Just visiting

Somebody took a wrong turn.

You never know what you’re going to see looking out your back window some mornings. When I lived on the farm this wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow, but I live right in the heart of the city now. I hope the little fellow made it home.


What killed criticism?

Arts criticism — whether we’re talking about the film and book reviewing you read online or in newspapers or essays in a more academic form —  is going through a period I would describe as worse than a bit of a rough stretch. My own opinion is that it is a genre of writing (separate and independent) that is dying, and it won’t be coming back anytime soon. Since I’ve spent the last twenty years being a critic I’ve had to do some thinking about what has happened. Here are a few of the things I’ve come up with.

(1) Irrelevance: beginning a couple of decades ago we started hearing about certain blockbuster films and books that were “critic proof.” What this meant is that they were going to be successful regardless of what any reviewer thought of them. Since then, this is a phenomenon that has only advanced. Near universal critical condemnation of the Transformers film franchise or the Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight novels has been laughed at, when not met with outright hostility, by “poptimists” (those who believe that commercial success is the only criterion for artistic merit).

(2) Information overload: I remember a book editor once telling me that back in the early 1980s it was possible to read every new Canadian work of fiction that came out. I don’t know if that was really true, but it’s the kind of thing that might be taken as expressing his sense of a now-lost, more innocent, less crowded, time. The fact is, there is no way to keep up with the avalanche of material that comes out of the publishing and film industry today. Especially if you want to do a responsible job. I mean by this that it’s still possible to go out and see every movie that’s worth seeing, but then there’s the background work you have to do. You can watch Psycho and Citizen Kane, but you can’t read everything that’s been written about these classics. And this is a situation that is metastasizing without remission. I love listening to DVD commentaries, but films like Fight Club and Hostel have four each. Then you have to make at least some attempt to familiarize yourself with what’s been written about these movies online. One person can’t keep up. Which leads to . . .

(3) The rise of the hive mind: in order to deal with information and opinion overload various review aggregators bring together as many reviews as they can find and condense them down to a simple score. Think of Rotten Tomatoes, MetaCritic, GoodReads, or Amazon reviews. These sources can be helpful, but they have two unfortunate results: (a) they erase individual voices in a giant whole-population melting pot (no single voice, however expert in its judgment, is worth very much); and (b) they tend to flatten out extremes so that most books, films, and songs end up with scores or rankings in the mushy middle.

(4) The end of evaluative criticism: is this book/film/painting/song any good? For years, answering this basic question has provided reviewing’s reason for being. But starting about a quarter-century ago the universities – the basic training ground for most professional critics – gave up on trying to answer it. “Good for what?” they asked. Everything was relative. Critical attention drifted elsewhere, in particular into the field of identity politics and what Robert Hughes dubbed the “culture of complaint” or victimology. As a result, the principle role of the critic was abandoned. Left without any function or purpose, not to mention audience, critics withdrew further into irrelevance.

(5) The economy: just how many professional critics are there today in Canada? In North America? Not many. It’s another job that has become part of the freelance or gig economy. Decent-paying, even semi-permanent positions have dried up and disappeared along with review sections and book pages. Hard times for journalists and the news media in general is, of course, going to mean hard times for movie and book reviewers. We’re not high on the masthead.

(6) Public indifference: this is either included in or an effect of much of what I’ve already said. For all of the reasons I’ve mentioned, and no doubt others as well, people really don’t care about what critics think, or do, any more. And a lot of the time I can’t blame them. Too many critics have resigned themselves to being little more than writers of ad copy for the system, leading to a massive loss of public trust. Reviewers have, in turn, met this increased public indifference with professional cynicism, leading to a downward death spiral.

Well, should we care? I’m sure most of us don’t, but should we?

I realize times are changing, but I do think something is being lost. I think it’s important that we try to think critically about everything, all the time, and arts criticism is a great way to exercise our critical muscles and to show how it’s done by way of practical, public demonstrations of the critical mind in action. And I don’t think it’s being at all alarmist to point out that it’s a slippery slope that leads from giving up on criticism of the arts to giving up on criticism of just about anything else you can think of. This leaves the field open for anyone with something to sell – whether it be a book, a car, or a political platform – to operate free of annoying counter-voices.

