Best American Comics Criticism Roundtable: Why Didn’t You Just Strike For Higher Pay?

Posted by on August 26th, 2010 at 2:43 AM

Opening contributions from Ng Suat Tong, Noah Berlatsky, Caroline Small, Jeet Heer, Brian Doherty and BACC editor Ben Schwartz; responses from Caroline Small, Ng Suat Tong, Jeet Heer, Noah Berlatsky and Ben Schwartz.

 


From “Super-Villain Team-Up” in The Comic Book Holocaust, ©2008 Johnny Ryan.

 

I have to say, reading the first roundtable entries by Brian Doherty, Jeet Heer and Ben Schwartz in this roundtable, I was personally offended. Not because Schwartz spent much of his time insulting me — on the contrary, that was about the only enjoyment I got from his prose. Rather, I was offended because the posts were so frankly, egregiously, jaw-droppingly half-assed. I had thought that a roundtable on the Best American Comics Criticism would entail an effort to write some thoughtful, engaged criticism. After all, Doherty, Heer, and Schwartz are all in the book; that means somebody (well, Schwartz) thought their criticism was the best. And this is The Comics Journal — only the website, sure, but still supposed to be a beacon for critical standards, fierce debate, etc. etc. This was going to be a high-powered thinkfest, the best that comics crit could offer. We’d be wrestling with insights, hurling inspired invective, and generally behaving like we actually gave a shit.

But no. As it turns out, I was supposed to just make some airy quips, utter some nostalgic nothings, snark a little and pat myself on the back. Why didn’t anyone tell me and Caroline Small and Ng Suat Tong this? I bet Michael Dean’s out behind the Fanta compound with the BACC alum, chortling and snickering and pointing— ha ha! They actually did some work! Stupid fuckers!

Well, what the hell at this point. In for a penny, in for a pound, right? I guess we’re supposed to pretend that Heer and Doherty and Schwartz actually wrote essays, just like we’re supposed to pretend that Best American Comics Criticism means… I’m honestly not sure what the title is supposed to mean at this point. Sort of Best, Mostly American Comics Criticism and Other Random Stuff Maybe Having Some Relationship to Lit Comics from 2000-2008, I guess? (Schwartz helpfully informs us in his post that we’re not supposed to read the title of his book at all, but should look instead at the back cover blurb. It’s not mendacious marketing jargon if you put caveats in the fine print, kiddies!)

But onward. Let’s take the posts from shortest to longest.

Jeet Heer’s piece is 348 words. It claims that Ben showed “editorial bravado” by including not just analytic essays, but lots of other heterogenous bric-a-brac: interviews, legal judgments, comics about comics, what have you. Heer insists that Schwartz’s “great insight was that comics criticism comes in many forms,” and further assures us that “When we think back to how our critical judgments about comics are formed, we’ll inevitably remember not just prose essays but also what we can call para-criticism: interviews, comics about comics, etc.” Thus, the value of criticism is based not on any actual standards or interest or ideas, but simply on its anticipated utility as retrospective nostalgia. The fact that someone’s judgment was once formed by some random effusion becomes the ground for fetishizing said effusion over and over again, pop culture detritus without end, amen.

Heer adds “For myself, my education in comics was shaped by the many great interviews that the Comics Journal has run, as well as the way cartoonists like Seth and Spiegelman have commented on the history of the medium in their own works.” This is meretricious talk-show puffery; a few totemic names (Comics Journal! Seth! Spiegelman!) waved near Schwartz’s book in a pallid effort to transfer their glamour. How was Heer’s education shaped? What exactly did Seth and Spiegelman impart? And does BACC impart something similar? Or is the book worthwhile simply because it reminds Heer vaguely of some things he thought of once but which he can’t discuss now because The Comics Journal isn’t paying him enough to talk about them? Really, if you’re going to justify the para-criticism, justify the damn para-criticism in front of you on the basis of whether it is or is not worthwhile; don’t wander off into obfuscating eulogies of para-criticism past. Unless, that is, you want to give us the impression that you judge books not by their covers but instead by the opportunities they offer you for name-dropping and delivering vague jeremiads on the education of Jeet Heer.

I also got a laugh out of this: “By thinking about comics criticism in such a broad and inclusive way, [Schwartz] made a book that actually captures the experience of how we think and talk about comics.” It’s pretty broad and inclusive indeed for Schwartz to put his own mediocre essay about Harold Gray in BACC and then claim (as he does in his first contribution to the roundtable) that the reason that there are so few women and/or writers about manga in the book is that good women critics and good writers about manga essentially don’t exist. (“To [those who say BACC should include more women] I can only say, I tried. I looked. I really did.”)

Thus, according to Ben Schwartz’s version of inclusiveness, the writing of Ben Schwartz, Esq., is superior to anything written between 2000-2008 by (since Schwartz asked me for some examples) Shaenon Garrity, or Trina Robbins, or Jog, or Bill Randall or Jason Thompson. No doubt Schwartz’s writing is also superior to Dirk Deppey’s endless, joyous, insane 10,000-word-plus ode to biological determinism as seen through the lens of Chobits and Love Hina, an essay that was the highlight of the justly-celebrated shōjo-manga issue of TCJ, eclipsing (in my opinion, though I’m sure not in Dirk’s) even that issues’ groundbreaking discussion between Moto Hagio and Matt Thorn. Did Schwartz read either Dirk’s essay or that interview? Would he care to comment on the critical standards that led him to exclude them in favor of bland Amazon comment threads, fatuous book introductions and Gary Groth’s amusingly dogged effort to use the interview form to present Yoshihiro Tatsumi as an American alternative cartoonist?

