If I Say Jezebel 3 Times Will Something Happen to My Y Chromosome?

Author Empathy: 9
Characterization: 8
Didacticism: 7
Catharsis: 10
Sophistication: 6

Jezebel effing rocks, man. It's a publication with a pronounced--dare I say screeched? (No, I take it back!)--viewpoint that is admirably tenacious in following up on their coverage when called into question. It's no coincidence that usually the following up marches to the tone of "oh hell yes we were right." The simple truth is that even considering the great volume of their opinionation, Jezebel's angle of approach frequently proves to be dead on.

As the above link indicates, I'm focusing on this article by Jenna@Jezebel detailing the backlash against the talents of a 13 year old fashion blogger. The writing in this article is quite capable, it's more than up to the task. The task, however, is the what really elevates this piece: the clarity and sense of justice in the viewpoint is more exhilarating than the sophistication of the prose itself.

This article is so well positioned: a behemoth of the old fashion writing guard (Elle, via its editor) is spearheading a quite ridiculous attack on a tween blogger and the powers at Jezebel, somewhere in the universe of bloggers and fashion writers themselves, have espied the conflict and brought their authority as established big girls to the defense of the little girl. The form this defense takes is an attack on a pillar the old authority. Glorious!

The most killer fact is the close that Jenna@Jezebel finishes with. In fact, it's THE BEST PART:
Jenna@Jezebel in a pseudo-empirical defense of the idea that the 13-year-old writes her own stuff
A quick survey of the writers for this site revealed a raft of early over-achievers. At 13, Latoya Peterson was writing poetry that people assumed she must have plagiarized. Anna North won an essay contest and met the mayor of Los Angeles. I sent a short story in to New Zealand's oldest literary journal, without mentioning my age — and they published it and sent me a check....then [Dodai Stewart] wrote a screenplay, which she imagined would star Bruce Willis. Is it really that preposterous to think that Tavi Gevinson's talents and interests are her own?

I've always thought that a lot of Gevinson's appeal to the fashion crowd relies on the fact that she, with her unapologetic bookishness and self-described intense fashion "fangirling", reminds some of the major players of themselves, at her age. Perhaps this backlash is coming from people who remember how they were at 13, too — and recognize that they weren't at Tavi Gevinson's level of proficiency. Not by a long shot.
  BECAUSE: It might only have had a tinge of vicarious desire to have been like Tavi OR it might have only been a casting of Jezebel's lot in with Tavi's OR it might just have pointed out, by sterling example, the quality individuals that the attitude Tavi's detractors are espousing will NOT lead to. OR It might do all of that in one effective sequence. (Yeah, it does it all.) Also, how often are you able to brag so blatantly without looking bad in the slightest!?


One strange feature of reviewing this article is that, because Jezebel is such a dynamic blog, there are extensions to it. The link at the beginning of my post (and here) is the more extensive addendum but I love the brevity of this one:
"I don't recall ever saying she had a 'Tavi team,'" writes Slowey, who had compared Gevinson to fake author JT Leroy.
 This second sentence of the two sentence post is abruptly vicious in how it counters the vagary of Slowey's statement with declarative fact.  The pace of "Slowey, who had compared..." is more effective than something like Slowey, who definitely is on record having compared....  Some writers would have opted for the more emphatic serving of Slowey but Jenna@Jezebel went the restrained route, underscoring whose side the facts are on.

In this series of posts, Jenna@Jezebel never oversteps her status as arbiter and reporter but uses stylistic techniques to communicate her sense of what little girl is in the right and what big editor is in the wrong. The result is lucid and unflinchingly accurate.

So, regarding the title of this post: Jezebel Jezebel Jezebel-- is that a rush of womanhood I feel!?

...Aww, nuts.          (I know, but I couldn't resist.)


R. Emmet Sweeney's Power of Articulation

Author Empathy:8
Catharsis: 7

When I read film reviews, I operate under the assumption that the critic I'm reading knows more about the general subject of cinema than I do. It's how things should be and even when I've seen the movie in question and think I've caught a slip-up on the reviewer's part it doesn't change my assumption. E.g. in here I pointed out that I didn't think a certain naked sunbathing neighbor was as drop-of-a-hat available as David Denby insisted. Yet my sureness about the scale of knowledge of movies that D.D. possesses remains unchanged. This is how reputations (D.D.'s, The New Yorker's) work and it makes my reading life easier.

