The Corner

Books Aren’t Television, and Other Observations

I missed this until it was pointed out to me, but Sean T. Collins of the Observer is unhappy with your favorite correspondent, having set upon a piece of my work in a column headlined “The Four Worst Types of TV Critics,” which is a little weird, since the piece he references is a book review, not television criticism, and books aren’t television, as so many young people discover to their dismay when it’s Crime and Punishment time or when they tell their literature teachers that what they liked best about Don Quixote was the songs. (I have written a little bit about television: Here are my thoughts on Justified and on Sons of Anarchy. Oh, and The Americans. Somewhere in the National Review archives is a piece I wrote that explains why I’ve written so little about television: I’d never owned one until recently.) To be one of the worst types of television critics, you must be a type of television critic, which I am not, unless “desultory” is one of the types. 

But that’s only one of the ways in which Collins’s piece is sort of dumb. Collins writes:

SJWs are the most prominent example of the Activists: critics who apply sociopolitical metrics to determine the worth of a work of art. But for every Activist, there is of course an equal and opposite Reactivist, and their contributions to this overarching approach must not be overlooked. Are the anti-SJWs any less intolerant, any more forgiving of divergent views? Begging your pardon, f*** no. Conservative cultural criticism is as rife with shoe-on-the-table we-will-bury-you rhetoric as the most vociferous left-wing jeremiad: Look no further than National Review’s risible assault on Lena Dunham to see just how personal the political can get.

Moreover, right-wing culture critics are punching down from positions of cultural privilege and power.

As noted, the article he references is not television criticism; it is a book review. As for charges that I “apply sociopolitical metrics to determine the worth of a work of art,” no evidence is presented, because, of course, there isn’t any. You won’t find any in my relatively voluminous theater criticism for The New Criterion; sometimes, I am obliged to note the politics in a performance, such as when the gutless, sniveling toadies who run New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park march Bill de Blasio and Chuck Schumer out on the stage in the middle of The Winter’s Tale so that the senator can — and I am not making this up — urge the audience to “vote Democratic.” I don’t think I know what Qui Nguyen’s politics are, or Seth Duerr’s; if I had to guess, “conservative” would not be my first guess. I do not think you will find any indication that this has made a difference to my evaluation of their work (or, in the cases of these two, my enjoyment of it).

I have been asked what I think about Girls, and my answer, based on the first season (which is what I watched) is: It’s pretty good. Not my thing, to be sure, and clearly not meant for me. Dunham is a gifted television writer. She’s an awful, clumsy, incompetent, illiterate, dishonest memoirist. Unfortunately for her, my assignment was her dopey book, not her television show.

The problem with memoirs is that while the best of them are in fact works of art (Dunham’s is not one of these), they also refer to events in the real world, and to public issues, which, of course, entangles them with sociopolitical metrics, for example the one that goes: Thou shalt not lie. Dunham lied in her book about being raped at Oberlin by a campus Republican named Barry. How do we know that? We have Barry’s word on that — there weren’t a lot of Republicans at Oberlin when Dunham was there, and the most prominent of them was named Barry, and he’s never met her. If that’s not good enough, we have Dunham’s word, too — after my article, she conceded that she’s never met Barry. And we have the word of her publisher, which has altered the book and offered to pay the legal expenses Barry incurred trying to clear his name. Their explanation—that this was all a terrible coincidence, that Dunham just happened to pick a name out of a hat that was the name of the most prominent Republican on her college campus, a fact that could be verified with about twenty seconds’ research—is implausible. In the context of a memoir, making things up isn’t only a sociopolitical metric—it’s also a literary metric. Contrary to the protestations I received from Dunham’s many illiterate admirers, memoirs are supposed to be nonfiction.

That’s not a matter of taste; that’s a matter of fact. Dunham does not seem to know the difference; I suppose Collins doesn’t, either.

About that “punching down,” a statistic: I do not suffer from excessive modesty, but I write for a small fortnightly political magazine that may be a giant in its field but reaches a readership that is just under 2 percent the size of that enjoyed by Better Homes and Gardens. Lena Dunham, on the other hand, is a television star, the fabulously rich and connected daughter of a fabulously rich and connected family. That does not feel like punching down to me.

So, in review: I am not a television critic, and the piece in question was a book review, not television criticism. I haven’t abominated Girls because I dislike the politics and social sensibilities of its creator; I think it is a pretty good show, based on what I’ve seen. I have written a fair amount of theater criticism, not television criticism, and if Collins has found evidence of my so-called activism in my actual work, he hasn’t produced any. And that sort of thing isn’t really National Review’s style, anyway. For instance, I’ve just written a review of Robert Crawford’s excellent new half-biography of T. S. Eliot, if you knew our literary editor, you’d know how absurd it would be to think that I’d even inquire into Crawford’s politics, unless the book presented some reason to do so. I don’t think that this tendency is symmetrical: There are a few high-profile friends of National Review I know of in entertainment and literature who are simply terrified that they will be found out as conservatives, their careers ruined. I met a Broadway producer some years ago who told me: “I love your work. Please don’t ever tell anybody.”

I’m sure Orson Scott Card has some thoughts on that.

So, unless I’ve missed something, Collins is here wrong in every way that it is possible for him to be wrong, other than the fact that he spelled all of the words correctly. That’s kind of a remarkable anti-achievement, really. I’ll bet if you told Sean Collins not to think of a polar bear, he wouldn’t think of a polar bear. He doesn’t seem to be thinking much of anything. 

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