Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Editor, the Watchmen, and the Housewives

In newspapers and magazines there tends to be, as everyone is probably aware, a good deal of mass-produced writing, which duly begins with a hook, is duly written in a conversational tone, and is duly polished, without there being very much originality or sincere enthusiasm discernible. Of course, it's a job, and the spring of the inspiration does not spout forth with clockwork regularity like Old Faithful. But then there are extremely well-written articles, and even writers who consistently bring something fresh and characteristic.

Reading the Globe and Mail online, a writer whom I've particularly come to admire is Elizabeth Renzetti, who first impressed me in the quietly friendly, observant, and intelligent sketch of John Le Carré, which was published in connection with Le Carré's latest book, A Most Wanted Man. In contrast to the snide belligerence or lavish adulation or prying impudence that unpleasantly tinge most interviews or sketches of the sort, it was very refreshing. More recently she wrote a portrait of the editor Diana Athill.

In the New Yorker the articles I most consistently read are the film reviews by Anthony Lane, which are delightfully satirical but not, or so I think, fundamentally mean-spirited. Whereas I like A.O. Scott's and Manohla Dargis's reviews in the New York Times, too, these do tend to differ in kind, and vague philosophizing riffs on a film are not nearly as helpful or satisfying as a reasonable overview of plot and a more serious and detailed look at the entire work. If they dislike or like the film, which in itself is at times not clear, it's nice to know why. On the other hand, they often implicitly refuse to pronounce a last, dogmatic opinion on a work, thereby perhaps admitting that the appreciation of films is to a great degree subjective. It should also be noted that they must publish reviews at a far greater rate than either of the critics at the New Yorker.

In any case, the last Lane review I've read is of the comic book-based film The Watchmen. The film has received very good reviews and very unfavourable reviews, but Lane's assessment seems to hit the nail on the head. The following quote may not altogether be very characteristic of his style, but in terms of the enjoyable snobbery and the trenchant insight it is.
Amid these pompous grabs at horror, neither author nor director has much grasp of what genuine, unhyped suffering might be like, or what pity should attend it; they are too busy fussing over the fate of the human race—a sure sign of metaphysical vulgarity—to be bothered with lesser plights.
As for blogs, the writing I so far admire most has been in the Parisian cooking blog Chocolate & Zucchini, which is exquisite, and in the New York-based gossip website Gawker. Gawker's contributors each have their moments, but I especially like Richard Lawson's reviews of second-rate television programmes like The Hills and Gossip Girls and Real Housewives of New York. Evidently fuelled by a deep resentment against having to watch the tripe, but not entirely unsympathetic to the plights of the unreal or real or pretend-real characters, he gives free rein to his imagination. Even if one doesn't watch the shows, the "recaps" are like very, very amusing (though a little ribald) bedtime stories, where non- and fiction seamlessly come together. Richard's masterpiece so far is, I believe, this synopsis of the latest Real Housewives of New York episode.

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