So I'm not phased by little discrepancies that run contrary to my assumption simply because of that assumption. Trusting your critic is important. But there is a way to abuse my relative ignorance. By pointing it out. Like a jerk.

Isn't that hypocritical? Accepting that I know less but then becoming angry when someone who knows more articulates the same exact sentiment? How can I increase my knowledge--which I might want to do if I'm going to be such a big baby about it--if I can't stand to witness an authority flexing her brain?

Well, no, it's not hypocritical. I'm only asking that the authority be a bit gentler about flaunting the old grey matter. This negotiation--of trying to show some of your voluminous knowledge for my benefit while not intimidating me into frustration by the very same display--is, I think, the core struggle of teaching. In the terms of this blog it is the struggle to score well in both DIDACTICISM and AUTHOR EMPATHY.

Recently I read a piece that negotiates this exchange sooo fucking well. R. Emmet Sweeney's article for IFC.com, "The Most Subversive Performances of 2009," may actually have tightrope walked my personal limit for how smart an author can show himself to be without costing me an ounce of reading pleasure.

The craziest part, for me, is the beginning: he quotes and summarizes a 1966 essay by some likewise genius movie critic. "EW! GROSS!" was the reaction I expected from my sensibility until I realized how compelled I was by the idea Sweeney has presented. (I'm a big proponent of keeping quotes from decades-old peer reviewed articles trapped in the ghetto of academic writing, you see.)

 It's in delivering on the promise of an idea from 1966 that Sweeney really whirls. Here is a section you might expect in an a very good film review:
Hall oozes his way on-screen with an ingratiating tenor that drawls out corporate double-talk with an ease and smirk that makes everything he says sound like a dirty joke.
That is a description that piques my interest in a movie that I would have maybe seen for free before reading it, maybe. With some brief appraisals of the movie beforehand, Sweeney has done the expected job of recommendation well. But, continuing, he elevates his description to match his pronounced goal:
The key to his performance, though, is the whiplash-inducing quality of his movements. He continually starts in a relaxed position, echoing the molasses-slow speed of his voice, until he lands on a point of emphasis, when he curls up his lip or wields his hands like a pen knife, slashing the air like he's slicing open a patient. These pinprick movements pay off in an astonishing fashion in the final sequence,
It's a methodical breakdown in language with just the right amount of precision. When Sweeney says "the key to his performance, THOUGH," (emphasis via me) he is passively pointing out that THOUGH he just delivered a totally satisfying explanation of Hall's acting he is going to go further. He'll present a sample of what he saw with his professional's eye in the most direct way possible with no critical jargon--just great writing.

Now I would actually pay to see "Gamer." But that's only a side effect of Sweeney's purpose, which is way cooler. More importantly, he rewarded an individual performance with a righteous description of why it is so good. That he helps his reader understand what that quality actually consisted of has the potential to actually further the cause of rewarding good acting by educating people on what that might look like.

And then he does it again with another actor, four more times. This is smart writing with a purpose, and both those combine for a 10 in DIDACTICISM, something unachievable if Sweeney didn't level with the audience he was writing to (i.e. empathize from that authorial place).

As a counterexample, check out this article, which effectively disregards AUTHOR EMPATHY in favor of DIDACTICISM. Even though I initially came to White's review in search of a things to tell my friends regarding why I so disliked "District 9," I know that if I brought up his points in conversation, especially if I used his tone, I would end up punched in the face. (NB: I read this awesome NY Magazine article about White and want to reiterate that it is the hypothetical ME who would be slugged for using his "District 9" argument, NOT HIM.)

All I'm saying is that if I was a betting man and if DIDACTICISM and AUTHOR EMPATHY could be converted into physical weapons and if fights involving such weapons could be arranged and if R. Emmet Sweeney and Armand White could be persuaded into such a bout...well then, I'd put my money on R. Emmet knowing that the odds would bring it back to me tenfold. Hype is a known killer--but White has a true reputation, not hype. Unfortunately, dissing your audience's intelligence can be just as lethal.


