Saturday, 21 January 2012

criticising the critic's critic

I don’t know if Norman Lebrecht has some sort of personal feud going on with Anthony Tommasini, or if perhaps Lebrecht is just jealous that he wasn’t invited to teach the Oberlin Conservatory’s criticism course and is hence arbitrarily spouting bile at random targets. But either way, he has crossed a line with this post, in which he takes a completely unobjectionable piece of text by Tommasini and subjects it to a sort of incompetent pedantry, in an effort to make Tommasini look stupid. Needless to say, he not only fails, but he also comes across so spectacularly small-minded and dim that it's actually worth pointing out.

My original intention was to do to him what he did to Tommasini. But unfortunately it turns out that there are in fact no completely unobjectionable extracts anywhere on Norman Lebrecht’s blog, and so I’ve decided just to use the (hugely objectionable) Lebrecht post under discussion. Let’s join him in paragraph three.
Meanwhile, it’s business as usual on the Times.
Is “the Times” a boat? Or a day of the week? Does Lebrecht perhaps mean “on” as in “pertaining to”—is the business as usual about “the Times”? It is not clear what this sentence means. I am able to guess from context that “the Times” refers to the New York Times; however, I would have expected “Times” to be in italics, as it is in Lebrecht’s previous paragraph. And also, he presumably meant “at” rather than “on”. Business isn’t generally “on” newspapers, is it? It’s “at” them. 
Reading this morning’s paper, I wondered what would happen if Anthony Tommasini review of a Lang Lang performance of the 2nd Bartok concerto was subjected to tutorial criticism.
Why are we told he was reading this morning’s paper? I don’t care about that. It isn’t directly relevant to the point he’s making. And why does he tell us he “wondered” this? Surely what actually happened was that he decided to do it. We are not living in a world of wonder, Mr. Lebrecht, but a stone cold world of fact. You actually have subjected Anthony Tommasini to the utter critical bilge you presumably imagined over breakfast, and now we all have to live with the consequences. Don’t hide behind the smokescreen of your imagination. This happened. No, I don’t like it either, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.

And he really goes proper wrong after that bit. You can't just leave pronouns out in English in cases such as this. “Anthony Tommasini review of a Lang Lang performance” is not a thing. “This Anthony Tommasini review of a Lang Lang performance” would have been fine, as would “Anthony Tommasini’s review of a Lang Lang performance”—but what Lebrecht has written is simply wrong. The hyperlink is also positioned in a really stupid place, which makes me suspect that he is crap at computers.

Further, what is “tutorial criticism”? Is it the criticism of tutorials? That’s what it reads like to me, but this makes no sense. Presumably he actually means “criticism given by a tutor”, which is a bit of a stretch. Not the worst error committed, but hardly good English.
It might look something like this (Times text in italics):
There is an image directly underneath this. To my eyes, the image looks nothing whatsoever like “what would happen if Anthony Tommasini review of a Lang Lang performance of the 2nd Bartok concerto was subjected to tutorial criticism” (though to be fair I do find it difficult to visualise syntactically invalid clauses).

I am also perturbed by Lebrecht’s use of the conditional. Why is he not certain that it looks something like what follows, given that what follows is clearly an attempt at such criticism? How are we meant to believe it if he doesn’t believe it himself?
 The superstar pianist Lang Lang may shamelessly cultivate a flamboyant persona.
May, or does, cultivate?
My money’s on “may”. Let’s try it Lebrecht’s way though. “The superstar pianist Lang Lang does shamelessly cultivate a flamboyant persona.” No, that’s stupid. “May” is far better. Does Lebrecht not think that “may” is a valid word? Why does he ask this question?

Also, there’s an extra space at the start of the quotation, before “The”. If you’re going to subject someone’s writing to the minute level of detail Lebrecht attempts, you should probably get your formatting right.
And why ‘shamelessly’? Do we know he feels no shame?
No, we do not know this. That’s why “may” was a canny choice earlier on in the sentence.
Personally, I’ve found him very sensitive to his faults.
Using both “Personally” and “I’ve” draws particular attention to the author himself. The overall effect is of Lebrecht showing off that he has met Lang Lang. Perhaps he feels aggrieved that nobody has recently applauded him for this. To be fair, I sympathise entirely. I met Anthony Horowitz once and nobody has ever asked me for my autograph.
In any event, adverbs should be used sparingly, as a last resort.
It’s hard to know where to start with this one really. I mean, obviously too many adverbs is a bad thing, but to suggest that they are generally to be avoided is sort of mad. And I have no conception of what sort of linguistic “last resort” scenario Lebrecht is imagining here. When writing, does he choose every subsequent word systematically by part of speech? Does he go “Can I use a noun? No. Can I use a verb? No. Can I use an adjective? No. Can I use a preposition? No. Can I use an article? No and sometimes I forget to include them anyway. Can I use a pronoun? No. Can I use an interjection? No. Can I use a conjunction? No. OH WELL TIME FOR THE LAST RESORT, IT’LL HAVE TO BE AN ADVERB, OH NO!”? That’s not how I write. But then, I’ve never been to “tutorial criticism”.

