21 April 2009

Untangled & unencumbered

[wrestling statues]There’s a saying borrowed from academe that’s broadly applicable to the world of wine chatter, which I’ll paraphrase:: “the reason the arguments are so intense is that the stakes are so small.” And so the tempest in a decanter created by a pair of blog posts (here and here, some aftermath here and here) isn’t all that surprising. This is about as juicy as wine scandals get: accusations of hypocrisy, of ethical breaches, of abusive moderation, of plain old jackassery, all laid at the altar of the high priest of wine criticism…maybe someone should film it with a shaky hand-held camera. Perhaps with a few gratuitous shots of flatulent dogs.

It’s an interesting conflict, no doubt, but the more worrisome component of the controversy is the shaky foundation on which it rests. In the comments that follow the two blog posts, and on the linked forum thread, there’s a persistent but passionately-expressed insistence that the root of the problem is bias, whether actual or potential.

This is ridiculous.

I’ve written about this before, and at length. And while this will be an opportune moment to revisit some of those arguments, the current brouhaha offers an additional perspective.

Note: this essay deals primarily with critics, not with writers in general. I’ve explained the difference in detail here, and almost all wine communicators engage in both, but a shorthand way to differentiate the two is: writers inform, critics judge. Bias, even if one accepts the argument that it is bad, is largely irrelevant when considering the primary work of the writer. If interesting or useful information has been communicated, then the writer has succeeded, whether or not bias plays a role.

Are biases disqualifying? It’s very easy to answer this one: if they are, then there can be no such thing as a critic, because everyone has biases. Everyone. Preference is as natural a human quality as breathing. To be sure, self-awareness is necessary; beware the critic who tells you that they lack bias, because they’re lying to you and – more importantly – to themselves. Transparency is equally crucial. With the widespread adoption of the internet, the only actual limit on it – the lack of a ready venue in which to be transparent – has been eliminated. It would be to the benefit of everyone if all critics made a habit of publishing their biases for all to read. For they most certainly have them.

But this is a bit of a diversion. People who complain about bias aren’t, believe it or not, actually concerned with bias. They’re concerned with entanglement and encumbrance. For example, there’s obviously no functional problem with a critic who prefers Zind-Humbrecht to Trimbach as a result of their internal biases, but there is a problem with one who either is, or believes herself to be, unable to express the opposite viewpoint due to personal or economic pressure. It’s completely natural to prefer Sancerre blanc to Marlborough sauvignon blanc, but it’s potentially* problematic if that preference is compensated outside a journalistic revenue stream, and it’s even worse if that compensation is anticipatory.

[Colleoni statue]*I say “potentially” in the first case, because it isn’t clear that all forms of compensation would be problematic. Accepting an invitation to speak at a world conference on sauvignon blanc would seem to be OK. Accepting an invitation to speak before the Society for the Promotion of Sancerre is probably still OK, as long as there’s no attempt to control the critic’s message for the purposes of marketing. Accepting an invitation to write marketing copy for the Society for the Promotion of Sancerre? Most definitely problematic under some ethical schemes, though the society’s use of the critic’s published work for that purpose would obviously be fine, subject to the rules set down by the critic’s publisher and the principles of fair use and copyright as they exist in the relevant realms.

For those who haven’t thought much about the issue, the obvious solution is to remove all potential sources of entanglement. In other words, a sort of enforced asceticism, though with free-flowing alcohol. Pushed to its ideal (that is, purest) form, that would mean cutting off ties between the critic and all winemakers, importers, marketers, distributors, sommeliers, retailers, restaurateurs, other critics, etc.

The problems with this level of retreat from real life are obvious. From a practical standpoint, the acquisition of wines to criticize (especially hard-to-source wines) becomes very difficult without contacts in the industry, and the acquisition of knowledge with which to better-characterize the objects of criticism becomes nearly impossible. (There’s an expansion of that argument here.) A cynic will wonder how often requiring quasi-monastic professional existences – especially when the divorce is from the field that a critic loves so much they’ve decided to make it their life’s work – is successful in preventing lapses. Consider: much of the fun of wine is sharing it with like-minded enthusiasts. Must the critic eschew relationships with enthusiasts who have themselves become entangled with any commercial aspect of wine? It would seem the safest bet, because entanglements can exist via third parties, yet who makes wine their career other than its greatest enthusiasts? Lacking the ability to make contact with other enthusiasts, the critic’s life is a lonely one indeed. Loneliness can lead to resentment. And isn’t active resentment of the subject of criticism a far more dangerous bias than having lunch with Olivier Humbrecht?

Ah, but what about restaurant critics, one might ask? Some (certainly not all) cloak themselves in anonymity, avoid all situations at which they might encounter chefs or restaurant owners, and dine on their publisher’s dime (although these days, said recompense rarely covers the entirety of a critic’s work). What’s wrong with that model?