Oops. I’ve leapt ahead to Schwartz’s essay because I ran out of Heer’s. Sorry about that. Won’t happen again.

Let’s go on to Brian Doherty’s.

If we have to. I don’t really have the heart for this, honestly. Ben Schwartz and Michael Dean have a lot to answer for in sending this wayward libertarian into a gunfight armed only with a watery smile and an “I Heart Wolverine” T-shirt. I actually very much admire Doherty’s crisp, smart essays at Reason, so it is unpleasant in a whole host of ways to watch him descend into a fog of sepia-toned bathos when he turns to writing about comics. Like Heer, Doherty too contends (without any effort to construct an actual argument) that BACC shows the broadening inclusiveness of comics; he too sees BACC‘s worth not in terms of stimulating or challenging us in the present, but as a way to preserve in soggy amber the memories of childhood. “Those days are undoubtedly going away. I’ll miss them, but BACC will help us remember them.” There’s honesty there, at least. If the point of the book is to make us wax nostalgic about old Batman comics, or to help us understand “the mind of the ‘Comics Aficionado'” (an appellation that sounds suspiciously like the secret identity of Brian Doherty) then clearly you wouldn’t want to be distracted from your fugue of self-involvement by a discouraging word and/or the firing of errant neurons.

Well, that didn’t take long. I guess we have to go back to Schwartz’s post now.

 


From “McSwiener’s #13″ in The Comic Book Holocaust, ©2008 Johnny Ryan.

 

Schwartz uses his essay to talk about critical writing he doesn’t like. The critical writing he doesn’t like is, as it turns out, critical writing that suggests that BACC was less than stellar. Schwartz takes particular exception to a blog post I wrote about his books’ title and to a short review in Book Forum by poor Sean Howe, who could little have suspected that a few skeptical but respectfully phrased paragraphs would unleash such a flood of ad hominems. Schwartz seems especially miffed that Howe writes for Entertainment Weekly. This is an odd prejudice for someone who filled his book with as many celebrity “name” authors as Schwartz did, but I guess the paparazzi always hate each other.

In any case, Schwartz spends a certain portion of his essay raging against Howe and I for not having read his vacuous introduction closely enough. He also takes me to task for thinking he was serious about the whole “lit comics” thing when all that talk about “lit comics” was really only a transparent ploy to justify his limited reading and interests. So yes… he got me. I always get thrown off by those transparent ploys. But I see now that BACC is not about lit comics at all. Instead, it’s about constructing a vicious caricature of alt fanboy tastes: canonical strip creators (Herriman! Schulz!) , canonical superhero creators (Ditko! Kirby! er… Ditko!), celebrated lit comic creators (Clowes! Seth! Er… Clowes!) , a couple of the European creators most recognizable to an American audience, and one more or less random Japanese creator because we had to have a manga artist.

Having confused his oblivious cliquishness with actual critical criteria, Schwartz precedes to babble contentedly about his staunch elitism, lumping Howe, I, and Glenn Beck together in the subterranean vaults of troglodyte anti-snobbery. Howe proves his anti-elitism by flagrantly and gratuitously referencing Godard (a move Glenn Beck often makes as well, I understand.) I prove mine by reading Us instead of EW. I will be interested, though, to read Schwartz’s thoughts after he goes through the first-round responses of Caroline Small and Ng Suat Tong, two writers who are actually, each in their own way, real honest-to-God elitists. Hopefully he will appreciate their insights. (In her essay, Caro even goes out of her way to diss prog rock. That makes my anti-elitist blood boil!)

Schwartz seems to be under the impression that engaging in this tawdry orgy of wounded vanity will somehow illuminate his critical process or standards. Let me correct this misapprehension. Schwartz’s essay tells us nothing about his critical standards, because he has none. He doesn’t even know what critical standards would look like. If a herd of critical standards stampeded and trampled him to earth, he would crawl up out of the cartoonish Schwartz-shaped hole muttering about the ineffable undefinability of lit comics and how he knows great writing when he sees it. (Schwartz is upset that I occasionally make up little monologues for him. I do apologize to my readers; I know I can’t actually approximate the delightful defensiveness of Schwartz’s own nonsensical balderdash. It’s fun to try though.)

Schwartz goes after me repeatedly in his piece for talking about criticism I would like to see — for imagining better criticism, or more interesting criticism, or criticism that would address issues or subjects I’m interested in through approaches that people aren’t using. He calls this thinking “a classic Berlatsky deflection — arguing work down by proposing something better that doesn’t even exist.” Schwartz has me dead to rights here; I actually do think that critics should propose something better, even if it doesn’t exist. In real life, I make pragmatic compromises all the time — like when I go to the store and I want Lucky Charms, but the Fruity Pebbles are on sale so I get those instead. But with art it seems like you should hold out for your dreams and ideals; not just for the Lucky Charms, but for the Fruity Pebbles with marshmallows in them too. (What? I can’t have a sweet tooth? Are you some sort of snob or something?)

