi” by any stretch of the imagination, albeit a latter-day right-winger.

    Now that I’ve read Kevin Avery’s book, I find your comparison of Paul Nelson to Leni Riefenstahl even more troubling. How exactly was Nelson a “propagandist” of “disreputable, even dangerous ideas”? He may have preferred music and movies with white male protagonists, rather than blacks or women, but this was his expression of his personal taste rather than an endorsement of some dogmatic conservative doctrine. And I have great difficulty in regarding someone who walked away from his job as record-review editor at Rolling Stone, and then from his proposed bio of Neil Young, as a “propagandist” — a true propagandist wouldn’t throw away such influential outlets.

    After reading and giving some thought to the biographical section of Avery’s book, I’ve been wondering whether Paul Nelson’s apparent tunnel vision in appreciating only white male protagonists wasn’t yet another aspect of his obsessive-compulsive disorder. Someone who had to have hamburgers at every meal, and wouldn’t eat at all if they weren’t on the menu, may have felt similar rigidity about exploring artists outside his comfort zone. To me, that makes Nelson a sad character whose “dangerous ideas” harmed only himself. And once again, how exactly did that make him a “Bad Boy” of rock criticism?

    In conclusion, this Kraut-ancestried commenter finds a nice irony in your choice of Leni Riefenstahl as the specific dangerous idealist with which to tar Paul Nelson, as after escaping a serious postwar sentence for her collaboration with the Nazis, Riefenstahl spent many years living with and photographing the Nuba and other African peoples. I’ve always wondered whether her latter-life embrace of black Africa was at least partly driven by her guilt over her earlier celebrations of the racist Nazis. Thus, to compound the irony, Riefenstahl actually did some of the racial penance you evidently wish on Nelson. Getting Fraulein Leni to listen to Aretha Franklin’s records might have been a stretch, though.

    Thank you again for acknowledging this discussion thread, David. I would appreciate it further if you could not “debate,” but rather address, some of the questions I’ve raised above.


  8. David:

    I take you at your word that you had no agenda other than confronting the facts of Nelson’s work and their meaning; not only that, I don’t completely disagree with you about the “tropes of male heroism” in Paul’s stuff. That said, a fondness for Sam Peckinpah movies and a disinclination to write about Joni Mitchell are hardly the stuff of National Socialism.

    Steve Simels

  9. We all write to be read, I assume, and it’s gratifying, if humbling, to be read with the same kind of scrutiny that we aim to apply as critics. I appreciate Richard’s comments, and I take seriously his objections to my use of Reifenstahl as a metaphor. To help crystalize my thinking on Nelson, I wanted to cite the example of another genuinely great and important artist with bad ideas, and the best example I could think of was Leni Reifenstahl. I think now that the example of a different artist would have done a better job of crystalizing my point, rather than confusing it.
    I feel that some of the core ideas in Nelson’s work are not just wrongheaded, but dangerous. It’s hazardous to the cultural climate to diminish or dismiss black art, and it’s hazardous to aggrandize men (or male myths) at the expense of women. I’m hardly being radical here!
    Nelson was a groundbreaking critic who elevated both music criticism and music itself. He wrote beautifully, with conviction. He’s a complicated case, and I tried to address the complications in his case.

  10. Maybe the strengths and weaknesses of Mailer would inform a better comparison, re contiguous limits of Nelson *and* (Jagger/Rimbaud/Spillane fan) Smith. (Of course, Mailer wrote/published much more than either, to good and bad effect; also, no matter how much you just hate a Patti song, it’ll be over a lot sooner than any of Mailer’s bad books.)(Speaking of books, pretty sure if Nelson ever had written his contemplated detective novels, would have been hardboiled-romantic, in a way his editorial acuity might have found creaky: so, in that sense covertly agreeing, to some small yet indigestible degree, with likely late 20 Cen blowback—now, of course, might be promoted in terms of quaint vintage charm, by several imprints).
    Firefox keeps ditching my tabs, so can’t link xgau’s “Pioneer Days,” on Nelson and Willis, but here’s an apt paste:
    “It’s to his immense credit that he recognized the literary cowboy under David Johansen’s glam, and certainly his tastes ranged wider than his big pieces suggest. But those tastes were very narrow for a major critic. That’s why I came away less taken with his reviews than with his magnificent Warren Zevon profile and Clint Eastwood interviews,*which would mean far less without their critical underpinnings.*”(emphasis * mine, natch). Xgau goes on to mention missing the unwritten Neil Young book, and wishing PN had written more of the Bangs collab on Rod Stewart (I’m looing fwd to Conversations with Clint, put together by Nelson biographer Avery). He made himself work hard, and at best work smart, to earn the right to honor his heroes.
    Also, “his tastes ranged wider” in terms of risking his label job for the Dolls, who certainly flashed back and forth across the color as well as gender tracks, and of course in terms of liking the Stones (though equally obviously, you can tell both bands are as white and male as the Beastie Boys, or Florida-Georgia). Also, his early affinity with Dylan, who stuck his neck out past the refinements of Seeger (and chartoppers like the Serendipity Singers etc) by ricking his flukey major label debut with covers of very rough blues singers (what one accomplished African-American musician and BB King fan of my acquaintance *still* calls “that hole-in-the-wall stuff”). Dylan, who’s usually been pretty bluesy when he’s busy being any good at all. Nelson also had the ear to edit the famously “no-blues” Velvet Underground’s Live In Texas ’69, including some fascinating Times Square afterhours strobe lights roots workouts (Lester Bangs quoted a female label exec on Moe Tucker: “The drum is not a femine instrument,” but her original Bo Diddley sinspiration gets a long leash here, esp. when she and the boys roll though “What Goes On”). Rough Edges, Nelson’s Sir Doug compilation, is just as much of an indelible trans-whatever portrait of its roving artists and editor (PN in both categories).
    But as a reviewer, in her sense, Patti Smith’s writing in Creem encouraged me much more than his in Stone. (And she continues to make satisfying music, esp. if you like to respond vi mentally editing some of her calls)(mentally in whatever sense)

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