Critics are not expendable or superfluous parts of some bigger machine. Criticism has a function that it should perform with an integrity all its own, as much as some people don’t like to hear that. We need nay-sayers now perhaps more than ever. We need critics, even if we don’t want them. This is why I am concerned about their current endangered status. It’s the weakest of predictions to make, but nevertheless I’ll prophesy that we’re going to miss critics dearly when they’re gone.

The silence of the Internet

This week the popular film site IMDb (the Internet Movie Database) closed its message boards. Apparently this was because commenting was “no longer providing a positive, useful experience for the vast majority of our more than 250 million monthly users worldwide.” I don’t know how true that is. I spent a lot of time reading those threads. Sure there was some trolling, but less than you might imagine, and a lot of the conversations were well informed and informative. Roger Ebert even used to quote from them in his later essays.

I’ve also heard that the message boards made less income from ads and were costing too much to run, which sound like more accurate reasons for shutting them down.

In any event, I’ll be very sad to see them go. A year ago I wrote a post about how large parts of the Internet were turning away from the model of an open forum by disallowing comments on news stories. A lot of the backlash has latched on to the figure of the villainous troll, and how anonymous haters spreading fake news and all the rest of it represent a clear and present danger to civil society. I’m not defending the trolls, but that seems like a massive exaggeration to me, and I suspect it’s just an excuse being used to stifle different points of view. I’ve certainly had comments I’ve made at various news sites deleted by moderators over the years, all of which were just expressions of political opinions (that is, non-obscene, non-personal, non-threatening). Sure there were silly posts on the IMDb boards, but I suspect what’s really happening here is that advertisers didn’t have any use for them and the site operators found them uncontrollable, so they had to go.

Is this the Internet 3.0 taking shape? I don’t like it.

Canada Post humour

I don’t think mail delivery is that boring a job. I’ve never done it, but it can’t be as bad as, say, working on a line in a factory. Even so, I guess mailmen do have to find ways to amuse themselves, just to get through a dull day.

As evidence, I present this:

Well played, Canada Post.

Well played, Canada Post.

As someone who reviews books, I get a lot of books in the mail. Some come in boxes. This box apparently just fit into the small parcel slot in my community mailbox. A very snug fit indeed. Getting it in couldn’t have been easy! Removal, of course, proved to be impossible, even with the use of a screwdriver and other tools. You can’t tell from the picture, but there’s  a lip over the edge of the parcel slot once the main mailbox door is closed, so there really was no way to retrieve the package.

I have to admit, I just laughed when I saw this. Of course, right next to the small parcel slot is the large parcel slot, which was empty (I shone a light in to check). Well played, Canada Post. Well played.

Why buy cold medicine?

I’ve had a cold for the past week. My nose has been so stuffed-up I can’t breathe through it at night, plus I’ve got a headache, sore throat, and I’m always sneezing

Because I rarely come into contact with other human beings, getting sick is something that doesn’t often happen to me. This cold is probably the first time I’ve been sick in over ten years. And it’s been so unpleasant I went to the store and bought some cold medicine.

I didn’t want to. Most colds just run their course and then go away after a week or two. But I wanted to feel like I was doing something because I was really miserable.

But there is no cure for the cold. As the old saw has it, we can put a man on the moon (we accomplished that one quite some time ago, actually), but we still can’t find a cure for the common cold. There are two reasons for this. In the first place, the common cold isn’t a single disease but a general name for over a hundred different viruses. In the second place, since it isn’t a very serious disease (that is, you don’t die from it) there is no financial incentive for drug companies to find a silver bullet.

Which isn’t to say that drug companies don’t make money out of selling cold remedies. They certainly do. The stuff I ended up buying sounded just right: Extra Strength Tylenol Sinus, for “sinus pain and pressure, sinus headache, and sinus congestion.” It cost $8 for 20 pills (12 daytime tablets and 8 nighttime tablets). I don’t know why I even bothered. I mean, I knew it wasn’t going to work because I know that nothing works. And it didn’t work. Three days later I hadn’t gotten any relief at all from any of the cold symptoms I had. None. In fact my cold got worse. I might as well have been eating Smarties.