Schwartz, however, is having none of this. The very idea makes him grit his eyebrows and gnash his nose. Criticism that’s well-written and theoretically grounded?! Bah! Humbug! With the resolute philistinism of a bourgeois time-server whose paycheck is on the line, he declares that using imagination is unfair, and also foofy, pie-in-the-sky nonsense. “[U]nlike Berlatsky, I have to deal with comics and writing that exists. I can’t offer imaginary comics or critics of the future to prove a point,” he fulminates in full on Gradgrind mode. Criticism is a graminivorous quadruped. Stick to the facts! Don’t imagine beauty and truth before going out in search of them! Instead, apparently, we’re supposed to let the editorial process occur without any vision at all, as if we were making widgets or going to the toilet. Why think about what you’re doing when you can just excrete a mish-mash of ill-digested prejudices, pausing only occasionally in your act of creation to blithely insult entire genders in the name of hubris and you-don’t-even-know-what?

Schwartz avers at the beginning of his essay that he’s thin-skinned… just in case you couldn’t tell from reading him. And, you know, it’s understandable to be pissed at people who don’t like your book. I get that. But… substituting hurt pride for a thesis? I mean, as a critic, I feel I have to go after Schwartz for his wretched taste, his boosterism, and his stupidity — but just look at him. He’s so confused and defenseless, it’s like kicking a baby seal.

Really, though, my kicks here are superfluous. Heer and Doherty and Schwartz have put themselves beyond mockery through sheer excess of self-parody. If they had just written over and over again, “Comics criticism, eh, what do we care?” they couldn’t have made their indifference to their putative subject more clear. What kind of standards does it demonstrate for one of the leading writers in his field to submit to a respected venue a 350-word piece of nothing? What kind of insight or righteous elitism does it show for the editor of a major book to submit to the same venue a piece of juvenile score-settling? There’s no craft in these pieces, no passion, no intellectual engagement. There’s not even any emotion beyond a generalized nostalgia and the occasional foray into petulance. I was hoping for worthy opponents and I got mild blinking, distant whining, and an exhausted fart. Best American Comics Criticism is a bad book, but even it deserved a more spirited defense than this.

 

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags:

24 Responses to “Best American Comics Criticism Roundtable: Why Didn’t You Just Strike For Higher Pay?”

  1. Dirk Deppey says:

    “No doubt Schwartz’s writing is also superior to Dirk Deppey’s endless, joyous, insane 10,000-word-plus ode to biological determinism as seen through the lens of Chobits and Love Hina, an essay that was the highlight of the justly-celebrated sh?jo-manga issue of TCJ, eclipsing (in my opinion, though I’m sure not in Dirk’s) even that issues’ groundbreaking discussion between Moto Hagio and Matt Thorn.”

    Please kill me now.

  2. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Sorry Dirk.

  3. Mike Hunter says:

    ————————
    Noah Berlatsky:
    Having confused his oblivious cliquishness with actual critical criteria, Schwartz precedes to babble contentedly about his staunch elitism, lumping Howe, I, and Glenn Beck together in the subterranean vaults of troglodyte anti-snobbery. Howe proves his anti-elitism by flagrantly and gratuitously referencing Godard (a move Glenn Beck often makes as well, I understand.) I prove mine by reading Us instead of EW. I will be interested, though, to read Schwartz’s thoughts after he goes through the first-round responses of Caroline Small and Ng Suat Tong, two writers who are actually, each in their own way, real honest-to-God elitists. Hopefully he will appreciate their insights. (In her essay, Caro even goes out of her way to diss prog rock. That makes my anti-elitist blood boil!)
    ————————-

    “I read the report twice… In a way, I knew less than before, as something written in a foreign language extends the range of your ignorance.”
    -Ross MacDonald, [i]The Ivory Grin[/i]

  4. Mike Hunter says:

    Not having read “The Best American Comics Criticism,” it may indeed be possible that all your slings and arrows are on target, Noah. However, as one old friend regularly suggested, “consider the source!”

    Never, in all my years of assiduous reading of reviews and criticism, have I run across a scribe who is as frequently, spectacularly WRONG as you are.

    Moreover, in my many debates with you, you reveal yourself as routinely not noticing details, qualifications, subtleties in my remarks. Is it asking too much for a critic to be able to read? To notice what is actually being said in a piece of writing that they are responding to, rather than what is distortedly reflected in the funhouse mirror of their own perceptions?

    As an example, a recent exchange, from an HU thread:

    ==========
    ——————
    Noah Berlatsky says:
    You’re making analogy after analogy, insisting that they’re all based in biological fact, and end by justifying the ideological, flagrantly anti-Semitic theories of Nazis. I couldn’t have made my point better if I’d tried.
    ——————

    Alas, and you couldn’t make the point better that someone can name-drop Kierkegaard and Derrida, and not be capable of figuring out nuance or meaning in a simple sentence.

