Everybody's a critic
With 133,155 living alumni, the University of Chicago numbers exactly that many critical thinkers in its database. For some alumni, it’s more than a frame of mind. It’s a full-time job.
Hell hath no horror like a brainstorming session in which the participants all have studied at the University of Chicago. It’s not that Chicagoans don’t have lots of proposals. It’s more that they can’t stop judging other people’s. In the marketplace of ideas, Chicago students learn, the produce should be squeezed, sniffed, tapped, weighed, and otherwise tested before buying. So while they understand the letter of the brainstorming facilitator’s rules (“Don’t criticize other people’s ideas. This isn’t a debate, discussion, or forum for one person to display superiority over another.”), they generally take a while—or a while longer—to get into the team spirit.
Comfortable standing apart from the crowd, Chicagoans also pride themselves on being well-versed in a range of topics; able to put those subjects in historical, cultural, and intellectual perspective; and skilled in expressing their views. No wonder so many turn pro.
Of those critical masses, here are quick sketches of eight Chicago alumni who have made their names as opinion makers on matters large and small.
David Brooks, AB’83
The new kid on the New York Times op-ed roster has a reputation as a kinder, gentler conservative. David Brooks, who began his two-columns-a-week post in September, writes about politics and American culture. The latter is also the subject of his 2000 bestseller, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, in which “Bobos” is short for Bourgeois Bohemians, Brooks’s term for those educated elites whose hybrid of capitalist and hippie principles equate being good with making good.
Education. On the way to a bachelor’s in history, Brooks wrote a dozen or so papers on Thucydides.
Turning point. Brooks, who arrived at Chicago as a liberal, penned an April 5, 1983, Maroon column, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” that purported to be a biography of conservative pundit and National Review editor William F. Buckley Jr., including this scene from a typical day in the patrician’s life: “In the afternoons he is in the habit of going into crowded rooms and making everybody else feel inferior. The evenings are reserved for extended bouts of name-dropping.” As collegiate parodies go, it was a success. When Buckley arrived on campus to give a talk entitled “Reflections on Current Disorders,” he asked if Brooks was in the lecture audience—he wanted to offer him a job.
But the parodist was in California, preparing to meet another famously conservative thinker, Milton Friedman, AM’33, in a local public-television debate, taking a socialist position against the free-market economist. As Brooks recalled in the New York Observer, “The show was essentially me making a point, and he making a two-sentence rebuttal which totally devastated my point, and then me sitting there with my mouth hanging open, trying to think what to say. That didn’t immediately turn me into a conservative, but....”
Venues. Brooks’s c. vitae includes brief stays at the National Review and the Washington Times as well as nine years at the Wall Street Journal (as op-ed editor, foreign correspondent, book review editor, and a fill-in stint as movie critic) and a similar tenure at the Weekly Standard, which he joined at its start in 1995.
A contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly, he makes regular appearances on National Public Radio and PBS’s News Hour with Jim Lehrer. He’s also written for the New Yorker, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and the Washington Post.
Generating ideas. “I carry notebooks around and observe how people behave,” Brooks told the Chicago Tribune. “I fill up notebooks and lay them out on the floor. Each pile is a paragraph. And I sit and I stream them all together. I have no memory. I have to write everything down. I’ve never had writer’s block. I can’t think without writing. I can’t think of what I believe in unless I write it down.”
Sound bites. From a Times column on Lucky, the self-billed “Magazine about Shopping”: “It’s so peppy and chipper it makes going down the Hallmark card aisle in the drugstore feel like a trudge through Germanic philosophy.” On presidential hopeful Howard Dean: “Everybody talks about how the Internet has been key to his fund-raising and organization. Nobody talks about how it has shaped his persona. On the Internet, the long term doesn’t matter, as long as you are blunt and forceful at that moment. On the Internet, a new persona is just a click away.”
Taking criticism. “Some people like you, and some definitely do not,” Brooks told the New York Observer. “If you take them all seriously, you get depressed, because there’s a lot of people who hate me—because not every reader of the New York Times is conservative. The worst stuff you don’t mind, because you know they’re crazy.”
Short list. Backward and Upward: The New Conservative Writing, editor (Vintage, 1995); Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Simon & Schuster, 2000); On Paradise Drive: How We Choose to Live in a Rosier Future (Simon & Schuster, June 2004).
