This year, critics bickered about etiquette, fell out of love with HBO, and tried to explain the appeal of Paris Hilton. This is a look back at the biggest stories, best writing, nastiest insults, most hyperbolic raves, and oddest theories of the year in cultural criticism. Plus, the writer reviewers gleefully eviscerated, the TV show they compared to ancient Sumer, and an answer to the strategic question that has long puzzled first-time novelists: Will dissing Dave Eggers on your publicity tour help sell copies of your book?
Biggest Literary Rumble The Snark Wars kicked off in March with Heidi Julavits' plaintive manifesto against negative reviews in the Believer ("I fear that book reviews are just an opportunity for a critic to strive for humor, and to appear funny and smart and a little bit bitchy, without attempting to espouse any higher ideals"). They continued through the summer, as various critics rushed to snark's defense ("Negative reviews, however painful to the individuals who receive them, benefit the overall ecology of literary journalism by maintaining some balance of good faith"). The New Yorker pointed out that such vitriol is timeless, recounting an 18th-century spat between a writer and his critic. It's always heartening to witness a good old-fashioned mudslinging literary debate. Too bad this one wasn't about something more consequential than mudslinging.
Best Response to a Bad Review After Roger Ebert called Vincent Gallo's Brown Bunny"the worst film in the history of the festival" at Cannes, the director put a curse on the critic's colon and said he had "the physique of a slave trader." (Even better: Gallo's dismay at good reviews from French critics, which he called "almost like salt in the wound.")
Most Tragic Response to a Bad Review
When chef Bernard Loiseau of French restaurant La Côte d'Or shot himself in the head with a hunting rifle, other chefs blamed the restaurant guideGaultMillau for downgrading him by a couple of points. (The New York Times argued that the more likely culprit was depression.)
Most Bizarre Response to a Bad Review
Liz Phair's letter to the New York Times, after it published a negative piece on her new album by Slate's Meghan O'Rourke: "Once upon a time there was a writer named Chicken Little," Phair wrote. "Chicken Little worked very hard and took her job very seriously. Often, she even wrote. One day, just as Chicken Little was about to have an idea, she heard something falling on her roof. 'The sky is falling! The sky is falling!' she shrieked, spilling green tea and vodka all over her work station."
Most Polarizing Album Of course, critics themselves offered bizarrely heated responses to Liz Phair, the album on which the indie darling debuted a new, more mainstream look and sound. Actors who alternate between big-budget blockbusters and smaller, more experimental roles are usually praised for their savvy. But when musicians try out different identities, it's often considered a betrayal. O'Rourke wrote that Phair had "committed the most embarrassing form of career suicide," and uber-indie Web site Pitchfork rated the album 0.0, calling Phair's "unqualified sperm-praise" "entirely vain and degrading." Gina Arnold tried to turn the fuss into a referendum on feminism, claiming that rock critics' objections to Phair's new direction proved "you still can't be a smart, sexy woman whose main aim in life is to please yourself rather than please men." The Village Voice ran no fewer than three reviews: In one, Robert Christgau, who loved the album, said it challenges "lowest-common-denominator values even as it fellates them." And when some critics put the album at the top of their year-end lists, readers accused said critics of doing so solely in reaction to the critics who didn't like the album.
Least Polarizing Album Madonna's American Life, which was universally derided. The diva, ever the critical punching bag, seemed more pummeled than usual this year. Critics couldn't even muster outrage about her flops, which included the "clunky, ponderous" new album; the "totally limp" Gap ad; the Britney kiss that smacked of "desperation"; and of course, the "narcissistic" children's book.
Newest Critical Punching Bag Don DeLillo. Ever since his 1999 blockbuster Underworld, the buzzards have been circling. This year, they descended on his new novel, Cosmopolis: "A parody of Mr. DeLillo's own writing"; "as lugubrious and heavy-handed as a bad Wim Wenders film"; "ridiculous without ever being funny."
Swiftest Fall From Favor HBO. True, it wasn't possible for the network to rise in critics' estimation. Still, reviews of its big new fall series Carnivale and K Street were almost uniformly negative. The Village Voice called the former "a lot of freaks and carnies signifying nothing," and Salon wondered "just how much slowly unfolding sadness viewers can take." Of the latter's hapless attempt to mix real-life politicians with actors, the New Republic's Lee Siegel said: "Nonsense. If Soderbergh and Clooney knew how much the Beltway connivers were playing them like salmon, they would lie down on bagels and die. Celebrity is no match for real power." Even the raves about Angels in America felt like rote responses to Serious Television (and the lack of argument generated by the adaptation of this supposedly controversial play suggested that HBO was preaching to the converted).
Most Successful Use of Eggers-Bashing To Promote One's First Novel James Frey. What he said about Dave Eggers'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: "A book that I thought was mediocre was being hailed as the best book written by the best writer of my generation," he said. "Fuck that. And fuck him and fuck anybody that says that. I don't give a fuck what they think of me. I'm going to try to write the best book of my generation and I'm going to try to be the best writer." The current Amazon.com sales rank of his book, A Million Little Pieces: 271.
Least Successful Use of Eggers-Bashing To Promote One's First Novel Ian Spiegelman. What he said: "Men are far too concerned with the dimensions of their genitalia. Eggers might very well have a larger package than I but he'd probably riff in a woman's ear about Duran Duran while he was mildly pumping away, and if that's your thing we shouldn't be together anyway. Wait, that's not right. He wouldn't utter a sound in bed, not one word. It would be cold clinical silence—you could hear molecules colliding, icecaps melting. He'd hold his breath." The current Amazon.com sales rank of his book, Everyone's Burning: A Novel: 266,818.