    I mentioned how humans are biologically programmed to find symmetrical features – which subliminally indicate health – appealing, and how this “makes one understand why the Nazis found [the bodily distortions in] much of modern art…repugnant,” and you take that to mean “justifying the ideological, flagrantly anti-Semitic theories of Nazis.”

    Exactly the same tactic employed by right-wing politicos. When some point out how our country’s support of exploitative dictatorships feeds resentment and anti-Americanism, which leads to terrorism, the right-wingers puff up in outrage: “They’re defending the terrorists!!”

    To explain why a group reacts in a particular fashion does not automatically translate to a defense, or even a justification, of those actions.

    And I see you have me “justifying” the Nazis’ “flagrant” anti-Semitism. What, Jews are all asymmetrical?
    ==========

    …And if someone is all-too-frequently unable to ascertain the meaning of a written remark (which, though more challenging than the prose in a “Dick and Jane” book, hardly compares to Kenneth Smith’s), does that not make it likely that their perceptions about works of art, far more complex and multifaceted phenomena, would be even more dubious and wanting?

    So when you argue against the supposed faults of “The Best American Comics Criticism,” I’m afraid that “consider the source!” effect leads me to assume you are wrong about virtually everything you write, and your attacks are based upon egregious distortions.

    Your writing is enjoyably entertaining and serves to inspire lively debates. Far as being accurate or incisive, though, I’m afraid your record speaks for itself.

  5. DerikB says:

    Channeling Lester Bangs?

  6. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Hey Mike. I don’t really want to pick up our debate from the other thread here, I don’t think.

    I am curious…are you planning to read the book? It seems like if not you, who? I wonder what sales are like….?

  7. Mike Hunter says:

    ————————–
    Noah Berlatsky says:
    Hey Mike. I don’t really want to pick up our debate from the other thread here, I don’t think.
    —————————

    Nah; let’s start a new one!

    —————————–
    I am curious…are you planning to read the book? It seems like if not you, who? I wonder what sales are like….?
    ——————————

    Back a’fore the economy went belly-up, I’d have snapped it up for sure. Now I’ve gotten far more finicky. Should I become flush with cash some years in the future, or someday find it in a thrift shop (yesterday grabbed up a copy of the collected “Cages” hardcover, $50 new, for $19), I’ll buy it…

    On the piece at hand:

    —————————
    Noah Berlatsky:
    Jeet Heer’s piece is 348 words. It claims that Ben showed “editorial bravado” by including not just analytic essays, but lots of other heterogenous bric-a-brac: interviews, legal judgments, comics about comics, what have you. Heer insists that Schwartz’s “great insight was that comics criticism comes in many forms,” and further assures us that “When we think back to how our critical judgments about comics are formed, we’ll inevitably remember not just prose essays but also what we can call para-criticism: interviews, comics about comics, etc.” Thus, the value of criticism is based not on any actual standards or interest or ideas, but simply on its anticipated utility as retrospective nostalgia. The fact that someone’s judgment was once formed by some random effusion becomes the ground for fetishizing said effusion over and over again, pop culture detritus without end, amen.
    —————————

    We moved from lil’ jabs – “bric-a-brac,” mockingly decontextualized quotes from Heer – to the outright attack:

    —————————–
    Thus, the value of criticism is based not on any actual standards or interest or ideas, but simply on its anticipated utility as retrospective nostalgia. The fact that someone’s judgment was once formed by some random effusion becomes the ground for fetishizing said effusion over and over again, pop culture detritus without end, amen.
    —————————–

    Now, I’ve read Heer’s essay-ette – http://www.tcj.com/review/best-american-comics-criticism-roundtable-different-forms-and-shapes/ – over and over and over, and damned if I can find him remotely suggesting that “the value of criticism is based not on any actual standards or interest or ideas, but simply on its anticipated utility as retrospective nostalgia.” (Rather than, fusty old stuff like “actual standards or interest or ideas.”)

    Trying to scavenge something from Heer’s verbiage which could possibly be interpreted thus, this was the best I could find:

    —————————–
    …there is also a longstanding tradition of non-academic intellectuals offering a salutary corrective to the limits of academic thought: I’m thinking here of G.B. Shaw and Pauline Kael…

    Caroline Small…writes: “It is perhaps a semantic distinction that only a critic would make to hold cultural journalism apart from criticism — but they are different professions, with different readerships, expectations, backgrounds and modes of analysis. It’s clear from Ben Schwartz’s Comics Reporter interview that cultural journalism, primarily from music and film, was far more influential on his conception of this collection than literary and art criticism.” I’m not sure that the distinction is as hard and strong as Small thinks it is: The aforementioned Kael wrote cultural journalism which was also excellent criticism. There is a long tradition of this: Think of Hazlitt or Virginia Woolf or Susan Sontag or James Baldwin. Of course, the writers for BACC don’t necessarily equal these masters of criticism in terms of quality — the exception might be Donald Phelps, who has a contingent of admirers who would rank him as one of the great American essayists — but they are working in the same tradition.

