No, this isn’t some tawdry tiff between critics. It’s quite innocent, in fact. And it has a happy ending or, at least, hints at one.
In my Oct. 12 “Ceol” column, entitled “Dearth of Irish Trad Music Criticism in Major Dailies,” I wrote about “a female critic who wrote regularly and well about Irish traditional music for a U.S. newspaper.” Without identifying her, I praised her writing as “good, combining an unclichéd, unimitative style, insight, humor in the service of elucidation rather than ego, research reaching back farther than the latest press release, and enthusiasm tempered by a reliable dung detector.” I also lamented the fact that she withdrew from writing regularly about Irish traditional music mainly because of inadequate pay.
A friend of hers, unknown to me, suspected her as the unnamed “female critic,” forwarded my Oct. 12 column to her, and asked pointblank: “Is this you?” Her subsequent e-mail to me stated: “I think that perhaps it is.”
In that Oct. 12 “Ceol” column I quoted JazzTimes and New York Times critic Nate Chinen about what he perceives to be a “perpetual shortage of influential female jazz critics.” I agreed with him, and I’ll add this here: The unnamed female critic I discussed in my column is, far and away, the most astute and accomplished U.S.-based female writer and critic about Irish traditional music. I know the gender qualification will ruffle some feathers out there, but it merely echoes Chinen’s gender-specific argument in jazz criticism. We need much more of what my unidentified female critic provides as an Irish traditional music journalist. I tried to make her see that and get her back into the fold.
Encouraging me was her admission that she has “a navel-gazing blog” with an identity-cloaking title allowing her to “keep on writing.” Out of respect for her nom de blog, I will not divulge its name, but I did check it out. Her October 15 blog entry, “Keep moving, people,” contained her response to my column. She wrote: “He said I left because it didn’t pay enough. That’s partly true. I was doing too many freelance things, journalism paid the least, and something had to go. But I also left for another reason: the anxiety. I loved writing, but I constantly found myself wondering, with each opinion article I put out, ‘Who the hell do I think I AM, anyway?’ I’m not Irish, I’m relatively new to the field (only ten years or so), and I felt uncomfortable about taking a stand, about putting myself in the position of judge, about telling the world too much about what I think, as if they care. And yet, opinionated was what I was getting paid for.”
That honest statement essentially qualifies her as a critic. All critics should be susceptible to doubts about their “position of judge.” I am.
Still, I won’t back down from the imperative of my task: To tell readers what I think, what I like, and what I don’t like, based on hopefully attuned ears, accurate research, and unpinched, unbiased taste informed by decades of close listening.
I confess I stumble at times. So will she. It comes with the territory. But to avoid the responsibility of weighing in with an opinion is to break a precious covenant with readers, who want to know about an album or book: Is it worth my time and money? If you fail to answer that question explicitly or implicitly, you fail miserably at your job as critic. So stick your neck out and state your opinion. Let readers decide if you’re serving wisdom or shoveling witlessness.
Stephen Holden, a long-term scribe at the New York Times, is notorious for describing, not reviewing, live music with which he’s apparently unfamiliar, such as Irish traditional music. In those instances, he’s a critic-manque.
My unnamed female critic is a musician, and so are two men I believe would also make fine Irish traditional music critics. One is in his twenties; the other is in his forties. Their judgments about Irish trad are knowledgeable, reliable, perceptive, and frank to the point of provocative–in private. I encouraged both to become formal critics, and both said no. Neither wants to risk the wrath of fellow musicians.
Every so often I’ll encounter a major newspaper critic I admire who defaults to description rather than writes a true critique. This happened recently, and I sent the critic’s review of an Irish traditional recording to my resistant, 20-something candidate for critic to get his reaction. This was his reply: “Interesting how it’s an ‘album review’ but he carefully steers clear of any kind of judgment. Hard to tell if he liked it or not. I’d guess he rates it a 6 or 7 out of 10. It’s as if he found an angle … and wrote a research paper on it.”
I could not agree more with that assessment, and the more tantalizing question, left unanswered, is: Why did this major newspaper critic not express an opinion? Was it fear of hurting the career of an otherwise talented performer struggling to be heard in a difficult music marketplace?
In his outstanding memoir “Boston Boy,” renowned jazz critic and fellow Wall Street Journal contributor Nat Hentoff regrets panning an album made decades ago by alto saxophonist Paul Desmond in Down Beat magazine, where, Hentoff noted, “a negative review … could mightily injure sales, and feelings.” When Desmond, probably best known for his hugely popular composition “Take Five,” died from cancer at age 52 on May 30, 1977, Hentoff admitted that “the album I gave only a couple of stars to years before wasn’t all that bad, come to think of it, as I often do.”
Have I ever regretted panning an album? Certainly I have lost several musician friends because of my negative critiques. But my regrets coalesce around how I occasionally expressed my criticism rather than what I criticized. I made it a point to apologize to one musician for a regrettable turn of phrase I used. “I needed the kick in the ass,” he said. In that moment, we surprised each other.
I have also stunned some of my toughest skeptics among musicians with positive reviews, upending any assumption that animus animates my negative critiques. One skeptical musician told me: “I felt sure you were going to trash my album.” I replied: “It’s terrific. My job is to say so.” For me, the core question from readers keeps recurring: Is it worth my time and money?
You, the readers, judge my judgments. If I am found wanting, you won’t read them, and posterity–the most unforgiving critic of all–will ensure my writing is forgotten. That’s the way it should be.