Thursday, January 1, 2015

So Many Reviews

William Gaddis wondered, in a letter to a friend, collected in a book published by Dalkey Archive Press, who would want to review books for a living. He coined the term ‘book calumnist,’ which I chuckled at while stuck in my temporary hell. Reviewers didn’t seem to read his books with any patience or diligence. A number of authors—actually, many authors, and, indeed, any creators of any art, whether it’s music, TV, film, novels, painting—do not particularly care for a reviewer’s opinion. The reviewer may help the sales of his or her art. Maybe. Early in Gaddis’ The Recognitions a reviewer comes by Wyatt Gwyon’s place to ask for something in return for a favorable review in a reputable magazine. Vladimir Nabokov felt indifferently towards the great majority of reviewers, with the exception of his friend Edmund Wilson-until Wilson slammed V.N.’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin; however, Nabokov sent pastries to those who wrote adeptly and perceptively about his books. When asked about the perceived difficulty of his books in an interview, V.N. responded by stating “Art is hard.” Nabokov spent many hours, days, weeks, months, and years, laboring with his art; so why should the reader be spared?

Gaddis’ question to his friend about why one would pursue the career of book calumny seemed a fine question to answer. I’ve written more reviews for episodes of TV in the last 4-5 years than novels (none), short stories (a dozen or so), songs (three), and screenplays (a good deal, actually). Why? One might wonder. Why spend the time writing 800-1500 words for individual episodes of television? Perhaps there’s an old saying along the lines of “If you can’t do, review.” The Internet’s utility allows anyone to write reviews about anything. The Internet’s deluged by reviews. People review everything and anything. TV reviewing/recapping exploded in the last few years. 2-3 years ago a website spoke to various critics about writing weekly reviews for TV episodes, after David Simon rejected that approach to criticism. Those folk receive payment for those reviews, but many do it for free. I did it for free. I still do it for free. What about those who scoff at anyone writing without pay? Scoff at me, then. If I only wrote for pay, I would never write. Gaddis, if he still lived, may have stared at me slack-jawed upon learning I review for free and that I reviewed a lot. If I used the hours of reviewing TV for writing a novel, I would’ve completed two novels or several collections of short stories. William Gass thinks of essays and reviews as a “working novelist insufficiently off-duty.”

I never pursued TV criticism as my career, but I never tried to become a freelancer for a site either. The thought crossed my mind, of course. I wanted to write for television. I wanted to write movie screenplays for a living from the age of 11 or 12. I wanted to create a TV show at age 16. I bought screenwriting books. I studied screenplays. I listened (and still listen) to TV commentaries and learned from Joss Whedon (and his staff of terrific writers), from Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, and from Kevin Williamson. I wrote my own screenplays. I still listen to screenwriting podcasts, including Ben Blacker’s Nerdist Writers Panel, which exposed me to even more writers whose work I hadn’t seen and then did or whose work I revered and then revered more after listening, and Children of Tendu with Javi Molina and Jorge Grillo Marxauch. I listened to every episode-about comics, animation, comedy, drama, web series-so I’d absorb more and know more. I subscribed to the Creative Screenwriting magazine. The pursuit of the dream in Los Angeles seemed daunting and hard. Well, it is daunting and hard, which is why I bought the books and listened to the podcasts. I had stopped writing lengthy screenplays. It coincided with the creation of the Nerdist Writers Panel and Jeff Goldsmith’s former Creative Screenwriting podcast (which had one of the greatest writing interviews I’ve heard with Michael Arndt). I wrote shorter ones with a limited scope for the purpose of producing the scripts with friends. I wanted to do something close to the business that might’ve led to a set visit or interviews with writers. So, I listened, I read, and I reviewed.