    …what I like about BACC is that it manages to capture the experience of discussing comics in popular non-academic venues, a discussion that takes many different genres ranging from newspaper reviews to the interviews to historical essays…
    ——————————-

    So, when Heer indicates that the selections in “The Best American Comics Criticism” are heavily influenced by the approach of “cultural journalism,” that indicates to Noah that “thus” (sorry, mockingly decontextualizing here) what makes comics deserving of praise therein is “simply [their] anticipated utility as retrospective nostalgia”; status as fetishized “random effusion[s]…pop culture detritus…”

    As Noah sees it, then, Heer is supposedly arguing that what makes the book great is how close it is to the stereotypical man-boy fanboy’s gushings over how awesome Wolverine is.

    Because that’s all that “cultural journalism” supposedly is; “actual standards or interest or ideas” being denied admittance.

  8. Mike Hunter says:

    —————————
    Noah Berlatsky:
    …Heer…assures us that “When we think back to how our critical judgments about comics are formed, we’ll inevitably remember not just prose essays but also what we can call para-criticism: interviews, comics about comics, etc.” Thus, the value of criticism is based not on any actual standards or interest or ideas, but simply on its anticipated utility as retrospective nostalgia. The fact that someone’s judgment was once formed by some random effusion becomes the ground for fetishizing said effusion over and over again, pop culture detritus without end, amen.
    —————————

    I’d forgotten there was another Heer mini-essay, from whence comes that quote: http://www.tcj.com/review/best-american-comics-criticism-roundtable-capturing-the-experience/ .

    Alack, still nothing there about “fetishizing nostalgia” and whatnot. Only the fairly defensible argument that one’s critical faculties about an art form are developed by everything one reads about that art form.

  9. Noah Berlatsky says:

    I think you’re reading the wrong essay by Jeet, Mike. My piece is in response to his first round discussion. You’re looking at his second round piece (which I hadn’t read when I wrote this one.)

    My point is based on both what Jeet says and what he doesn’t. He says this:

    “When we think back to how our critical judgments about comics are formed, we’ll inevitably remember not just prose essays but also what we can call para-criticism: interviews, comics about comics, etc.”

    He’s saying paracriticism is worthwhile to him because he anticipates thinking back in the future to how wonderful it is. That’s retrospective nostalgia. And since he doesn’t take the time to actually defend or make a case for a single individual piece (and he *still* doesn’t in his second essay), retrospective nostalgia is all there is — he provides no standards and no ideas.

    He does talk about cultural journalism in his second piece. It’s weird though, because the authors he cites (like Baldwin and Kael and Shaw) are really doing very, very different things from virtually anything in BACC. (I talk about this briefly in the comments to Jeet’s second post, and Caro explains it even more clearly, as is her wont.) If that kind of cultural journalism is his standard, then BACC fails spectacularly.

    I actually do appreciate that Jeet tried to come up with some ideas in his second post, though. I don’t think they’re very effective or thought through, but he takes the exercise somewhat more seriously (I think he may even hit 500 words or more.)

  10. Jeet Heer1 says:

    It’s true that my first essay was 348 words long. Here is an idea that Berlatsky will find very alien but he might want to try to grapple with: quantity does not equal quality. A 20 page short story by Flannery O’Connor can have more worth than a 1,000 page novel by Tom Clancy.
    More than anyone else in comics aside from Dave Sim, Berlatsky suffers from logorrhea. Words, mainly ill-selected words, pour out of his keyboard with Niagra-like profusion. But drowning your readers in an endless flow of invective and polemics is not the same thing as making a convincing argument. Over the last few years, I’ve often tried to read Berlatsky’s writings and only on a few occasions (the two Winsor McCay reviews are all the really come to mind) have found him saying something novel and instructive. Everything else is posturing and performance; also quite boring. It’s noteworthy that most Berlatsky essays and interventions lead to long comment threads that involve the same handful of usual suspects (Caroline Small, Ng Suat Tong, and a few others). It’s a very small little coterie he’s put together, one that enjoys talking to itself while repelling outside interest. Which is one reason I’m amused by the accusations that BACC suffers from “narrowness.”

  11. Caro says:

    Honestly, Jeet. The net effect of HU may well be to “repel outside interest”, but Comics Comics has the same effect on me: interest is one of those things that often gets repelled entirely inadvertantly, and people do tend to be repelled by things they’re not interested in. That doesn’t make the things you’re not interested in stupid.

    I want to make sure you understand that I have plenty of interest in talking to you and engaging with your perspective, since you seem to have the impression that my willingness to talk with Noah and Suat and all the other contributors at HU in comments somehow makes me a cliquish snob who doesn’t want to talk to you. I feel pretty sure it is you who doesn’t want to talk to me.

    I’ve said very little that’s personally critical of you, and apologized for what I did say when I was frustrated. I’ve tried to respond deliberately and politely to every issue you’ve ever raised. I’ve asked you questions (sometimes numerous times). But you either ignore them or say that, for example, a deeper conversation about Jameson wouldn’t be productive.

    I can’t imagine how this makes me “narrow” minded about your positions. Just because I disagree with you doesn’t mean I want to shut down what you have to say. It seems to me that differences of opinion and more variety of interest makes a field broader.