Manohla's Maximalism: 8.8

Author Empathy: 9
Characterization: 9
Didacticism: 9
Catharsis: 10
Sophistication: 7

Manohla Dargis’s review of Avatar is such a pleasant read because the form of her prose expresses the feelings she attributes to James Cameron’s film. You can really see this in her last sentence: “He hasn’t changed cinema, but with blue people and pink blooms he has confirmed its wonder.” Here she has started with the stated expectation of the film—to change cinema forever—and parsed it down in a way that plays favorably to the movie’s fantastic form. “Blooms,” for instance, is a great choice over the more common “blossoms” because it suggests that the flowers onscreen are not meant to be flowers but sustained bursts of light shaped after some fantastic flourish in nature—but meant to be a fantastic flourish of cinema.

Not all of Dargis’s article is so discerningly penned, but the moments where it seems moderation was moderated service the message: it’s okay to get giddy about this movie. All circumstances being equal, most writers of editorial essays in newspapers favor short, simple sentences in their first paragraph(s). Now it’s true that circumstances are never equal (a writer’s style is the first thing to upset the balance) but Dargis’s first paragraph is made of three teetering layercake sentences. It’s against common wisdom but I think it works.

Dargis’s review is a great case study of how the way things are written manipulates our sentiments as we read it. To highlight my point I’ll catalog the points where Dargis best manipulates the form of her essay to add excitement. Bear with me, the first quote is a doozy. (The rest will be quicker.)

Graph 1:
Several decades in the dreaming and more than four years in the actual making, the movie is a song to the natural world that was largely produced with software, an Emersonian exploration of the invisible world of the spirit filled with Cameronian rock ’em, sock ’em pulpy action. Created to conquer hearts, minds, history books and box-office records, the movie — one of the most expensive in history, the jungle drums thump — is glorious and goofy and blissfully deranged.
            [All emphasis mine for the rest of this blog post]

You can read my bolding in pairs. Decadesyears is the first pairing and rightfully emphasizes the massive gestation period of “Avatar.” Natural—software is the next and emphasizes the same idea that Dargis points to more subtly in her choice of “bloom” over “blossom”—Cameron is embracing the idea of a hyper-artificial portrayal of things (and that may not be so far from hyper-artistic). Emersonian—Cameronian expresses Dargis’s understanding of where Cameron is coming from but also, I think, the fact that he prizes the audience’s experience over everything. Emerson, after all, wrote many of his speeches sentence by sentence without much care for whether those sentences made perfect logical sense when pasted together. Emerson knew how to thrill his audience on a moment to moment basis.

The last pairing is exciting not because of the meaning of the words but simply how they are arranged. I  bolded “hearts...records” not because it is especially exciting in its form but because it is the traditional way to write a list: with commas. Compare that list to the crescendo of Dargis’s lead paragraph, it comes in her last phrase. Using “and” in a list instead of commas—especially a list in which the last item is “blissfully deranged”—is a go-to method for rallying readers. To prove that simply say “glorious, goofy, and blissfully deranged” out loud then say it the way Dargis wrote it. Which time made you sound more excitable, more blissfully deranged? (This method is called polysyndeton, the “hearts..records” list is more asyndetonic. I’m only providing this information if you’re interested in making your vocabulary more snooty. Some folks are into that sort of thing.)


Graph 2:
“The story behind the story…”
Because: Repetition ties things together and our minds like that. Emerson LOVED that.
“… one still capable of producing the big WOW.”
Because: Using all caps RULES and is hated by prudish writers.

Graph 3:
“…a fast 2 hours 46 minutes,”
Because: Using a direct opposition to assure us that a movie that long actually feels fast delivers the strongest recommendation per word in the whole review.

Graph 4:
“Although “Avatar” delivers a late kick to the gut that might be seen
as nihilistic (and how!), it is strangely utopian.”
Because: Dargis has established how thoroughly she has considered what “Avatar” signifies and can toss in some cheesiness to offset a serious term like “nihilistic.”