Roger Ebert, X’70
In 1975 Roger Ebert became the first person to win a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism. That same year the Chicago Sun-Times columnist and his Chicago Tribune rival Gene Siskel paired for a local PBS show, Opening Soon at a Theater Near You. By 1978 Opening Soon had morphed into the nationally syndicated PBS program Sneak Previews and then into Siskel & Ebert at the Movies, and Ebert found himself with one of the film world’s two most powerful thumbs.
Education. After the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was the 1963–64 editor of the Daily Illini (reviewing La Dolce Vita and The Parent Trap), Ebert did graduate work at Illinois, the University of Cape Town, and Chicago.
Venues. With the Sun-Times since 1967, Ebert is everywhere, including the University’s Graham School of General Studies, where he teaches a fall quarter, noncredit course (in 2003: “Not the New Wave: Before and after the Revolution”) that over the past quarter century has achieved cult status, with students returning year after year.
Following Siskel’s 1999 death, Ebert continued the television show, and in summer 2000 Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper joined him as cohost on Ebert & Roeper and the Movies.
The annual EbertFest—Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival—began in 1999 in his hometown of Urbana. The four-day event, which includes a series of academic panels at the University of Illinois, showcases a baker’s dozen of films that Ebert thinks deserve another look. This April’s schedule includes a film and panel discussion marking the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.
Critical choices. He’s against best-of lists. “Lists are a device by editors to give the appearance of a story without the fact of one,” he said in a 2001 CriticDoctor.com interview. But his The Great Movies (2002) does contain essays on 100 classic films—from Aguirre, the Wrath of God to Written on the Wind.
Guiding lights. “Movies are an empathy machine. Better than any other art form,” he told RottenTomatoes.com, “they allow us the sensation of standing in somebody else’s shoes. We are trapped in ourselves, in our own box of space and time, and to identify with movie characters is a way to get outside of that box.” The “perfect” review, he said, should “allow a reader to determine whether he or she is likely to enjoy or appreciate a film—but that does not require the critic to agree with the reader. The critic who tries to reflect public taste casts himself in the role of the ventriloquist’s dummy….”
How to watch a film, advice dispensed in a May 2000 Sun-Times column: “If you’re really serious about the movies, get together with two or three friends who care as much as you do. Watch the film all the way through on video. Then start again at the top. Whenever anyone sees anything they want to comment on, freeze the frame. Talk about what you’re looking at. The story, the performances, the sets, the locations. The camera movement, the lighting, the composition, the special effects. The color, the shadows, the sound, the music. The themes, the tone, the mood, the style.
“There are no right answers,” he continues. “The questions are the point.”
On the other side of the screen. The critic has a past as a screenwriter, sometimes under the noms de plume “R. Hyde” and “Reinhold Timme.” His most famous opus is director Russ Meyer’s 1970 cult favorite, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
Short list. Annual guides to movies, videos, and DVDs; A Kiss is Still a Kiss (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1984), a collection of interviews; Two Weeks in the Midday Sun (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1987), chronicling the Cannes Film Festival; The Little Book of Hollywood Clichés: A Compendium of Movie Clichés, Stereotypes, Obligatory Scenes, Hackneyed Formulas, Shopworn Conventions and Outdated Archetypes (Virgin Books, 1995); The Great Movies (Broadway, 2002).
Thomas Frank, AM’89, PhD’94
Beginning with The Baffler—a semiannual journal he founded with several friends at the University of Virginia and brought with him to grad school in history at Chicago—Thomas Frank has produced cultural criticism from the far Left. Watching the continually blurred line between U.S. business and culture, he writes as a cynic compelled to point out, with equal parts alarm and style, that the emperor has no clothes.
Education. The 1988 U-Va. grad did his doctoral dissertation on 1960s advertising. Published by the U of C Press in 1997, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism became what so few dissertations are: a bestseller.
Backstory. “I was a conservative when I was in junior high school and high school. I believed it,” Tom Frank admitted to the Wisconsin State Journal in October 2003. “I watched that Milton Friedman documentary on PBS [Free to Choose]. A lot of people became conservative watching that show. And as an ideology, it fit together really well. But it did the classic thing that ideologies are supposed to do: it justified your position in life.”