Also, just a minor point, but “sparingly”—that’s, er, that’s...

oh yeah


Lebrecht was only able to indicate how frequently one should use adverbs through the use of an adverb. Because as it turns out, adverbs are actually pretty useful. Much like any other part of speech. Parts of speech aren’t like Norman Lebrecht’s blogposts. They don’t just pop up out of nowhere to piss people off. They actually have functions.
See me after class.
This one’s a bit sad. He’s obviously forgotten that he wasn’t really invited to teach that criticism course.
And he has been criticized widely for exaggerated expressivity.
Widely – another adverb.
But maybe Tommasini had tried out “And he has been criticized camel for exaggerated expressivity” and was aesthetically dissatisfied with the result. Adverb was pretty much the right call at that particular point in the sentence.
And by whom?
Here Lebrecht invokes that other secret rule of the English language: the passive is cheating. If you use the passive, you’re wrong, because you haven’t told us who did the thing that was done. It’s not that the passive voice is the linguistically legitimate thing that we use to avoid having to say who the agent was. It’s actually that it’s cheating. Bet Alex Ross wouldn’t have taught you that.
What is meant by ‘exaggerated expressivity’ – when is expressivity, whatever that might be, considered excessive, and when tasteful? I have no idea what the sentence is trying to convey, other than a pejorative impression.
Grammatically, Lebrecht does alright here. Hats off to the guy. On the other hand, he still asks a ridiculously stupid question. I have never seen Lang Lang perform, and have read very little criticism of him, but even I know that he has a reputation for exaggerated expressivity. I also know what “exaggerated expressivity” means. I also know how to use a dictionary, and I tend to consult one if I come across words I don’t understand.
Still, no fair-minded person can deny that Mr. Lang has stupendous technique and keen musical instincts.
Still? What’s the time reference here?
There isn’t one. Tommasini has cunningly used “Still” in the sense of “besides”. Sometimes it means that.
And why the denial? either Lang Lang has the qualities specified or he hasn’t. Far too equivocal.
You have forgotten to capitalise “either” there. Or you’ve gone for some incredibly pretentious archaic effect and it hasn’t worked. The more serious problem with the above three sentences, though, is that none of them actually relate to the others in any way.

What Tommasini was doing was pointing out that although one can criticise Lang Lang for various reasons, he nonetheless has a basic degree of talent which has to be acknowledged. It was a reasonable point, eloquently expressed. Perhaps Lebrecht, in the face of such clear, comprehensible, logically-structured prose, simply exploded, spewing random sentences next to each other for a bit.
There was no showing off on Wednesday night at Avery Fisher Hall when Mr. Lang played Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2…
Baffled, again.
Who is baffled? Is it Norman Lebrecht? It’s Norman Lebrecht, isn’t it? Thought so. I wish I hadn’t had to guess though. You technically shouldn’t omit both the subject and the verb in sentences. Actually this is not the sort of thing I have a problem with in prose at all, but very clearly Lebrecht would have picked up on it if Tommasini had written this so I thought I’d criticise him for it anyway.
How can a soloist fail to show off? He’s there to be seen and heard. Check the picture.
Lebrecht is just being wilfully perverse by this point. Clearly there are more and less showy ways to perform a concerto. Tommasini was making the reasonable and consistent point that Lang Lang was not performing with the kind of showmanship that he is often assumed to rely on. Sometimes journalists try and make particular points about things.
Pianists consider it among the most technically demanding of all concertos. Mr. Lang gave a brilliant performance, not just glittering and incisive but joyous and smart.
I’m bothered by ‘pianists consider it’. It either is, or isn’t. State your case.
I’m bothered by your ludicrous insistence that everyone be incredibly forthright about their own views. Tommasini chose in the above extract not to offer his own view of how hard the Bartók concerto is, but to reference a commonly-held view among pianists. You know, people who are in a good position to judge that sort of thing. Pianists.
Mr. Lang, who can play anything easily, seemed intensely focused on this occasion. He performed reading from the score with a page turner to assist him: a sight his ardent fans rarely see.
‘Intensely focused’ – is that because he’s squinting at a score he ought to know by heart, or is some other intensity brought to bear? State which.
These are the only two options as to what Tommasini could possibly have meant by the phrase “intensely focused”. Is this because Norman Lebrecht is the sole arbiter of the English language, or because he is basically wrong? STATE WHICH
One  could continue. Every sentence so far of this Times review contains a semantic, stylistic or logical flaw.
No it doesn’t. Every sentence of Lebrecht’s post does, but Tommasini’s is fine. Actually that’s not quite fair on Lebrecht. The sentence “One  could continue” is semantically, stylistically and logically reasonable. There are, however, two spaces between “One” and “could”.

That’s almost 2,000 words. @FakeNLebrecht was punchier: "Come to my glass house and watch me cast the first stone at the kettle for being black."

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