Graph 6:
for this is, above all, a boy’s rocking adventure, if one
populated by the usual tough Cameron chicks
Because: You can’t tell but I’ve bolded the em dashes—or, as I like to call them, racing stripes for your writing. Dargis uses them all over in this essay and this is a substantial example of how she perpetuates the readability of her long sentences. Qualifying phrases as asides like this (usually between comma, dashes, and to a lesser extent parenthesis) is called an appositive and is among the only literary critical terms worth using in real life.

Graph 7:
“…he remains bound, contractually and existentially, to the base camp,”
Because: In the midst of a deft summary, Dargis checks in to reassure us that she’s still discussing both what happens in the movie and what it means.
A cartoon of masculinity, Quaritch strides around barking orders like some 
intransigent representation  of American military might (or a bossy movie director). 
It’s a favorite Cameron type, and Mr. Lang, who until this year had long been 
grievously underemployed, tears into the role like a starved man gorging on steak.
Because: Quaritch IS an actual, animated cartoon! He IS a representation of how the military like to be represented! Cameron IS a intransigently bossy director! Saying it’s a favorite Cameron type is a well played jab at Cameron’s ego. The last line is simply well executed, old fashioned simile.

Graph 8:
“…those members of the Michael Bay demographic who might find 
themselves squirming at the story’s touchier, feelier elements,
its ardent environmentalism and sincere love story,”
Because: Dargis efficiently delivers a silly image into our minds. Also, critics who attack problems in the industry even when not treating Bay’s work directly are doing righteous work. Fairly, Bay is relevant because he is the poor man’s James Cameron. Perhaps the master’s return to the scene will banish the usurper—or at least hurt his Blue-Ray sales.

Graph 12:
On the face of it there might seem something absurd about a movie that asks you
to thrill to a natural world made almost entirely out of zeroes and ones
(and that feeds you an anticorporate line in a corporately financed entertainment).
Because: The bulk of the subjects in the review are present here in some way. An unusual use of the word “thrill” highlights the effort needed on the viewer’s part to warm up to this crazy movie fantasy. “Natural..zeroes and ones” recapitulates that pairing from the first paragraph. The anticorporate—corporate bit portrays the problem of Hollywood that Cameron is certainly a symptom of just as he may be, only MAY be, a potential solution to it.

If there is one problem with the whirlwind style of Dargis’s review it would be that there is little respite from her maximalism. It never really becomes a problem, the reader’s focus is never lost, but some variety is lost. For instance, she waxes overzealous in just how many references to other big Hollywood endeavors (but only in THE WORST MOMENT).

It’s also familiar because, like John Smith in “The New World,”  
Terrence Malick’s retelling of the Pocahontas story, Jake has discovered Eden.
Because: Dargis brings other big budget blockbuster aspiring works up in this article but this one seems too tossed in. No one in the English speaking world needs a reference to one of the botched Colin Farrell epics to understand what Eden is.

I’d like to emphasize the small size of this quibble, however, and I think I’ll let THE NUMBERS say the rest.


Unfair Fight: Two Takes on a Teen Assassin: 2.8 vs 8

Ayse Wieting on Rosalio Reta:
Author Empathy: 4
Characterization: 3
Didacticism: 2
Catharsis: 4

Rusty Fleming on Rosalio Reta:
Author Empathy:5
Characterization: 10
Catharsis: 9

Ayse is a documentary film maker who works for the FOX series “War Stories.” (Incidentally, her name is also the product of either some kick ass parental cleverness or something far more lame.) Strangely, as a film maker who focuses on violence and those who commit it, Ayse leads her account of meeting Rosalito Reta by stating that she never thought she would “end up in prison,” especially the maximum security ones where authorities keep…most of the criminals who are convicted of violent crime. Well, despite Ayse’s ignorance about what her chosen profession would entail, she selected a great subject in this instance. Rosalito Reta is a compelling figure of terrifying significance. He was a professional killer who started work at 13. He is also an American citizen.

As it happens, another documentary film maker covered Reta’s story for another major news outlet. Rusty Fleming penned his account for CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 website. Two film makers with snappy names sniffed out the same story and went in with directorial minds and burning questions and came out with two written accounts. Let’s strap razorblades to the legs of these two articles, lay our money down, and through them into the ring! In a metaphorical sense!

