Saturday, March 24, 2007

Reviewing? Or just a good bitch?

There's a bit of a blue happening over at the Sarsaparilla blog at the moment. To summarise, Kirsty put up a post about television reviewing in general but in particular reference to Ian Cuthbertson who writes for The Weekend Australian Review section. Basicaly she says he's not up to scratch because of his contempt for both television and its watchers. The comments generated by Kirsty's whinge quickly became split into two camps and turned into a bit of a 'journos vs the academics', which actually makes strangely compelling and amusing reading, if occasionally slightly undignified (a few times I felt sullied just reading it).

Anyway, it made me start thinking about television reviewing. I think there's two types of television review actually. There's the more considered and thoughtful engagement with the material and context (the kind of review I think Kirsty was hankering after), which is akin to other kinds of thoughtful reviewing - book, film, theatre music etc. But then there is a more informal commentary (really most suited to the more relaxed medium of television) in which the reviewer becomes your friend on the couch dissing popular culture with relish because one of the things Australians love is a good bitch and one of the safest contexts in which to do it is in front of the television. We see it, for better or for worse, as cathartic. We even call bitching 'venting' as if something dire might happen if we don't let it all out.

What's interesting about this though, as the Sarsaparilla post and the comments show, is that while Australians love a good bitch, we often don't deal with direct confrontation very well. When we bitch there is a usually a certain tacit complicity of agreement (whether you agree or not), which only enhances the pleasure of the bitch. Bitching isn't fun any more if someone actually calls you a bitch. I saw Kirsty's post as a bitch too, on the same continuum, the bitchiness of the reviews she was reviewing lured her into similar behaviour - serious critique doesn't usually allude to penis size. But my point is, it's not very nice to get caught bitching (in fact it's pretty mortifying) and that's what's happened here. Kirsty's been caught by another clique, equally articulate, equally righteous in their indignation. Sarsaparilla have to close their ranks - what choice do they have? Of course they have to support their writer. Everyone's defensive, everyone's feeling exposed, the moral ground is shifting and everyone's fighting to keep it. And perhaps this makes Kirsty's point for her - this is why commentary as bitching ends up not working out so well, because it divides, rather than creating an open forum and a thoughtful exhange of ideas.

I'm okay with my television commentators sitting back and having a bit of a a point. I agree with Kerryn Goldworthy's point that Australia is a small industry and no one's really so uber famous and untouchable that being called Stoopid in a national weekend paper wouldn't be a bit ouchy. (I'd be pretty upset if I read a review of Undine in a major Australian newspaper saying it was stoopid.) There is a difference between harmless bitching (say, talking a bit snidely about the singing untalents of Aus idol contestants, since they put themselves on that line) and nasty bitching (like, say, saying in a national newspaper that someone on Aus idol has a fat arse or has an IQ smaller than a potato*). Actually an even better example is talking about Steve Irwin as a torturer of animals who deserved anything he got before he died and talking about him as a torturer of animals asking for the animal kingdom to enact its revenge hours after he died, as Germaine Greer did. There's a line that need not be crossed, and most people are smart enough to work that line out. (I'm not in a position to comment whether or not Ian Cuthbertson crossed the line since I haven't the faintest idea who he is.)

I do agree with Kirsty that there is a culture of derision in television commentary. But I think that culture of derision, of undervaluing the audience, of seeing them as 'the masses' and therefore somehow collectively stupid, goes way down deep into the whole industry. From the production of hugely cynical shows like Oprah, which plays on sentimentality and people's feelings of self worth, loneliness and lack of community to make a lot of money (okay, I'm saying that out my ear and I can't back that up with evidence, but this is my blog and I can generalise wildly if I want to) to 'reality' television that bears no actual resemblance to reality to that programming mentality that sticks the best shows on at some indeterminate time after 10pm on an indeterminate day, fiddling about with the order of the episodes to the hour after hour of Simpson repeats... We actually gave up on television with the concurrent emergence of reality tv and the release of every television show ever made on dvd - we still watch television, we still LOVE television, we just watch it on dvd. We rely heavily on word of mouth and criticism (usually user generated on Amazon or similar sites) to make our choices.

If you are going to pop into Sarsaparilla, read the post by Meredith on roadside memorials: All you hear is time stand still in travel. A beautiful and moving post, the kind of cultural commentary I adore.

*the iq of a potato of course being 3.


  1. How do you give an honest opinion without offending people? What should you do then, shut up? Or give them bullshit? Because If that's what you want, say so.

    Commercial TV exists to deliver an audience to advertisers, that's all. It's a business. And if certain shows don't appeal to the mug majority then sponsors just won't fund them. That's why producers and writers do indeed set out to make crap shows: Freudian Housewives on the loose, and sexy Earl with his killer moustache, for example. Likening a pimp medium of this sort to books and theatre, etc, is totally wrong. Even some of the adverts themselves would have been considered obscene not long ago.

    There's little that commerce won't come at to imprint products onto viewers brains. Humiliation has been doing enormous business: displays of fat people trying to lose weight and getting kicked off the show is just one of the latest.

    Kirsty admits to favouring Murphy simply because of Murphy's "feminist sensibility". Well what a surprise. The fact that I was banned from Sarsparilla for misspelling some fem's name is no surprise at all.

    What scares me is that these unforgiving people, ruthlessly censoring their arts blog for PC reasons, are the same types who decide which books get published.

  2. Actually, most of the people I know who decide which books get published are nice (including me - who doesn't actually decide which books do get published but occasionally gets to say which ones don't and recommend ones that should). There's a surprising absence of editors blogging in Australia. Sophie Cunningham used to be a publisher but she now writes full time. Andrew Kelly at black dog book maintains an interesting blog.

    The 'literati' (those well-dressed people who sit up at the back of the auditorium laughing rudely at people who draw on the Tempest in a YA book as though it's unacceptable for a young(ish) writer to write about Shakespeare, which actually happened to me at an awards ceremony, where my novel Undine was commended) in my experience rarely have anything particularly useful contribute to the publishing industry or probably the world at large.

    Which by the way isn't a comment on Sarsaparilla people, some of whom I've come across professionally and most of whom I do not know. I have no relationship to their site, except as an interested reader.

  3. Well pardon my mutiple disconnect (Sars-speak, work it out for yourself) but I'd reckon that educated middle-class career women in the arts and publishing are very likely to be politically correct. What do you think?

    The problem nice folk have with the internet is that low-born poorly educated uncouth beasts like myself whom they would never invite into their homes can mingle with them anyway -much to their horror of course. My crime at Soda Pop of inadvertantly writing Allison instead of Alison caused such panic as to almost tip the boat over. Since then I've been on MODERATION, which is a handy device of course to prevent awkward questions ever seeing the light of day, and which also means opinions not to the regime's liking can never have happened.

    Well I always considered Orwell's 1984 -in which documents proving certain things occurred are destroyed to hide the fact, to be science fiction. But it's very clear to me now that he was talking about the internet.

  4. Anonymous5:53 PM

    Well heck, Ian Cuthbertson is nothing to fight over. Not with people like Heather Havrilesky out there. She writes the fantastic I Like to Watch column at in which she routinely demolishes current US television programs. Still kefuffles are fun and I shall check this one out asap.

  5. Oh God! Fascinating. Intense. I got 1/3 into it and lost my train of thought. There proves my mental uselessness. Sigh. Can't even follow a good argument these days. But the kids are happy. XX