The point, as Sam Tanenhaus puts it, is the argument. “The Times Book Review publishes a lot of quite negative reviews,” he remarks, “and sometimes we put them on the cover, and people are mystified by this. You want to provoke interest in the reader, and the way the critic does that is to abandon himself or herself to the work. Now, it may not be the happiest abandonment, but the sense is that there’s something serious at stake—that it matters whether this book is good or not. The writing about the book matters. The argument matters.”
From the beginning of 2007 to the middle of 2008, approximately 25 percent of the staff jobs in arts journalism were eliminated, according to Douglas McLennan, the director of the National Arts Journalism Project and the editor of the aggregation site Arts Journal (artsjournal.com). The work these critics used to do has been replaced by wire-service copy or by freelance pieces, or it has gone away entirely. “That’s a pretty big hit for a profession, and since then, it’s been getting even worse,” says McLennan. By the end of 2009, he projects, there will be half the number of full-time, paid critics than there were at the end of 2007.
To one-time staffers such as music and film critic Gary Giddins, probably best known for the columns on jazz he wrote during his decades-long tenure at The Village Voice, the transformation of the arts-journalism landscape represents something more than a call to hustle. After all, Giddins left the Voice before the recent layoffs, and he makes a nice living writing books and pieces for The New Yorker and Slate. What’s happening, Giddins says, is a reconfiguring of the complex three-way relationship between writers, readers, and art. “If you can’t make a living writing to one group of readers whom you know, then you write to several groups of readers who are all different, and something’s lost.” He adds: “If Edmund Wilson had to scrounge around to get a piece in print every few months, then he wouldn’t have been the Edmund Wilson we know.”
Further on this issue, Tim Appelo notes, “I’m a mammal. I can adapt. But as critics change, the nature of criticism changes. The less they pay you, the more you’re able to just cover whatever interests you. What that means, though, is that you’re less likely to be forced to immerse yourself in, let’s say, a particular theater scene. If you can’t get a job as a full-time theater critic, as I used to be, then you don’t have to sit through as many plays, and, as a result, your expertise is weaker. You’re less of an expert guide through a particular art scene—in other words, even your value as a consumer guide diminishes.
“Years ago,” Appelo recalls, “Tom Hanks mocked the proliferation of critical voices by saying, ‘Throw a rock, hit a critic.’ Now employers are taking that literally, obliterating staff critics. There’s an increasingly deafening chorus of critics, but virtuoso soloists are falling silent.”
Another point of view holds that those rocks are hitting dinosaurs. To Douglas McLennan, the era of the beat critic is passing for good. “We’re in a period where the old business model no longer works and the new one is not yet capable of supporting the new journalism, whatever that is,” McLennan says.