Rusty scores the first blow quickly by leading with a rendering of the event that is at the heart of this story, Reta’s story: the boy’s first kill. Compared with the puzzling introduction that Ayse dropped, apparently blind to her own résumé, anyone betting on her breaks into a profuse sweat at exactly this moment.

Oops. Rusty loses purchase with the reader when he plugs himself in a dedicated paragraph, all but musking Reta and screaming “I found him first!”

This is Rusty after introducing his subject but before moving onto why Reta is relevant RIGHT NOW:
Since Reta and I spoke last year, he has been featured in numerous news stories. But I spoke with him about his experience before the mainstream media even knew his name.
Major points here are lost in the author empathy category. Simply relating the facts of your several encounters to speak more profoundly than other reporter’s first encounter is enough. This is a blow to the reading experience after a great lead.

Rusty would have dealt his article a deathblow if his reporting wasn’t so singularly excellent. He moves onto a story of Reta falling out of favor with his cartel (it’s wild, read it) that I could not find covered after hours of scouring every article I could find on Rosalio Reta or his compatriots.

Rusty emerges quickly from the crapper of his vanity because of his massive authority on the subject and a genuine talent for clear writing. Ayse, however, mires herself in contradiction in an attempt to force the story into a prefigured mold. The three paragraph sequence from “Born in Houston…” to “That’s all there is down there” is a phenomenal blueprint for WHAT NOT TO DO as a writer. Against all other facts THAT SHE WRITES in the article, Ayse tries to portray Reta as having a normal childhood—the underlying assumption being that his inherent monstrosity drove him to become a hitman. Yet she leaves Reta’s claim that where he’s from you’re either a cop, a drug dealer, or a cartel man unevaluated. She actually positions this quote, one that contradicts her claim, in such a way that it seems meant to punctuate the story of his life of rejected opportunity. Any claim to logical progression is lost. Ayse simply proves herself wrong about her subject with her own reporting. It’s THE WORST MOMENT in either article.

From Ayse Wieting:
Born in Houston to a hairstylist mother and father who worked construction, Reta said he had a good childhood as one of 10 children. He grew up like any other kid…
…"Where I'm from, if you're not a cop, you're a drug dealer," said Reta. "If you're not a drug dealer, you work for a cartel. That's all there is down there."
BECAUSE: The way Ayse subtly manipulates the way she paraphrases Reta before the ellipsis is exposed by him saying something quite the opposite of what she puts in him mouth. A silly lead is forgivable but this is grossly irresponsible.

Being a thorough liar is important to being a writer. Ayse Wieting, however, delivers here a combination of untruth and un-thoroughness that is shameful. It even makes me think her name is made up!

It was this genuine inability for any story I read—Rusty’s being the thankful exception—to adequately provide coverage of the case of Rosalio Reta that makes his story so engrossing. I’d submit that a reason for Ayse’s atrocious coverage is not just her incapacity as a writer and reporter but her inability to envision a reality in which an American teenager becoming a highly trained professional assassin (and who loves it) is not just one isolated incident. For Ayse, Reta just has to be inherently bad because he was born into the opportunity to be good. This blinder and a reluctance to ask questions on Reta’s terms pervades all substantive coverage of this case that I found (i.e. this, this, this, this, this, this and this). All except Rusty’s for CNN.

Not only is Rusty Fleming’s article on Rosalio Reta the best on the matter, it is the only coverage worth reading. There should have been more.


From Out of Nowhere: 8.2

Author Empathy: 10
Characterization: 6
Didacticism: 8
Catharsis: 8
Sophistication: 9

David Orr? Who is this guy? He’s a staff writer at the NYT and I’ve never heard of him, even by the type of proxy wherein my friends mention NYT writers and I pretend to know them. Based on this first article I came upon by him, however, he is an excellent reviewer!
Ohh, now I see why I haven’t heard of him. David Orr is the poetry columnist for the NYT Book Review. (I dare you to tell me an image involving corduroy, flannel, and dark rimmed glasses didn’t just pop into your head.) Talk about wee readership. It is because Orr scored access to the Novel review section that more folks than average were able to glimpse him in the first week of September, 09. Here he reviews “The Anthologist” by Nicholson Baker.