  12. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Your essay was not Flannery O’Connor worthy prose, Jeet. It was short and intellectually lazy. It suggested that you didn’t take the venue or the task seriously — or, as Caro suggested in her post, that you were merely doing it as a professional courtesy to Ben. If you didn’t want to put in the time to write something worthwhile, you should have bowed out. As it is, it suggests a contempt for the venue, for the process of criticism, and yes, for BACC. There were good pieces in that book, and even the bad ones deserved actual consideration and thought, not bland benedictions. As it is, neither you, Ben, nor Brian has yet to explain in any specific detail why any of the pieces in that book are worthwhile.

    I try very hard to be inclusive at HU in various ways. The roster of writers is now 10 people; we have guest posters on a regular basis. There are many folks who comment regularly besides me and Caro (Suat actually comments fairly sparingly.) This week there’s been a discussion of French comics criticism and of teaching manga in secondary schools, neither of which I or Caro participated in to any great extent.

    So…what do you mean by narrow? What viewpoints don’t I include that I should represent? You said Alan Choate’s essay was the best thing on Genesis you’d seen published, I think — I assume you liked Matthias’ as well (I thought it was great.) If I’m trying to include different viewpoints, if I have a relatively large number of authors writing on different subjects, and (despite your suggestion) a steady stream of new commenters, what precisely do you feel I’m missing? I’m actually happy to take suggestions — and if you or Ben would like to write a guest post, I’d be more than happy to print it. Or, if you’re too busy or don’t want to grace me with your presence, if there are other exciting writers out there that CC doesn’t have space for, point me in their direction.

    As it is, “narrow” to you seems to mean not so much that you aren’t welcome as that you aren’t kowtowed to in the manner to which you are accustomed. If you are in fact repulsed by disagreement, I would suggest that, yes, you should stay curled in your own little hole, where you can wait for your many admirers to walk by and give you your daily little pat on the head. As I’ve said before, you even deserve numerous pats; you’re a good scholar and a clear writer. But I would humbly suggest that when you reach the point where you think people should shout hosannahs at you just for showing up, it may be time to rethink your ideas about what is and is not narrow and challenge yourself just a smidgen. You’re too young to be either resting on your laurels or trading on your reputation.

  13. Jeff Albertson says:

    Alex Buchet here.

    Noah, the accusation of posturing is — forgive me– justifiable. It’s started by your long-ago review of Spiegelman’s 9/11 book, in its very title: ‘In the Shadow of no Talent’.

    This isn’t really a roundtable, is it? It’s a flamewar. Noah, you’re not alone in effecting this transition, far from it, but as usual you don’t count the cost — to your own credibility– of your viciousness.

    Mike Hunter made a strong point, Noah. I consider his aesthetics theory flawed, myself, but you practically go on to call him a Nazi. Come on.

    (And to those who accuse me of hypocrisy: you’re absolutely right. But consider the difference between some asshole on an Internet forum: me, and someone who posits being a critic, with all the aesthetic, intellectual, and ethical responsibility that entails: Noah.)

  14. Jeet Heer1 says:

    It’s true that HU has published some very strong pieces, including the Choate essay. But my sense is that a lot of people who might be interested in these excellent essays don’t even know they exist, largely because the in-crowd rhetoric of HU (which spills over to TCJ) repels many potential readers.

  15. Noah Berlatsky says:

    What in-crowd rhetoric is that, Jeet? It’s certainly not the case that anything I say is ever assented to without fairly vigorous pushback. Alex calls me a troll practically every week; Matthias calls me an idiot with somewhat less regularity, but still, not an insignificant percentage of the time. Caro just kicked my ass in a comments thread here. You come along yourself every so often to call me out — and nobody then yells at you to go home or asks you why you don’t stick to your own blog, as far as I can remember.

    I think your “sense” just boils down to the fact that you don’t like me, Jeet. You don’t have any actual critical disagreement, in part because you’re not willing to think through theoretical issues at all. So you’re pretty much left with personalities and shouting “you’re another.” Similarly, in your essays here, you aren’t able to come up with any reason for praising BACC beyond your personal biography and references to lauded critics who don’t have a thing to do with the issue at hand. It’s criticism by name-dropping, and it’s more than a little ridiculous, IMO.

    And HU is doing fine on readership, thanks. In fact, we had by far our biggest day ever yesterday — not because of this roundtable, but because Sean Michael Robinson, a new guest-blogger who came to us as a commenter, posted an essay about teaching manga to students which has gone semi-viral through twitter. When Sean asked me about doing the essay, he basically said, well, you’re probably not going to want to do this because it’s not the sort of thing HU does. And I said, poppycock, that sounds awesome, run with it. Hopefully he’ll do more of the same for us in the future, if we’re lucky.

    That all seems the opposite of insular to me — or at least, my hope is that it is. I’m happy to hear you explain who else I should be including and how I can do better at it.

    Alex — I don’t want to ignore you, but can I take a rain check on this conversation? I’m happy to talk to you about my tone and polemic in general, but I feel like I’m already nattering on somewhat endlessly For the record, I certainly don’t think Mike is a Nazi even a little bit. I quite like him, actually, even if I think he’s an idiot (and he thinks I”m an idiot, I know, so we’re even!)