Opening salvo. As might be expected from a publication that shared office space and a Macintosh computer with Chicago’s WHPK radio station (where Frank’s time as station manager left him impressed with the sheer passion the deejays put into their liner notes), The Baffler first gained attention by smelling a rat, doing a little investigative reporting, and pointing out that a fast one had been pulled on the New York Times: an article explaining Seattle grunge-speak turned out to be based on a source who’d made up her examples as a put-on. After getting the media’s ear The Baffler, which took as it slogan “The Journal that Blunts the Cutting Edge,” continued to pursue its founding mission, “to restore a sense of outrage and urgency to the literature of the Left and simultaneously to unmask the pretensions of the lifestyle liberals.”
Guiding lights. The object of Frank’s outrage was, and remains, big business’s pervasive influence on contemporary culture— an influence so complete, he believes, that it goes largely unquestioned. In The Conquest of Cool, a study of menswear and advertising in the 1960s, he argues that the decade’s “counterculture” was less societal transformation than adaptation to late capitalism: “The countercultural style has become a permanent fixture on the American scene, impervious to the angriest assaults of cultural and political conservatives, because it so conveniently and efficiently transforms the myriad petty tyrannies of economic life—all the complaints about coformity, oppression, bureaucracy, meaninglessness, and the disappearance of individualism that became virtually a national obsession during the 1950s—into rationales for consuming. No longer would Americans buy to fit in or impress the Joneses, but to demonstrate that they were wise to the game, to express their revulsion with the artifice and conformity of consumerism.”
An admirer of H. L. Mencken—for the Sage of Baltimore’s smartly suspicious cynicism, not his politics—Frank styled The Baffler after Mencken’s magazines, The Smart Set and The American Mercury. Frank’s latest collection, Boob Jubilee, borrows its title from “booboisie,” Mencken’s term of nonendearment for the unthinking masses. The journal’s Issue No. 16, “Nascar, How Proud a Sound,” embarks on an equally Menckenesque enterprise, revealing “the shocking breadth of American ignorance.”
Short list. Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from The Baffler, editor (W. W. Norton, 1997); One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy (Doubleday, 2000); Boob Jubilee: The Cultural Politics of the New Economy, editor (W. W. Norton, 2003); What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Metropolitan Books, June 2004).
William Grimes, AM’74, PhD’82
On New Year’s Eve 2003, after five years as restaurant critic for the New York Times, William Grimes wrote his last review. He’ll stay on at the Times, but as a flurry of end-of-an-era media attention made plain, he has given up a foodie’s fantasy job.
Education. After earning a bachelor’s (Indiana University) and a master’s in English, Grimes switched to the comparative study of literature, writing his dissertation on “The Critical Reception of Tolstoy in England, 1880–1910.”
How the taste buds blossomed. “I was always a kid who would order the weirdest thing on the menu, the opposite of a picky eater,” Grimes said in a 2002 New York Public Library news release. “I was thrilled when my parents would take us to a restaurant, which was almost never, because it wasn’t something that happened that often in the 1950s.”
While working at Esquire he was asked to write a cocktail column and segued into covering food history. Joining the New York Times Arts staff he also wrote about food for the Travel and Living sections before being named a food writer in 1997. After Ruth Reichel left the Times to become editor of Gourmet, Grimes took over the critic’s post.
Critical flaw. When a Newsweek Web interviewer called being the Times restaurant reviewer “the coolest job on the planet,” Grimes responded that eating out day after day, night after night, isn’t all beer and skittles: “It’s like Groundhog Day. You wake up the next day having eaten a four-star meal, you must go out and eat another four-star meal. And you get up the next day and you have to go out and eat another four-star meal.”
Guiding lights. Citing the paucity of adjectives to describe how foods taste, Grimes explained his writing strategy to Newsweek Web this way: “[W]hat you have to do is be fairly clever and figure out an end run around the problem. Usually metaphor is your savior.” He tried religiously to avoid the two stalwarts of restaurant reviews: “slathered” and “studded.”