In my case I found the review via a Google news timeline search for “Meghan Fox” (still work to be done, Google). I was at first disappointed and utterly baffled that Angelina Jolie’s twenties, redux, was mentioned nowhere in this review of a novel about a frustrated poet working on the introduction to a poetry anthology. I quickly found fuel to propel further reading: The best case scenario for a novel about poetry, Orr offers after some playful chops-displaying, focuses on “on the perilous effects of buried alien spacecraft.” I agree David, boy howdy do I agree.

After offering us a dutiful summary of the book’s plot-that-nobody-would-read-it-for, Orr both speaks for the work and lets it speak for itself. This reviewer does a flawless job of defying common expectations of highly literate writers writing on high literature and presents samples that are 100% what he says they are.

As the review wraps up, Orr levies criticism that I think not many people could. He attacks Baker’s superficial rendering of poetic culture as lacking breadth and idiosyncrasy. It’s classily done though, because it comes after heaps of praise and is backed up with specific reasons why Baker is off the mark. We are reminded that Orr knows the poetry world to an extent that would horrify normal minds yet his mind still seems pretty cool. By this point, because of Orr’s deft pen, I believe him for better reason than his extended byline.

But what’s the number one reason to be impressed with David Orr’s review? It actually makes me want to read a novel about a man’s efforts to type an introduction to an anthology of poetry. David Orr is capable of the impossible!

[The Novel’s narrator] can be amiably whimsical (“God I wish I was a canoe”) and then amiably bizarre (“Either that or some kind of tree tumor that could be made into a zebra bowl but isn’t because I’m still on the tree”).
Note my added bolding! A lesser writer would have sought a new word (e.g. cordially, genially, or in the worst case scenario: affably).

While it’s true that Baker charges directly at technical aspects of verse, it’s also the case that these rambling semi-lessons are delivered much in the spirit in which a mildly drunken Penn Jillette might discuss David Blaine’s latest attempt to bury/burn/defenestrate himself.
BECAUSE: I know exactly what he means AND I want to hear that conversation!


The Criteria

The Criteria

Author Empathy:
Many are of the opinion that FOX news owes its existence to author empathy, whether they term it so or not. This category rates the strength of the connection that the teller of the story establishes with the readers. The writers for pundits like Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann have weaved formidable bonds of empathy among their audience. The audience trusts them because they have produced content that displays shared values. The audacity of some of those displays—e.g. O’Reilly’s denouncing of the entire country of France on international television—is a symptom of the confidence the writers have in their knowledge of their audience's values. Risky moves can pay off because a neutral, invisible author will not likely recruit a faithful readership.

Pandering is another name for the form of author empathy I just described. It's more engrossing than neutrality but if aimed at the wrong audience it discredits an entire body of work in that audience's eyes (see FOX again). The best authors can make themselves almost universally empathetic. These writers have a fair chance of gaining the heed even of people who don't agree with their claims or conclusions. They simply provide enough information about themselves and their viewpoints to allow readers to agree or disagree with them but benefit from the read anyway by acting as either a guiding or goading presence.

So here is the general scale upon which I rate Author Empathy:
0-3: The author seemed dishonest and manipulative; assumptions were present that an audience shouldn't be expected to agree with.
4-7: The author was neutral or felt invisible. Better discretion regarding what details their reader wants to know yields a higher score.
8-10: The author made herself known, admitting any imperfection or bias in an honest way and still continuing to deliver an illuminating account that was made better because this writer delivered it. The highest scoring writers seemed to answer my questions about them as they occurred in my mind.

Stories are about people. Even if people aren't present the value of a story is still judged by a person. The things we relate to most in a story are the actors: criminals and victims, athletes, celebrities and their doings, two animals who are mating in a funky way, etc. The actors are the subject of the report. We readers like true details—but they have to be provided in the right context.

Reporters sift through lots of conversation before choosing what quotes to include in an article. This is true of both news (interviews) and reviews (what's recorded in the piece under review). At the time of reading, we cannot know what words didn't make it into the article so we need to see a lot in the quotes that are on the page. If a Nobel prize winning physicist was mentioned as present during a science fair then there better be a good quote from him about the winning project. If not, we have to wonder whether our reporter asked enough good questions of the story’s actors.