First of all, restaurant critics are the only critics asked to take these steps on a regular basis. In no other field of criticism is this level of separation, and in fact outright deception, required or expected. Second, anonymity rarely works for long (if at all), as the photos of allegedly unknown critics hanging in restaurant kitchens all over the world will attest. And third, does anyone think that restaurant criticism is a clear order of excellence above and beyond that of other fields? If the answer to that question is anything other than an enthusiastic “yes,” maybe it’s worth questioning how much value enforced separation and rigid constraints bring to the consumer.

A caveat: I’m not arguing that there isn’t obvious potential value in anonymity (which is just a particularly obvious version of enforced separation), as anyone who remembers Ruth Reichl’s visits to Le Cirque knows. But the value of pretend invisibility is limited, both by time and by effect. Of far, far more importance is that the critic be good. Being anonymous will not help a lousy critic become more useful to the consumer. Nor will being free of all possible potential conflicts of interest.

Given all this, it seems obvious that the real question is not whether a critic has biases, or even if there are entanglements and encumbrances, but to what extent they affect the work. This, incidentally, is why revelation and transparency are more important than impossible-to-achieve independence; the reader can, with knowledge that contextualizes a critic’s work, make an informed judgment as to that work’s worth. Thus, a compromised critic will not escape detection, even if consumers’ reaction to that knowledge will differ. More importantly, a judgment as to a critic’s quality will be made primarily on the quality of the work, rather than suspicion and rumors of actual, perceived, or imaginary conflicts. What matters is not why a critic lauds a wine, but that said praise is of utility to the consumer. (This is all laid out in greater detail here.)

[sagrada familia crucifix]And now, the new perspective on this well-worn (at least by me) issue that I promised several hundred paragraphs ago. It’s useful to ask whence the motivation to demand absurd levels of purity comes. I think it comes from a fundamental understanding of what critics do. They are, very simply, paid to opine. That’s it. They may, in the course of their opinion-mongering, do other things – which is why most critics are more properly identified as hybrid critics/writers – but when they’re paid to be a critic, they’re paid to critique. To render judgment. To offer an opinion.

Opinions, judgments, critiques…they’re all 100% subjective. Full stop, end of story. There may indeed be greater value in informed opinion, but the inherent subjectivity of a critical judgment is unassailable. I don’t think that some consumers understand this. There often appears to be a belief – and reading the comments in the above-linked blog posts and forum threads shows that this belief is widespread, though (revealingly) no one can agree on the specifics – that there is some sort of “more objective” version of an opinion that is made less likely by the existence of bias or entanglement. This, too, is nonsense. The opinion swayed by externalities is no more or less subjective than the pure and honest one, even though it’s different. So if there’s a desire for less subjectivity, it’s a futile one, because what’s asked is impossible. All the consumer can expect of the critic is to tell the truth and to say what she actually thinks.

In addition to an ongoing conflation of two conflicting ideas (objectivity and subjectivity), there’s a misunderstanding of the preparation and mindset fundamental to the non-accidental critic. Accusations of inexorable bias (“certainly a critic can’t judge wine X fairly if they’ve had lunch with the winemaker”) rest upon a foundational assumption that the critic is unaware of these potential sources of conflict, that they will inevitably come as an insoluble surprise to the critic, and that they will thus lead to unavoidable compromise. This assumption is particularly insulting as it appears to think or expect very little of critics. Any smart critic knows all this going in. Any ethical critic has thought about, is thinking about, and will continue to think about these issues and their chosen responses to them. Any good critic will make it clear to both consumer and source where their boundaries are. Again, transparency helps: while critics are revealing their biases, they should also detail their practices.

A sensible consumer would not presume a predilection towards corruption. Instead, they’d conclude that a critic has thought about these issues and deals with them on a daily basis. That to the extent possible given the realities of her career, she will try to act ethically and honestly. That she will not lie to consumers in order to gain advantage over them. That she will not act unethically in order to gain advantage from her suppliers or her publishers. And so forth. These conclusions will be tested and retested in an atmosphere of natural suspicion, to be sure, but it is rather obnoxious to assume, without evidence, that a predilection to unethical behavior is beyond a critic’s control. One does not create a being of pure ethics by encaging that being in some sort of procedural deprivation chamber. The motivation to ethical behavior cannot be imposed from without, but must be generated (and regenerated) from within. If externally-imposed ethics were entirely or even largely effective, there would be some societal evidence thereof. There’s not, except to the contrary.

Another note: publications most certainly can impose their own ethical restraints on critics. This is a contractual arrangement, voluntary in both directions. But these days, they’re more often an attempt to address the concerns of the consumer, not the work itself, for all the reasons I’ve detailed above.

