Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bruised Egos

Yesterday I came across a particularly interesting passage by Virgil Thomson:
Well, criticism is often injurious; there is no question about that. Many a recitalist, receiving unfavorable reviews, finds it more difficult to secure further engagements than if the reports had been less critical. Minor careers have been ruined overnight that way. Major careers are rarely harmed by criticism, because major artists can take it. They don’t like to; but they have to; so they do. All the same, it is the big boys, the great big boys that nothing could harm, that squawk the loudest. I know, because I have been in the business for several years now.
The context behind this passage had to do with a biography of Serge Koussevitzky by Moses Smith. Kossevitzky had tried to stop the publication of the book because he found he injurious. (He did not claim that the book was libelous.) Basically, Thomson used his bully pulpit of the Herald Tribune to come to Smith's defense, primarily by arguing that injury was part of the trade, so to speak.

I have no idea how many of my colleagues (including the ones I do not know) give much thought to using injurious language in what they write. One friend once suggested that, whenever I am writing about someone (positively or negatively), I should try to assume the point of view of how that person will actually read what I write. Since I tend to write pieces longer than the ones that show up in print, this includes the question of how much attention that person will pay, just like any other reader.

One consequences is that, whenever possible, I try to begin by finding something positive to say. Sometimes I feel that, if I put enough attention on the positive, the negative will take care of itself. This may amount to a passive-aggressive approach to an observation made by the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu in trying to identify a cross-cultural universal:
There is nothing worse than to pass unnoticed: thus, not to salute someone is to treat him like a thing, an animal, or a woman.
Another strategy I use is to draw upon the positive as context for discussing the negative. This amounts to giving the performer(s) credit for getting things right part of the time and then speculating on why the technique could not carry over into the rest of the time. There are also occasions when, due to the novelty of the experience, I have not felt equipped to make the transition from perception to judgment. I actually tend to enjoy such situations, because they compel me to put all of my energy into description. I figure that, if I do my job well enough, then there is nothing wrong with my implying that the reader should then make up his/her own mind. After all, that is what any of my readers who take listening seriously are going to do in any case!

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