So here is the general scale upon which I rate Characterization:
0-3: The important actors in the story are so bland and anonymous they may as well not have names.
4-7: Either we feel the information we have about the actors is incomplete or it seems leading—like the author has only provided us with one aspect of the actor when others seem present.
8-10: We can vividly imagine the actor in the setting. Details of appearance and behavior have been provided and commented upon in ways that satisfy our curiosity and compellingly engage our interest with the subject.

What you learn from an article. This is just as important for reviews as it is for news coverage. A good critic will be able to describe why an effort is good or bad to an extent that will also teach laypeople what some of the criteria are. In hard news the goal is to find out what’s happening at a given time in a given locale with a given subject: clear cut learning. Longer, more editorial articles, however, have the opportunity to open that context up—and should allow a reader to walk away with more relevant knowledge about the subject than would be gleaned from a brief report. If this extent of learning doesn’t happen then why the hell was an article given more words than a simple wire report?

Didacticism signifies, more than any other category, the part of the article that you take away to the water cooler, the cocktail party, or the Parliamentary debate.

So here is the general scale upon which I rate Didacticism:
0-3: I don’t know why I wasted my time reading this article because I learned almost nothing that I didn’t already know.
4-7: This piece was capable, I learned what I set out to learn. It may have been too long when I wanted essential information or too short, leaving me to search for more coverage on the subject.
8-10: The subject illuminated from all angles. I walked away with handfuls of reliable facts on the matter and will be able to formulate an opinion on it without feeling like I need to conceal a completely amateur understanding.

The feelies: the chuckles and tears. Catharsis scores measure how much emotion the article will provoke. Witty punchlines or simply portrayals of hilarious situations up the score substantially. Unadulterated, personal looks at tragedy will drive the numbers up, too. Nothing wrong with a visceral gross-out, either.

There isn’t much to intellectualize here, this is the stuff sensed by the gut.

So here is the general scale upon which I rate Catharsis:
0-3: The lowest scores are reserved for articles that had opportunities to see humor or represent true drama and didn’t—for shame!
4-7: Middling scores will go either to articles that didn’t have much material to work with or made attempts that provoked minor responses that could have been major.
8-10: The most emotionally engaging articles portray the joyful, the absurd, the bleak, and the strange in ways that wrap us up. These examples remind us why we continue to read the human story.

This is the catch-all category for actual pen-to-paper prose technique. Did the author flaunt obscure, lengthy words when there was no need or was the language precise and accessible? Does it seem like the period or the comma was either forgotten or annoyingly worshipped as an itty-bitty inky deity? Does the prose ooze so much style it begins acting like a gel on a comb over or is everything so dry we wish the writer had been shoved into lockers more in high school so he’d learn not to be so eggheaded?

This category can seem intangible at times, especially given that the other four seem to pretty solidly indicate the quality of writing. But sophistication is important to note in the same way that a pit crew who wants to know why their car lost the race wants more than anything to take a look under the winning car’s hood. Writing is a craft and large media outlets too often allow novices to pen their important stuff. On the flip side, there are writers out there whose prose is so good that they make us nit-pickers wish that English-language poetry was alive again.

So here is the general scale upon which I rate Sophistication:
0-3: There is almost no style and no control in the writing. Even if the reporting was good the translation onto the page was noticeably lacking.
4-7: Capable to a lesser or greater extent. The writing that is clear, and maybe even allows a few clichés to sneak in will score in the middle range. Not much style here.
8-10: Writing in a style that contributes to the experience of reading the piece. It’s so good that I can’t tell whether the style was adapted to fit the mood of the subject or the writer was simply the perfect person to cover this topic.