In fact, most critics would laugh – albeit with a certain sadness – at the assumption that their loyalties could be bought, no matter what anyone else suspects. By taking on the role of a critic, they’ve taken on the potential (and inevitable) conflicts even before they’ve published a single word of criticism. They’ve accepted that they must deal with those who will attempt to corrupt them and those who will always believe them corrupt. And they’ve understood that their work will be judged in such a way that subverting their judgment to external influences can only damage their integrity and their reputation. Critics who have sold out – and they exist – always pay some sort of price. But it’s unfair to make ethical critics pay it along with them in a futile attempt to satisfy impossible preconditions.

As I’ve said with more precision in my essays on ethics, objectivity, and independence, the search for a visible armor of incorruptibility is a hopeless one. Not only because ethical behavior is an internal, rather than external, property of the critic, but because it’s not what the consumer actually wants. The most ethically monastic critic is not necessarily the best critic, and vice-versa. Surely what the consumer really wants are skill, efficacy, and utility. The endless focus on bias, on entanglement, and on the appearance of or possibility for conflict distracts from the key question a consumer must ask of any critic’s work: is it useful?

Update: The always-eloquent Jancis Robinson, who is (aggravatingly) better at what we do than any of the rest of us, offers her own thoughts on this issue. And I note with some pleasure that, for the most part, she appears to agree with me.

5 comments:

Florida Jim said...

"Is it useful?"

Which leads to the question, to whom?
The easy answer is the consumer but there is no standard consumer just as there is no standard critic.

For the last several years I have pretty much divorced myself from reading the work of professional wine critics. No Advocate, Spectator, Burghound, etc. I have still seen articles on different areas written my many authors but almost nothing written about specific wines (with the exception of internet bulletin boards - but then few professionals reside there).
Such abstinence was intentional; I wanted to try, as best I could, to judge any wine I tasted without the preconceptions that naturally occur when one reads opinions about specific wines in advance.
It was an interesting exercise; maybe I gained a bit more confidence in my own opinions and perhaps I missed some nice wines that got written up.

I have decided that I will no longer make any effort to keep from reading the pros. Likewise, I will make no effort to raed them. I will simply take what comes and continue to taste wines (and now make them) with my own rather individual criteria foremost.

Another step, and shall be where I started.
Best, Jim

thor iverson said...

A useful practice. I wish more people would try it, but unfortunately -- if understandably -- people are terrified of making an expensive mistake. Though sometimes I wonder if the actual terror is not making the mistake, but being seen to make the mistake...

If I didn't get a chance to taste a lot of wines but was a heavy purchaser of them, I'd probably rely on a few critics; specialists, most likely. That said, I think I've always learned a lot more -- not just about wine, but about wines I'd like to explore -- by reading 2000 words on Domaine Cauhapé than by reading 100 Jurançon notes.

One of the ironies of what I do (even though I'm rarely a "critic" as such) is that I'm not, and never have been, a follower of critics. I tend to make my own decisions. Always have.

John M. Kelly said...

Thor - Seems to me that those clamoring loudest at the gates fall into two camps. First, there are those who simply disagree with the bias of a particular critic and are looking for an explanation of why said critic could be so wrong - obviously it is because he/she is in the pocket of commercial interest x. Second, there are those who take issue with the power of any particular critic - or maybe it's envy. Anyway, members of this group are looking for any chink in the armor, or shooting all they arrows they can hoping to hit the heel - anything, to take those at the heights down a peg or two. And sometimes those on high play into the hands of this mob with a display of hubris. Meh.

Vinogirl said...

Thanks for the link to the Jancis article.

thor iverson said...

First, there are those who simply disagree with the bias of a particular critic and are looking for an explanation of why said critic could be so wrong - obviously it is because he/she is in the pocket of commercial interest x.I agree that there are people who feel this way.

or maybe it's envyBut with this, I don't agree. I know a lot of writers and critics. A lot. Envy has never, ever come up, nor have I ever seen it. I think it's a bogus argument that attempts to evade engaging actual points of conflict via an ad hominem.

I think that there's a third group, one that's growing, and possibly the largest at this point: those who, tired of the relentless personal attacks and often-vile character assassinations issued by those "on high," wish to point out that one of the ethical standards with which certain critics have repeatedly bludgeoned all and sundry turn out to be not particularly closely-held by those doing the bludgeoning. Whether one calls this unfortunate but unimportant, as I've done, or outright hypocrisy coupled with detestable behavior, which is also a valid way of describing it, the fact is that the targets of the current debate really only have themselves to blame for their current plight. Had they acted with more humility, not repeatedly attacked their own critics on both personal and professional levels, they wouldn't find themselves having to defend positions that, it turns out, they can't actually defend.