  16. “I think your ‘sense’ just boils down to the fact that you don’t like me, Jeet.”

    wow

  17. Caro says:

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: HU is not insular. What it is is contentious, acrimonious, opinionated, demanding and tough. Nobody has to hold to any particular opinion, but you do have to be willing to defend your ideas against intense, insistent, and highly informed opposition. That makes it very intellectually stimulating. Thanks mostly to that “in-crowd” of commenters and Noah’s own untiring efforts to stimulate that level of conversation, it is the most intellectually provocative and stimulating environment I’ve encountered outside of the protective cocoon of a university department. The distaste for HU seems to be tied to the distaste for academics. But because it’s not a cocoon and very interdisciplinary, it’s potentially even more fecund.

  18. Jack says:

    The Perkiest Nazi: Mike Hunter and the Annoyingly Chipper New Face of Fascism

    Why, one might say that FAILING to invade Poland would have been a violation of the Treaty of Versailles!* Alas, the impure racial makeup of today’s media prevents such insights from being more widely known…

    *Indeed, Ernst Zunder contributed a deliciously witty strip on this very subject to the latest issue of RACE AND REASON! I shall scan and post tonight if I have time after my scheduled antique-shopping and cross-burning…

  19. Jack says:

    Sorry, Mike, this crap just pops into my head and I have a compulsion to post it.

  20. Jeet Heer1 says:

    “I think your ‘sense’ just boils down to the fact that you don’t like me, Jeet.” Noah, I don’t know how to convince you of this, but none of this is personal. I’ve never met you, so I can’t like or dislike you in any meaningful sense. My comments were directed not at you as a person but were attempts to describe the reputation of HU as far as I could “sense” it. The reason I wrote what I did is that I have had the experience, more than once, of recommending to someone an essay that appears in HU and being told “I don’t read that site” (or words to that effect). Since this has happened to me more than once, I’ve formed an impression (or “sense”) that there is a class of readers out there who are interested in comics criticism but who have been alientated by what they perceive as the dominate tone or rhetoric of HU and by the the allied perception that HU is somewhat of a coterie operation. This impression is purely based on personal experience (hence I said “my sense”) and I’m glad to hear evidence to the contrary, that HU is flourishing with a large readership. You would know much better than I do what the reputation of HU is, so I’ll defer to you on this matter.

  21. Noah Berlatsky says:

    I’m happy to take your word for it. As you say, we don’t really know each other, so liking or disliking isn’t especially relevant.

    I’m sure there are folks who aren’t that interested in reading HU for any number of reasons. Among other things, it’s very focused on criticism and almost completely uninterested in news, especially for a daily blog. It’s just not an especially market-friendly model.

    But you’re tying it to rhetoric and in-groupness. And I’d say that making those charges on an empirical basis (which is what you’re doing) is almost completely useless because of sampling bias of various sorts. If you want to call us insular, you need to explain what about the site you believe is insular; what kinds of discussions it’s excluding, how, and hopefully why. If it were a coterie it should in theory be closed — but given the number of different writers who come through, I don’t really see how you can say that’s the case.

    But if it’s not insularity, then you end up with the question, well, what is it? And then you have to move to actual debates about content rather than about personalities. Which, as I said, is a conversation I’d be interested to have with you. So if you’d like to put flesh and bone on that “sense” (which is, after all, a big part of what critics are supposed to do) and explain to yourself, and then to me, what your theoretical problems with HU are, I’ll be more than happy to discuss it.

  22. Jeff Albertson says:

    Alex Buchet here.

    Jeet, I think HU’s rep for ivory-towerness is rather overblown. Noah’s Wonder Woman posts are written in a fun, accessible style. Vom Marlowe certainly has no whiff of academia in her writings. I’ve only posted six entries, but I believe I’ve written them in a manner open to anyone’s enjoyment..

    If the perception of a coterie is out there, I think it’s a false one.

  23. Mike Hunter says:

    ——————-
    Noah Berlatsky says:
    I think you’re reading the wrong essay by Jeet, Mike. My piece is in response to his first round discussion. You’re looking at his second round piece (which I hadn’t read when I wrote this one.)
    ———————

    I was; so focused on looking for words which might possibly fit your case that Heer is supposedly saying “the value of criticism is based not on any actual standards or interest or ideas, but simply on its anticipated utility as retrospective nostalgia,” I didn’t notice the quotes you cited weren’t there.

    ———————-
    My point is based on both what Jeet says and what he doesn’t. He says this:

    “When we think back to how our critical judgments about comics are formed, we’ll inevitably remember not just prose essays but also what we can call para-criticism: interviews, comics about comics, etc.”

    He’s saying paracriticism is worthwhile to him because he anticipates thinking back in the future to how wonderful it is. That’s retrospective nostalgia.
    ———————

    That’s a really peculiar accusation. “…paracriticism is worthwhile to him because he anticipates thinking back in the future to how wonderful it is”??

    That’s like saying, “leaning to read is worthwhile to me because I am looking forward to someday reminiscing about my delightful days back in the classroom.” (Uh??)