I might also add that I couldn’t detect any difference between the daytime “non-drowsy” pills and the nighttime “lets you rest” variety. I was actually kind of looking forward to being knocked out by the latter. No such luck.

I don’t mean to pick on Tylenol. I mean, my mother swears by it. And I’m sure none of the other brand names would have done a bit better. But it makes you wonder. Seeing as we all know that there is no cure for the cold, how do such products remain on the market? I mean, they don’t even provide relief from cold symptoms. I still can’t breathe.

Maybe cold medications are like vitamins, most of which do absolutely no good at all unless you have an impossibly bad or deficient diet and you’re in need of some particular supplement.

Seeing as I still have this cold, I suppose I’ll just keep taking all these pills until they’re gone. But I know there’s no point.

The stuff book sales are made of

Today I went to the Tenth Annual Friends of the Guelph Public Library Giant Used Book Sale.

These sales are both fun and a bit depressing. The size of the crowds was impressive, and surprising. The weather was bad and I went first thing in the morning the second day of the sale and the place was still packed with hundreds of people of all ages. This cheered me up a bit, as it was nice to see so much interest in these endless tables of paper bricks.

The depressing part is when you realize that the majority of these books aren’t going to be sold, and that many of them come from the estates of book lovers who have come and gone before us. Finding something to do with the books left behind by a deceased bibliophile is always a problem. Basically, nobody wants them. At one point they were the physical presence of someone’s intellectual biography, but with the passing of that intellect they are largely rubbish. I couldn’t help thinking that I should just have a proviso in my will to have my books burned along with me. I’d have them all buried with me, but that would take a pretty large mausoleum. I guess the best thing to do is to find some way to give them away before you go, but it’s hard to time these things perfectly and you’re still left with the problem of no one wanting them.

There were several tables set up for movies and music as well, including vinyl records and VHS tapes. To my amazement people were buying VHS tapes. I still have a VHS player in my basement, but I thought I was among the very few left. I mean, why would you still be using one? Is there that much out there on VHS that isn’t available in any other format?

There were a lot of DVDs but people weren’t buying them even for $1. DVDs never really become collectible, do they?

Top authors? Robert Ludlum. Lots of Robert Ludlum. Jean M. Auel. Pierre Berton. I don’t have any Ludlum or Auel on my bookshelves (though I used to have some Ludlum). I have almost all of Berton’s books. I grew up reading Pierre Berton and still love those volumes dearly. Every Christmas it seemed there was a new one out (he knew marketing), and the “latest Berton” was always a must-have gift. He may still be my favourite Canadian author. And this is where all that love will end up.

Everyday rudeness #3: Not flushing

Many years ago, in a first-year Introduction to Sociology course, I learned about “cultural universals.” These were the relatively rare social customs that every people in the world, at all times, have respected. Usually they were taboos grounded in some biological imperative. Incest, for example, isn’t good for evolution as it restricts the gene pool. Avoiding coming into contact with excrement, another universal, is basic hygiene, as it cuts down on the spread of disease.

Well, some people never got the memo. Have you had to use a public washroom lately? Why is it that roughly a third of all the toilets in any given public washroom are full of shit or piss? I’m willing to bet they aren’t broken. And yet what could be easier, or, one would have thought, more natural and automatic, than to flush after using them? I’m sure none of the people doing this would leave the toilets in their house full of feces. Why do they think it’s OK to do it in public? Is this the tragedy of the commons?

It’s not just something that happens in the washrooms in bus terminals either. I remember a few summers ago finding the same proportion of toilets in the local university’s library had been left filled. And the reason I’m writing this post is because just this week when I went to use the washroom at my gym, which is a fairly upscale establishment, I found someone had not only left the bowl filled with pee, but, for good measure, had left the seat down and pissed all over that as well.

Why? As I say, flushing should be automatic. Toilet training is a cultural universal, and you do it so many times every day you’d have to make a conscious effort not to flush. And yet many people, not a majority by any means but a lot, simply walk away. Are they marking their territory? Trying to be funny? Or just being rude?