The best criticism comes to get you

Sometimes I like issues of Nieman Reports, the rough-paged, mostly B&W quarterly publication from Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Or sometimes I don’t. The magazine can stretch too far when covering a topic and find itself knee-deep in repetition and recitation of the news-obvious.

But I like the winter issue. I love it. The issue considers where criticism fits in the modern journalistic landscape, and nearly every essay and article — many from big names — brings different angles to the table. After reading the issue this weekend, I have all kinds of corners eared. You don’t want everything I liked. You couldn’t handle it! So, let me give you three things.

I saw The Sessions a few weeks ago and liked it a lot (and not just because Helen Hunt commits fully to the role). In the new Nieman issue, there’s a profile of Sandy Close, the editor heard on the phone in the movie, talking to writer (star of the movie and a real-life person) Mark O’Brien about his story. In a sidebar, Close talks about how she likes being the phone voice.

It isn’t just a passive ear on the other end of the line, but somebody who really values voices who can tell me what I don’t know, somebody who is able to see connections where most people wouldn’t, to ask the question no one else would ask.

Later in the issue, Paula Antonelli, senior curator at MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, talks about the challenge of integrating design in a curated experience. (She also talks about wanting to curate the @ sign.)

Design is about people and life. It thrives on change and, as such, it is in continuous mutation. Collections are instead permanent records, or at least they used to be. Contemporary curators, however, feel compelled to reflect their time and therefore design collections that are open, their essence self-assured enough to embrace change and pluralism.

Somewhere in between, the magazine interviews Robert Christgau and pull-quotes his 1975 review of Born to Run. It gets my inner critic going.

Just how much American myth can be crammed into one song, or a dozen, about asking your girl to come take a ride? A lot, but not as much as romanticists of the doomed outsider believe. … If “She’s the One” fails the memory of Phil Spector’s innocent grandeur, well, the title cut is the fulfillment of everything “Be My Baby” was about and lots more.

Of course She’s the One fails Phil Spector’s innocent grandeur! Born from Bo Diddley blues-rock, fate’s evil eye hangs over the song, and it’s not flat-out romantic but lights-out romantic. Phil Spector isn’t innocent, so maybe you’re not guilty? Snuff the bulbs, bring the grandeur. Teach fate a lesson.

Great criticism leaves us questioning. “This thing you like,” the critic says, “what does it say about you? What does it say about what you want?”

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