    I’d bet that for some, thinking back about their fannish days, eagerly devouring the latest “Stan’s Soapbox!” and such, makes them instead shudder with shame recalling the crap they once admired and took oh-so-seriously. And relieved they grew past the “baby’s first steps” stage of comics criticism, when “who’s stronger: Thor or the Hulk?” was a significant point to ponder.

    Reading the right essay this time ( http://www.tcj.com/review/best-american-comics-criticism-roundtable-capturing-the-experience/ ), a fuller quotation from Heer…

    ———————
    When we think back to how our critical judgments about comics are formed, we’ll inevitably remember not just prose essays but also what we can call para-criticism: interviews, comics about comics, etc. For myself, my education in comics was shaped by the many great interviews that The Comics Journal has run, as well as the way cartoonists like Seth and Spiegelman have commented on the history of the medium in their own works.
    ———————

    …indicates that at least the items cited by him as personally significant were pleasant ones. But in no way, shape or form does it indicate guilt of that strange accusation.

    ———————
    And since he doesn’t take the time to actually defend or make a case for a single individual piece (and he *still* doesn’t in his second essay), retrospective nostalgia is all there is — he provides no standards and no ideas.
    ——————–

    “Retrospective nostalgia” aside, I’m afraid that – for me, at least – “The Best American Comics Criticism” is ill-served by the praise Heer bestows upon it. Surely unintentionally (and I’ve no idea how accurately), the book comes across as a mushy, meandering muddle, with “panel discussions” cheek-by-jowl with Amazon.com reader reviews (!!).

    ———————-
    Heer says:
    Ben was a much braver and innovative editor than I would have dared to be. His great insight was that comics criticism comes in many forms. When we think back to how our critical judgments about comics are formed, we’ll inevitably remember not just prose essays but also what we can call para-criticism: interviews, comics about comics, etc. For myself, my education in comics was shaped by the many great interviews that The Comics Journal has run, as well as the way cartoonists like Seth and Spiegelman have commented on the history of the medium in their own works.

    So in assessing The Best American Comics Criticism I think the main quality that has to be singled out is the editorial bravado that Ben displayed. By thinking about comics criticism in such a broad and inclusive way, he’s made a book that actually captures the experience of how we think and talk about comics.
    ————————

    Is it stretching the bounds of credulity to conjecture that folks getting a book purporting to cover “The Best American Comics Criticism” would be disappointed to instead find they’ve purchased a feat of innovative editorial bravado, “a book that actually captures the experience of how we think and talk about comics”?

    Personally, I know how I “think and talk about comics,” and I get to talk about comics for free all the time at the TCJ message board and HU. If I’m laying out some hard-earned bucks, I want to learn from masters of comics criticism; be exposed to powerfully learned, incisive, perceptive thinkers, and thereby have my critical horizons expanded. (And no, that does not automatically mean jargon-spouting, intellectually-inbred academics.)

    On his other essay ( http://www.tcj.com/review/best-american-comics-criticism-roundtable-different-forms-and-shapes/ ), Heer wrote:

    ————————-
    What it comes down to, I think, is the fact that criticism comes in all different forms and shapes. What unites Noah Berlatsky, Ng Suat Tong and Caroline Small is that they have a very narrow minded view of criticism. Criticism, they think, is only the type of writing they do. And since the type of writing they do, for better or worse, isn’t in BACC, they aren’t happy with the book.
    ————————–

    Noah jabbed lightly at me on another thread for my frequent, nerdly reliance upon dictionary definitions. But, “the dictionary can be your friend!” Thus, from dictionary.com, we see:

    —————————
    crit·i·cism
    1. the act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything.
    2. the act of passing severe judgment; censure; faultfinding.
    3. the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work, musical performance, art exhibit, dramatic production, etc.
    4. a critical comment, article, or essay; critique.
    5. any of various methods of studying texts or documents for the purpose of dating or reconstructing them, evaluating their authenticity, analyzing their content or style, etc.: historical criticism; literary criticism.
    6. investigation of the text, origin, etc., of literary documents, esp. Biblical ones: textual criticism.
    —————————

    Could it be that the reason these folks aren’t happy with the book is that (apparently) much of what is in it* isn’t criticism?

    Why, imagine a book titled “The Best French Dessert Recipes.” Which instead, in an innovative approach, features chefs chatting about favorite meals, restaurant reviews, celebrity chef profiles, somebody posting online about how yummy one dessert turned out, etc. And gets praised as “a book that actually captures the experience of how we think and talk about food.”

    If some gastronomes gripe, “Where are the frickin’ RECIPES???”, is it because “they have a very narrow minded view of cookbooks,” or because the tome fails to live up to its all-too-clear billing?

    * All that is in it, Heer says; but surely some actual criticism must’ve sneaked in: “…the type of writing they do, for better or worse, isn’t in BACC…” (Emphasis added)

  24. Jeff Albertson says:

    By the way, Noah: if I call you a troll once a week, it has nothing to do with your online verbiage.

    It has everything to do with your green skin, boarlike fangs, and your residence under one of Chicago’s most-trafficked bridges, where you gorge upon billy goats, Asian carp, and the occasional hapless WizardWorld conventioneer.