Dull

“Mean” and “serious” criticism were discussed at last night’s star-studded and utterly, appallingly disappointing panel on women in arts criticism, Sharp, at Housing Works last night (May 8, 2013). Are women critics more reluctant to be mean? Are women getting a chance to write serious criticism?

At one point, as the panelists, accomplished women all, were congratulating each other, someone noted in passing how it was once the way of young critics to make their mark with an initial excoriating salvo: a “mean” review to make your name, and then, a career.

Ladies, allow me.

And yet, mean is really beside the point. In fact, throughout the evening, I found myself thinking of Henry James, a sharp writer, who also said “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” I value kindness as highly as James. However, it is being neither mean nor unkind to call out an event for failing to deliver on its promise.

Kate Bolick got the evening off to a particularly inane start by asking, rhetorically if her gravitating to the midcentury women critics (Hardwick, McCarthy) was indicative of her unconscious feminism--or was it sexism? Because, her hypothesis went on, they didn’t have to deal with feminism.

At that, I should have thrown my beer can on the stage and left. Those midcentury New York women are sharp as tacks because they had to figure out how to navigate the peculiarities of a Patriarchal Landscape for Literary Journalism (let’s call it the PLLJ) in the 1950’s which differs in texture from the PLLJ that Virginia Woolf faced in London in the 1920’s and 1930’s or what we face from the PLLJ in the early 21st century.

That texture was what was consistently missing over the course of the evening. Kael, Hardwick, and McCarthy were invoked. Sontag was mentioned--and at the mention of her name, I longed to summon her ghost to march up on the stage and sweep everyone off it with her grand white forelock. Vague things were said in praise of their sentences, their beautiful sentences. But not one beautiful sentence was quoted--and, in fact, on several occasions specific essays were cited for their great language and then paraphrased. People: quote the words, cut to the clip, it’s not good enough to hum a few bars and call it Beethoven, to say, “Then, Hamlet has this amazing speech where he’s thinking about whether or not to commit suicide, and he really, well, you know, it makes you think.”

As for serious, again, the wasted promise of all that talent on stage and a genuine disagreement, was infuriating. Laura Miller spoke against serious criticism, by which she seemed to mean pretentious, snobby, only-highbrows-need-apply stuff; Miriam Markowitz, by contrast, spoke for the serious, really deftly explaining how The Nation wants its reviews to eschew the consumer model and be about ideas, and how she is heartened to find women pitching her idea-driven reviews more an more. But why was it only at the end that they began speaking about a lively intellectual culture? It would have been nice to hear that word a little earlier. A long digression on how frustrating the marketing of books has become is hardly interesting to a roomful of people who know too well that tale.

The event was described in ways that gave me such hope:

Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael… In spite of abysmal byline counts at many publications, the English speaking world has a rich tradition of women critics of books, music, film, and the culture at large. Join some of today’s celebrated women critics for a spirited discussion of the women they’ve been inspired by, the challenges of being a woman of sharp mind and pen, and the question of whether women have a distinct purpose as critics at all.

I had hoped to hear more about these women, about the particular struggles they faced. Gossip. Anecdotes. Bracing tales to help me gird my loins as I try to pitch more mainstream publications. It would have been great if the organizer had assigned each of the really talented, smart women on stage a precursor, and asked the living critic to read a favorite quote from the precursor and talk about what Sontag or Kael or Didion or Woolf meant to them, why they could or could not be a model for writers today. Then, we would have had a treat, have learned something.

I had hoped to hear about the living critics’ experiences. Ruth Franklin joked that she spent time asking “are you my mentor?” but that thread was dropped. Parul Sehgal said, more than rivalry, she enjoyed stories of collaboration, but had none to hand, and then we had a tired rehearsal of the Arendt-McCarthy friendship. Franklin and Sehgal seemed every bit as smart as I expected but, like others, both women was hamstrung by the loose format, the general, dispiriting inanity.

I had hoped to hear more about reviews written and the reactions they elicited, about judgments withheld, about editors meddling, about if and how being a woman might have affected any of these hesitations or volleys.

I had hoped to hear more direct accounts of the VIDA count and how it affects these writers’ lives--in their pitching, their editing, their conversations with other writers at the office. Franklin said she’s worked with editors who care and editors who don’t. I can believe that, but, again, it wasn’t worth spending my one night out a week to hear it.

As I was getting ready to go to the ironically titled “Sharp,” I remembered Virginia Woolf’s essay “Why?” It’s a cri de coeur, a lamentation on the difficulty of asking any serious question in public and on the waste of time, consequently, of most lectures: “Why, since life holds so many hours, waste one of them on being lectured?” “Why encourage your elders to turn themselves into prigs and prophets, when they are ordinary men and women? Why force them to stand on a platform for forty minutes while you reflect upon the colour of their hair and the longevity of flies?”

Why indeed. Oh, Woolf, how you are missed.