Reviewing the reviewer. “Built into the job,” Grimes told Newsweek Web, “is the idea that you don’t just cavalierly and maliciously go after a restaurant for the pleasure of it because you do have the power to ruin people’s careers and lives. Ultimately you’re writing for the reader, you’re not writing to make the restaurant owners happy. This is a truth that’s just not understood at all in the industry.”
Short list. Straight Up or On the Rocks: The Story of the American Cocktail (North Point Press, 2001) and My Fine Feathered Friend (North Point Press, 2002), a short book prompted by the sudden appearance of a chicken, later named Chicken, in his backyard: “It was, in every way, a normal chicken, except for one thing. It was in the middle of New York City.” Grimes, who coauthored New York Times Guide to New York City Restaurants 2004 (New York Times, 2003), also curated the New York Public Library’s 2002 exhibition of metropolitan restaurant menus, New York Eats Out.
Dave Kehr, AB’75
A film critic’s critic (a crown that only gained more luster when he was fired by the New York Daily News for being too high-brow and too negative), Kehr is past chair of the National Society of Film Critics, collects Italian film posters, and cites 1970s Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris as a major influence.
Education. Kehr earned his degree in English, but his reel education came as president of Doc Films. The student film society “was one of the reasons I wanted to come to the University of Chicago,” he said in a 2001 interview with Steve Erickson in the online film journal Senses of Cinema. “I could go there and see seven or eight films a week at Doc Films, and in the rest of my time do something I thought might open doors, like studying English.”
Venues. His first reviewing gig came at the Maroon: “Chicago is probably the best place in the world to see Italian westerns and porno movies,” the film editor began an October 6, 1972, campus entertainment guide. “Persons with slightly more discriminating tastes,” he continued, “will find the going a little rougher.” (That night Doc Films screened 200 Motels, codirected by Frank Zappa, about the Mothers of Invention on tour.)
Kehr has gone on to review films for the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News, and the New York Times, where he writes the “At the Movies” column.
What’s a critic to do? “Editors don’t want ‘experts,’” Kehr told Erickson. “‘Populism’ has become the buzzword, although it means something completely different from what these people think it means. They want standard Joes who won’t have some ‘pointy-headed’ reaction and just want to flop out on the couch before movies or TV. It’s this American leveling tendency at its worst, where the sense that you can bring any kind of knowledge or experience to the subject matter is the last thing editors want…. The New York Times is one of the few exceptions in America.”
Critical sampling. In a Times piece on Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary about Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, The Fog of War: “Mr. McNamara speaks straight into the camera, as if he wished to talk directly with his listeners, but Mr. Morris will have none of this. The film is full of interventions, ranging from questions hurled by an unseen person (presumably, Mr. Morris) to elaborate computer animation effects, used at one distracting moment to depict the atomic bombing of Japan. The effect is one of a bizarre struggle between observer and observed, as if the two men were arm-wrestling for authorship rights.”
Short list. Kehr doesn’t like revisiting past reviews, so there are no collected works (some reviews appear in National Society of Film Critics anthologies). His new book, Italian Film Posters (Museum of Modern Art, 2003) covers the genre from the silent era through the 1960s, Art Nouveau through Expressionism. He also wrote the 2000 PBS documentary Clint Eastwood: Out of the Shadows.
Edward Rothstein, PhD’94
After award-winning terms as music critic
for The New Republic and chief music critic for the New
York Times, Rothstein is now cultural critic-at-large for the Times,
writing in the Arts & Ideas section on culture, literature, music,
intellectual life, and technology—in articles that move from Queer
Eye for the Straight Guy’s Fab Five to Theodor Adorno and
the Frankfurt School in two paragraphs.
Guiding lights. In the conclusion to Emblems of Mind, Rothstein defines the human attempt to understand music and mathematics in a way that defines the critical enterprise itself: “We begin with objects that look dissimilar. We compare, find patterns, analogies with what we already know. We step back and create abstractions, laws, systems, using transformations, mappings, and metaphors. This is how mathematics grows increasingly abstract and powerful; it is how music obtains much of its power, with grand structures growing out of small details.”
Rothstein’s ability to see music as metaphor has always influenced his criticism: “For most of my writing life,” he said in an April 14, 2003, interview on the WFMU radio program The Speakeasy with Dorian, “I’ve been doing music criticism, but all along I was relating music to other things that were going on.” And for much of the 1980s and 1990s, he continued, a recurring theme was “the dream of a perfect world,” a longing for utopia with which he took issue in a 2001 New York Public Library lecture, “Utopia and Its Discontents.”
