21 March 2009

The I in wine

[merchant sculpture, venice]Does arrogance go hand-in-hand with professional criticism?

In response to my recent musings on Robert Parker and his anti-engagement style of online discourse, one of the nicest wine-loving folk I know wrote, after several paragraphs of worthy comment, this rather provocative coda:

Thin skin is a tough play in the wine critic game. Arrogance, even worse.

The latter characterization is something I’ve thought about quite a lot over the years. Because it must be said, almost every professional (which I’m defining as paid) wine critic I’ve ever met has a discernable arrogance. Including, though it hardly needs to be reiterated for anyone who knows me, myself.

Now, it’s true that some handle their arrogance better than others. The most successful seem to employ one of two techniques: a passionate humility in their non-critical life, or an equal measure of self-deprecation that usually, but not always, takes the form of humor. I wouldn’t argue that most critics are off-puttingly arrogant, though some certainly are…but still, the character is there in virtually everyone who plies the trade.

Why? Well, I think there are actually two different questions therein. First: is arrogance an essential part of being a critic? And second: does being a critic make one arrogant (or increase that quality, if it already exists)?

I’m afraid I believe the answer to both is yes. Everyone has an opinion, but a paid critic is compensated for theirs under an assumption that others will subordinate their opinions to the critic’s. Otherwise, what market would there be for a critic’s opinions? The critic will succeed or fail based on the perceived value of that subordination (or, sometimes, just because the critic is an unusually entertaining communicator), but the basic fact of a critic’s professional existence is one that puts their judgment “above” that of others. Moreover, to even want to be placed in such a position in the first place betrays a core confidence that one’s opinions can be judged more worthy than others’. The cognitive leap from that to the definition of arrogance looks a lot like standing still.

And if that arrogance somehow isn’t there to begin with, the process of criticism seems to bring it out. Anyone who’s been a fan of the most successful bloggers as they’ve risen from obscurity to compensated fame can see the process at work. Exploration becomes knowledge. Knowledge becomes authority. Argument for the sake of knowledge acquisition becomes argument from authority. Questions become statements. Statements become accusations. What was independent becomes establishment. None of this makes the blogger less successful – in fact, it seems to escalate fame, which is a phenomenon I’m not going to explore here – but it does affect their interactions with their audience.

The only defense is self-examination. Constant, relentless, and even harsh self-examination. Without it, there can be no mitigation. And without mitigation, trouble inevitably ensues. Oh, I could tell embarrassing stories about that

(Another time.)

One caveat: I’d argue for a separation between arrogance as a character trait vs. arrogance as a way of dealing with the rest of the world. They often go hand-in-hand, but they don’t have to. Someone may state their opinions in a voice of unimpeachable authority (earned or not), but they don’t have to be a bastard about it. Staying on one side of that line seems to me to be the key difference between tolerable arrogance and insufferable arrogance.

Unfortunately, the immediacy of the internet brings out the worst in many inherently arrogant types. There’s no time for self-examination when someone is wrong, after all. Many critics have the self-awareness (often coupled with a lack of time, which can be very helpful in this regard) to use the internet in what I’d call “safe” ways – one-to-many communication, like blogs – rather than as a participant in opinionated free-for-alls, like online wine fora.

And those that don’t? Well, sooner or later they get into a lot of trouble. And they behave very, very badly at times. I could undoubtedly fill the next few hours with stories from my own past, but let’s leave lower-tier critics out of this for the moment, and head right to the top. Guess who?

Oh my....in their blind tasting of 2004 (I have no affiliation other than one tasting I do for Howard and Bob each year,but like the professionalism of their tastings)......another "evil" wine blew away the competition...and very noteworthy ones at that....that anti-"terroir" "transparency" creation.....Lascombes looks to have had a sure-fired great showing....of course let me say it before The Usual Suspects chime in....it won't last...won't improve...just a terribly bad wine that people actually like to drink and makes friends for all of Bordeaux...that a do...

Now, I could be as snarky as usual and wonder how someone who is paid for their words can be so persistently incoherent, but then again we could all use an editor from time to time.

I could also spend a while explaining the background of this quoted post, but there’s probably no need. The intent should be clear even if one has no idea of the details. What makes it worse is that it was a thread-starter. Given the identity of the critic who posted it, everyone on that forum is going to click on the thread to read it. And then…what? What contribution is being made here? None. It’s not even an argument. It’s finger-pointing (mostly the middle one) in text form, for no reason other than to – yet again – mock unnamed interlocutors.

Is arrogance to blame here? Well, that’s part of it, yes. There is an obvious implication in this and so many other posts from the same source that what’s most important is not that his criticisms be useful or even right, but that they be acknowledged as right. However, to me, that isn’t arrogance. That’s an inexplicable inferiority complex covered up with arrogance, unfiltered by what my commenter referred to as “thin skin.” And it remains unworthy of the critic in question.

Look, I don’t want to turn this post – and especially not this blog – into a bash-fest over one particular critic. We all have our faults, and some of us put them on display a little more frequently than we’d like. But here’s a plea meant for all of us who do any sort of criticism: remember what’s actually “important” about what we do. It’s the work. Not us.


Anonymous said...

You obviously know that I am fully aware of the name of the unnamed critic. It has never been the arrogance that bothered me, but rather the dismissive attitude towards those that would disagree with his pronouncements handed down from on high. It's not even the rather snarky comments that rankle so much as the cut and run method of his assaults on the intelligence of the community (not to mention English grammar).

Vinogirl said...

Great post. I cancelled my subscription to a major wine publication because of the arrogance of the main Cabernet sauvignon 'expert'.
I had someone say to me recently..."well, you may have a great palate, but I need someone to tell me what is good to drink". These are the type of wine drinkers that like wine critics...I just want to be left alone to drink wine. Drink what you like!

Salil said...

Great piece, Thor. Those sorts of comments are quite tiring to read and it's amazing how many times said critic and a certain colleague of his take the opportunity to fire in cheap shots at people who'll dare to contest their word (almost always without even attempting to understand the premise of the opposing argument). And let's not forget the occasional responses that ignore a number of well reasoned and written arguments, and launch straight into 'I'm drinking this Bordeaux, these Rhones and these other things from magnums for dinner, therefore your points are irrelevant.'

Florida Jim said...

Semantics being what they are, I see confidence being considerably apart form arrogance. Arrogance implies condescension, assertive presumptiveness and an overbearing manner.
Confidence implies a feeling of self-reliance, trust in one's abilities and, to some degree, a boldness in behavior.
In a Venn diagram, these constructs may intersect but seldom do they overlap. For the very simple reason that the world is not inhabited by a single person. The confident individual knows this and accepts other's opinions with grace and civility. The arrogant person fails to.
But then, enough of this nitting and picking; wine criticism is, after all, just people talking about fermented grape juice.
Best, Jim

thor iverson said...

I see confidence being considerably apart form arrogance

I note you go through a fair number of words to get at the difference, all of which I'd argue pull the two to the extremes of their definitions. So while I do agree with you that there's a difference, for better or worse I stand behind the original thesis.