Writers who have made a living from writing for the Internet like to say, “If you’re good, someone will find you.” Some people found me. Anyone I wanted to find me still hasn’t. Reviewing episodes of LOST became my thing during college. I created a blog for my college paper devoted to my reviews of LOST. I wrote a good deal during college. I studied literature. I wrote for the paper. I wrote multiple academic papers every week. Upon graduating I didn’t want to become rusty. I created the TV With The Foot, and reviewed the final season of LOST. I reviewed more shows during the fall of 2010, and then more and more and more. During the fall of 2012 I handwrote reviews during the day. I posted reviews the same night the episode aired in hopes I’d make the front page of Google search, and in hopes more people would click the link after reading Hitfix’s recap or The AV Club review, or see it on Twitter, or that my Facebook friends wanted to know what I thought of a late January episode of The Secret Circle. But that deluge I mentioned earlier? The deluge of reviews exists. It’s overwhelming. One posts a review of an episode followed by a link on Twitter and it disappears. Where’d it go? Not to the front page of Google search and not to top tweets. Reviews and recaps everywhere. Shawn Ryan re-tweeted a Terriers review I wrote in 2010. That’s the lone highlight. Game of Thrones fans will accidentally find my blog somehow and read it. The occasional TVD review might attract a few more people.

Why, though? Why continue to write the reviews? Habit, one might answer. Habits become routines. Reviewing became routine. I intended to write fiction in addition to writing reviews. Fiction’s infinitely harder than reviewing and commentary. I didn’t write fiction. I felt creatively empty for a long time after my dad died. I read a lot, I watched a lot of TV, and I wrote about what I watched. I didn’t write what I thought mattered. Jeff Marek said that he lost himself in hockey after his mom died as a way to get through the year. Maybe that’s part of why I reviewed so much-to get me through the first year or two without my dad. So, that’s one thing I’d tell Gaddis if he hadn’t died in 1998. Also, that line “If you can’t do, review,” which I might’ve invented, I felt applied to me. I felt I couldn’t do it, so I didn’t do it. The blank white page of the word processor looked foreboding, though I had done it. Writing reviews kept my writing chops polished. I still wrote even if it wasn’t anything I thought was worth a damn. I felt full of doubt. The habit of writing and posting reviews had drawbacks, one of which was the absurd sense that anything I wrote needed to be public. My commitment to maintaining my writing habit created a new habit of writing every day and posting it regardless of the quality. I read daily newspapers and felt startled to see the similarities between my writing and those on the beat. Lazy and clich├ęd prose. I felt even less capable of writing fiction, of writing anything well again. The amount of reviewing sort of hollowed me out. Yes, Mr. Gaddis, I understand what you mean: why would anyone want to consume and critique day after day after day after bloody day?

I, briefly, emerged from my reductive cocoon in early 2013. I handwrote the story of Schwoe in a tiny legal pad. I worked at it for several weeks. A lady inspired a very short story after a failed rendezvous at a rodeo bar near the Valley Forge casino. The cocoon hardened after that brief creative spark. I stopped writing about shows I disliked. Later, I stopped writing what I didn’t enjoy writing anymore, namely my weekly NFL picks post, in which I mixed personal stuff with football stuff. I trimmed the list shows I reviewed. I again felt the soft glow of creative inspiration. At work I wrote down ideas. I outlined two nonsense movies. I began writing a new short story this past June during a particularly dreadful, dreary, and dismal day. I handwrote and finished the very short, not even 1700 word, story two days later. I wrote another over a period of nine days. Oh yeah. I felt closer to writing more fulfilling prose.

I continue to write episode reviews because I enjoy it (thoughts, really; reviewing’s such a nasty word). Maybe I learned a little about writing balance. My favorite writers wrote essays, reviews, or undertook exhausting scholarship, in between novels and short stories. There’s a reason for that, right? It’s not coincidence. No, one might benefit from alternating between forms. Of course, besides that, the writers received immediate money for non-fiction pieces whereas the fiction, you know, might never pay out. (Gaddis, in one year, made $5 in residuals; Gass revealed, before someone published Middle C, that publishers only lose money publishing his fiction). Reviewing cannot be the only thing. It can be one of many things a writer does. If it is, though, it will devour you. Okay, I don’t know about you, but it devoured me.

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About The Foot

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Originally, I titled the blog Jacob's Foot after the giant foot that Jacob inhabited in LOST. That ended. It became TV With The Foot in 2010. I wrote about a lot of TV.