Most Begrudging Mea Culpa
In 1992 the Village Voice's Kim Levin advised readers to boycott John Currin's first show; 11 years later, she recanted: "I was wrong, of course. It's not that his words weren't provocative. … And it's not that his pallid portraits of scrawny, post-menopausal women weren't awful. But Currin's subsequent oeuvre reveals an artist whose work is something other than merely misogynistic, sexist, and ageist."
Most Tiresome Culture War The high-low debate continued this year with regrettable vigor. A.S. Byatt argued in a New York Times op-ed that the Harry Potter books are "written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons." Defenders dismissed her as "an acolyte at the temple of high culture barring the doors as the ignorant masses who love pop culture come a knockin'." Then Harold Bloom turned his cannons on Stephen King, who had the temerity to not only give Potter a rave, but also win a National Book Award for "Distinguished Contribution to American Letters." King fired back, first with an odd humor piece in Book Magazine, then with an aggressive acceptance speech at the NBA ceremony that asked his critics if they think they "get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture."
Most Brownie Points for Deliberately Staying Out of Touch With His Own Culture The New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann, who chose not to review any of the Matrix films. Explaining his decision, he argued that the works of Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl, and C.M. Kornbluth (all of whom he worked with as a sci-fi editor in the '50s) were "built on serious ideas and were really readable, not mere aggrandized juvenilia à la The Matrix."
Most Adolescent Use of Sexual Imagery in a Bad Review
Here's New York Press' Mark Ames on music critic Chuck Klosterman: "Klosterman is, quite simply and almost literally, an ass. His soft, saggy face bears a disturbing resemblance to a 50-year-old man's failing, hairless back end. His tiny, red mouth is a sphincter twisting to a pained close 40 seconds after taking a brutal pounding from Peter North."
Best Use of Sexual Imagery in a Bad Review
Vanity Fair's AA Gill on the shrimp-and-foie-gras dumplings at Jean-Georges Vongterichten's restaurant, 66: "fishy liver-filled condoms. They were properly vile, with a savor that lingered like a lovelorn drunk and tasted as if your mouth had been used as the swab bin in an animal hospital."
Most Inadvertently Apt Use of Sexual Imagery in a Bad Review Tibor Fischer on Martin Amis'Yellow Dog in the Daily Telegraph: "It's like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating." (Pop Matters later argued that the novel was really about pedophilia, and that with this barb, Fischer had "haplessly stumbled on the heart of the book and didn't even know it.")
Best Use of Sexual Imagery, Period Paris Hilton. When the hotel heiress's record of her adventures with ex-boyfriend Rick Solomon found its way onto the Internet in November, the ensuing fracas furthered her already inexplicable fame. As early as June, she was Radar's cover girl: The accompanying piece presciently argued that B-list celebrities have more tacky, outrageous fun than solemn, image-obsessed A-listers. In the ratings, her rich-girls-farming reality series, The Simple Life, beat President Bush's sit-down with Diane Sawyer after the capture of Saddam. The Washington Post's "Style" section sought the Beltway's answer to the glamorous blonde in vain. And then there was the Video, our favorite review of which appeared in the blog D-Nasty and mocked the whole idea of reading too much significance into the rise of la Hilton: "Svengali. Lothario. Luddite? Solomon's character thrusts deeply not only into technological contradiction but also into magnificently complex Neo-Puritanism, defending the sanctity of the marital bed from the light of truth and the becks and calls of the public just as he violates that very same realm with a handheld camera. It is in this union of night and photography that the film itself becomes organic, and the handheld camera an extension of Mr. Solomon's own masculinity. Autofocus indeed."
Best Use of Hyperbole Herbert Muschamp on Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles: "Now imagine a moon apple: a hollow sphere of lunar light. Somebody hands you a knife and says, 'Cut!' How many shapes can you make? Peel a ribbon. Carve out squares of curving surfaces, concave and convex. … When you're done, compose the pieces into a flowering cabbage. Then into a cabbage rose. Rearrange. Magnify. Reproduce the contours with large panels of stainless steel etched to a soft matte finish. Jump in and soar."
Best Impersonation of a Crackpot The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley on 24: "One of the best series on television is 24, and it could be even better if there were less of it—if, say, the world had adopted the time-keeping system of the ancient Sumerians. The show would then be called 12 and its hero, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), could save the country from an apocalyptic terrorist attack in a 12-hour day—eliminating the need for some of the sillier side plots delaying the denouement." Stanley goes on to wonder what modern television would be like if Sumerian culture had taken root.
Most Charming Impersonation of Bill O'Reilly
Neil Pollack on war criticism in the Stranger: "Shut up, antiwar people. Shut up, pro-war people. Shut down your computers and shut your goddamn pieholes. No one gives a shit what you write, so stop writing about the war. Shut up, all of you."
Best Reason to Click Refresh
Culture blogs. They're not quite the oppositional alternative to mainstream media that some would claim: The best ones tend to be written by people who are getting published elsewhere; most of them enhance links to media stories with either bitchy commentary or a kind of meta-media service journalism that rounds up the most interesting pieces of the day; and, as the Washington Post pointed out in a piece on "blogrolling," the "blogosphere"—new, less pompous term please—mimics certain tendencies of old media. But in 2003, they were often faster, wittier, smarter, and hipper than mainstream media, and they made room for types of writing and debate that overly formulaic print often doesn't anymore. A few culturally oriented favorites: For books, Bookslut, the Literary Saloon, and Maud Newton. For music: New York London Paris Munich, Woebot, Skykicking, Spizzazzz, and Clap Clap Blog. For art: Modern Art Notes and Greg.org. For television: Reality Blurred. For everything else: the assorted blogs at ArtsJournal.com.