Reflections on Reflecting
An artist engages with her critic.
I commend to your attention a feature in today’s New York Times titled “How a Review Changed Both Sarah Silverman and Our Critic.”
In 2005, A.O. Scott, co-chief film critic for The New York Times, panned “Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic,” which was based on her one-woman show and involved taboo-breaking jokes about a range of topics including race. Suggesting Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor as reference points, our reviewer wrote, “She depends on the assumption that only someone secure in his or her own lack of racism would dare to make, or to laugh at, a racist joke, the telling of which thus becomes a way of making fun simultaneously of racism and of racial hypersensitivity.”
The critique “hit me hard,” Silverman later said, and led her to take another look at her act.
It’s rare that a review has that kind of effect, and as part of a series of wide-ranging conversations Scott is having with artists, he and Silverman recently sat down via video call to discuss that moment and why admitting you’re wrong (as Silverman asked our critic to do as well) can be freeing.
The rest is a lightly-edited transcript of a conversation between the two, in which Silverman reflects on how her approach to comedy and life has changed while Scott admits that parts of his review were unfair and hurtful. I don’t have any great insights to add, really, other than that more of these sorts of dialogs would be helpful.
There’s much to be said of Teddy Roosevelt’s oft-quoted observation,
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
But, done right, critics are extremely valuable, bringing really useful insights and broader cultural understanding to their audience. I’ve lately been enjoying Slate music journalist Chris Molanphy’s “Hit Parade” podcast, which looks at the history of the pop charts in the rock era in a particularly engaging way. (Indeed, I’ve gone back and listened to episodes I initially skipped, about genres and artists I don’t care for, because his treatment is thought-provoking.)
More broadly, we’re particularly bad as a society right now at engagement. Arguments from people with different political, cultural, and class views tend to simply be dismissed altogether making productive dialog next to impossible.
The OTB commentariat is better than most at this and I’ve certainly learned a lot over the 18-plus years I’ve been engaging here. Still, we’ve managed to run off essentially all of the thoughtful conservatives and become something of a monoculture.