The title’s Freudian reference, he told Speakeasy, was intentional: “Civilization is actually what we value as human beings. But the discontents are built into it. You can’t have civilization without discontents. There is no such thing as the satisfaction of all desire.” At the same time, he admitted that part of music’s power comes from being “a way in which utopian thought is felt and expressed and transmitted, providing a glimpse of what could be if things were different—in other words, if we were inhuman.”
On being a critic. “I don’t know too many critics who go out for team sports,” Rothstein confessed in a 1998 Slate electronic-journal entry. “We spend too much time determined to figure out everything for ourselves, shunning the dangers of groupthink, opposing the forces of fashion, the pressures of indebtedness, the obsequies of fandom. Whatever drummer this critical mass marches to, it is not often compatible with notions of teamwork, self-sacrifice, and submission to the will of a coach. We march to the spastic beats of self-conscious individualism—a perverse conformity.”
Short list. Emblems of Mind: The Inner Life of Music and Mathematics (Times Books, 1995); Visions of Utopia: New York Public Library Lectures in Humanities, with Harold Muschamp and Martin M. Marty, PhD’56 (Oxford University Press, 2003).
Susan Sontag, AB’51
An award-winning novelist (In America garnered the 2000 National Book Award for Fiction) who over the past 40 years also has worked as a playwright, filmmaker, poet, and human-rights activist, Susan Sontag is, somewhat to her dismay, best known for her critical essays.
Education. Graduated from Chicago at age 18, Sontag earned master’s degrees in English (1954) and philosophy (1955) from Harvard University.
Opening salvo. Her first essay—“Notes on ‘Camp,’” published in a 1964 Partisan Review—displays characteristic self-confidence (or, as the critic’s critics would put it, arrogance). “Many things in the world have not been named,” she begins, “and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility—unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it—that goes by the name of ‘Camp.’” Explaining her own qualifications to tackle the task, Sontag writes, “I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can. For no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it; he can only, whatever his intention, exhibit it.”
Because the sensibility’s “unnatural” nature makes it “embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about camp,” Sontag eschews the essay form in favor of 58 short notes, interspersed with quotations from camp “ideologist” Oscar Wilde: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks” (Note 10); “The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious” (Note 41); “Camp taste is above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgment.”
Guiding lights. Sontag also expresses her critical credo in the title essay of Against Interpretation (1966), which argues against viewing an art work’s form and its content separately, with content awarded the greater value. Such an act of interpretation “is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.’ It is to turn the world into this world.”
The shadow world of images provides the starting point for On Photography, winner of the 1977 National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Criticism. Its essays explore the paradox that “despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth.” For snapshot takers and professional photographers alike, “[t]here is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.” Sontag reconsiders the uses of photography in Regarding the Pain of Others (a 2003 National Book Critics’ Circle award nominee), refuting her earlier view that repeated exposure to images of war, atrocity, and suffering dull the sympathetic impulse.
She wrote On Photography while being treated for metastatic breast cancer (after years in remission, in 1998 she was diagnosed with another form of cancer); Illness as Metaphor (1978), probably her best-known work, grew out of her experiences as a cancer patient. In Illness she shows how diseases like tuberculosis and cancer became symbols for moral decay and how such symbolism has an effect on patients: “Contact with someone afflicted with a disease regarded as a mysterious malevolency inevitably feels like a trespass; worse, like the violation of a taboo. The very names of such diseases are felt to have a magic power.”
Taking criticism. Sontag says that she pays little attention to reviews. “I often feel I know what’s wrong better than my reviewer does,” she told The Guardian in 2002. Instead, she continued, she judges her work by taking the long view: “Is it an essay that people will want to read 30 or 50 years from now, which is certainly not the case with most essays?” A piece “works for me if it is saying things which are true, original, and saying them in as eloquent, spirited, lively, and lucid way as I can.”
Short list. Against Interpretation And Other Essays (1966); On Photography (1977); Illness as Metaphor (1978); AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989); Where the Stress Falls, a collection of nonfiction (2002); Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). All books published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
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