A.O. Scott's Teeth: 8.8

Characterization: 9
Author Empathy: 10
Didacticism: 9
Catharsis: 9
Sophistication: 7

    I said in this review that I thought the New Yorker film review should be the most righteously accurate film review there is. That was a little unfair given that the current holder of that title is another of those heir-apparent rags that are obligated to be excellent in some ways simply because of the size of their reputations. I don’t mean to make the New York Times blush by going on about its size but hell, their film reviews are about as perfect as it gets.
     Partly because an additional dissection of a review of “A Serious Man” will tempt me to reveal too much about a great film and partly because I just don’t want to, I’ll not review A.O. Scott’s review of the same film for the New York Times. Instead I’ll review a piece by A.O. that I think is a useful contrast. The New Yorker article I reviewed was a panning of an effort by established moviemakers who have made a career out of brilliant idiosyncrasy. The New Yorker’s panning was poor, I concluded. A.O.’s panning of a massively different movie—a movie whose incredibly dull attempts at idiosyncrasy A.O. zeroes in on with a vengeance—is a righteous panning.

By “Righteous”
This is what is at stake in this little reckoning between New York- -Times and –er. We all know what “Right-” means, and that is certainly what we would hope all reviews of art (and all reviews of life in general) would be correct. But it’s that “-eous” half that is important. The best reviews are FULL OF RIGHT. Chock full of the stuff, and I say that these two publications should output the most righteous reviews because if we’re chocking something full of Right we may as well fill up the biggest somethings (e.g. publications) we can find. The reputations (and consequent readerships) of these two rags are gigantic. Their size begets so much influence that they, without any concurrent opinion from other publications, can affect public regard of their subjects. For a counterexample of something that can strive for “right-“ but whose reputation is so miniscule that almost zero capacity comes with the “-eous,” look no further than this itty-bitty blog.

 I’m reviewing A.O. Scott’s June 20, 2008 review of “The Love Guru,” starring Mike Myers. (Directed by Marco Schnabel but that doesn’t matter at all.)

    A.O.’s lead offers a conspicuous rehashing of Myer’s career but makes it inconspicuous with a wonderfully quick effacement of himself as someone with a “morbidly obsessive interest in pop-culture ephemera.” Obviously this effacement doubles as an announcement: A.O. knows pop culture better than you and, at least right now, that interest is kind of like that of a coroner who has seen too much death. He doesn’t make us readers feel bad for our inferior knowledge or the weight of his obsession. He gains out trust through some information and a quick joke: you can hardly ask more of a lead.
 This quick review then progresses through a deftly embedded question-answer cycle to a satisfying final answer. Read the sub-800 word review for the answers, here is the underlying procession of questions:
  • Why did we once like Mike Myers?
  • Can he still hack it?
  • Should we be worried about low brow comedy as a whole because of this one excruciating go at it?
  • Is A.O. just too snobby?
  • Should we forgive Myers?
By review’s end, the apparent answer to the final question is HELL NO. This is righteousness in art criticism.      
 If, like me, you’re wondering more about poor Mike Myers, take a look at this piece he wrote for Esquire to promote “The Love Guru.”
     Could you make it through the whole thing? It’s awful, it’s “downright antifunny.”(-A.O.) I was of the core target demographic when the “Austin Powers” franchise started and was in awe of it. “Wayne’s World,” I dug it, I owned a DVD copy of Myers’s best-of SNL. Is this the same guy? Either conclusion: that he was always a lucky schlub who was at times bolstered by others’ talent or that a comedian with a solid knack could plummet so far, seems too painful. I can’t bring myself to turn an eye back to the stuff I blew up in giggles for as a kid, A.O. Scott’s review has already exploded it for me.
     Now that, the chopping up of my long standing notions about Myers, is a result of good writing.
Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not opposed to infantile, regressive, scatological humor. Indeed, I consider myself something of a connoisseur. Or maybe a glutton. So it’s not that I object to the idea of, say, witnessing elephants copulate on the ice in the middle of a Stanley Cup hockey match, or seeing a dwarf sent flying over the same ice by the shock of defibrillator paddles. But it will never be enough simply to do such things. They must be done well.
Addressing the reader’s most probable concerns is advisable when your going beyond the normal function of your writing. E.g. panning an actor instead of just the one movie.
In the meantime talk amongst yourselves.
BECAUSE: Ending with one of Myers’s best catch phrases (from SNL) is a classy way to leave an invitation for the comedian to prove A.O. wrong.