Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

I dabble: 18 critics who became artists

Illustration for article titled I dabble: 18 critics who became artists

1. Douglas Wolk, comics writer
Criticism is a legitimate art form in its own right, but sometimes the accomplished critic decides to demonstrate his theories about art by putting them into practice. With his book Reading Comics (2007), Douglas Wolk catapulted himself into the front ranks of critics who write about comic books. With his current Judge Dredd miniseries Mega City Two (illustrated by Ulises Farinas), he’s demonstrated that he also knows how to put the maniac lawgiver of 2000 A.D. through his paces with considerable aplomb. Wolk also writes a lot about music and has a record label, Dark Beloved Cloud, though he doesn’t sing on its releases.


2. Roger Ebert, screenwriter
As the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism and receive a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, Roger Ebert had an undeniable love and respect for the craft of film—which is why it’s surprising to see his name on the credits of a sexploitation film. After Ebert gave a positive review to Russ Meyer’s 1969 film Vixen, the director asked Ebert to assist on his first studio project, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. Both men decided to make the most of the opportunity and see what they could get away with, using studio resources to stuff the project with every bit of satire and excess that they could imagine. The end product reflected Meyer’s libidinous and satirical mindset, but also Ebert’s knowledge of film conventions, which they subverted as often as possible. Ebert took an academic view of the film in later years, describing BVD as an “essay on our generic expectations” in a 10th anniversary retrospective, acting bemused that a studio ever gave him or Meyer that much power. (Meyer was a bit more direct, offering his own theory on Ebert’s participation in a 1998 interview with The A.V. Club: “Tits. Plain and simple, he loves tits.”)

3. Greg Kasavin, video game developer
The popularity of video games and the Internet have always been intertwined, and that’s true for video game publications as well. One of the oldest and most popular sites is GameSpot, which started in 1996 and had Greg Kasavin as one of its strongest critical voices for more than a decade. He left in 2007 to try his hand at game development, which eventually led to an indie studio, Supergiant Games, and a role as writer and creative director on its hit Bastion. Kasavin’s background informs the game’s narration-heavy style and the way it celebrates and deconstructs gaming tropes. Kasavin isn’t the only critic to switch to the other side of gaming and achieve success; former A.V. Club critic Chris Dahlen did it with another indie hit, Mark Of The Ninja.


4. Lester Bangs, musician
As a music critic, Lester Bangs was a hardcore devotee of the DIY aesthetic and a sworn enemy of anything that he deemed too slick and unfelt. He wrote in an unfettered, free-form style that suggested what the music he heard in his head might sound like, and he tried to get it down on tape a few times, as if his militancy about free expression demanded that he put up or shut up. In 1979, he released a single called “Let It Blurt,” mixed by John Cale, with Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine. Two years later, Bangs recorded Jook Savages On The Brazos with the Austin band The Delinquents. He later cut nine tracks with Birdland, an outfit that morphed into the Rattlers; that music was released in 1985, three years after Bangs’ death. (Bangs, never one to pass up a chance at self-mockery, claimed the band dumped him because he was too overweight for pretending to be a rock star.)

5. Stanley Crouch, novelist
As a critic and essayist, Stanley Crouch built up a lively reputation as a polemicist unafraid to assault such figures as Spike Lee, Public Enemy, and Miles Davis in print. (He reportedly lost his long-time gig at The Village Voice for being unafraid to assault colleagues there in the flesh.) After spilling a lot of ink arguing his views on jazz and racial integration in his nonfiction, Crouch finally set out to seduce America into seeing it his way through the means of fiction, with his mammoth, much-ballyhooed novel Don’t The Moon Look Lonesome? Published in 2000, the novel was met with reviews ranging from mixed but respectful to the all-out hatchet job committed by Dale Peck (reprinted in his own collection, titled Hatchet Jobs). Peck accused Crouch of writing a propagandistic screed disguised as a work of fiction, one that was “neither well-written nor thrilling” and “concerned with issues rather than stories, the primary issue being the thesis that we are all different yet all the same, so get over it already.” Rather than get over it, Crouch, true to form, walked up to Peck in a restaurant, shook his hand, then “smacked him in the face.”


6. Edmund Wilson, novelist
For much of the 20th century, Edmund Wilson was the foremost literary critic and American man of letters, happy to give the impression that no subject had been properly chewed over and put to bed until he’d weighed in on it. (After he’d been a houseguest of Wilson’s, Wilfrid Sheed described the great man coming down for breakfast and telling the rest of the household of the conversation they’d had the night before, “Well, Sheed and I took care of the 19th century. We didn’t think much of it, eh?”) He was mostly happy to skip the subject of his own novels, though Memoirs Of Hecate County has been republished by the prestigious and discerning New York Review Of Books series of neglected classics. His other novel, I Thought Of Daisy (1929), may be more justly obscure. It’s best remembered for having dented Wilson’s friendship with the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, a former lover on whom he based one of its characters, and for one notorious passage in which Wilson, a foot fetishist, compared a woman’s feet in stockings to “two little moist cream cheeses encased in covers of cloth.”

7. Michael Azerrad, musician
Michael Azerrad made his name as one of the most renowned journalists covering music of the past 30 years, from numerous pieces for Rolling Stone to his Nirvana biography Come As You Are to his most lauded book, 2001’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. (He assisted Bob Mould with his memoir, See A Little Light, as well.) He also toured as the drummer for an indie band called The King Of France. As he told Pitchfork earlier this month, “I focused all my energy on it. I started out in that band as a mediocre drummer, and I just willed myself into being good. Not great, but good.”

8. Gillian Flynn, TV writer
Gillian Flynn is probably much better known now for writing best-selling dark thrillers like Gone Girl, but that’s largely because Gone Girl was such a runaway best-seller. Before that book, people were just as likely to identify Flynn as Entertainment Weekly’s TV critic in the 2000s, before she left to pursue writing novels full time. Flynn’s run as the magazine’s head TV critic coincided with some of the best years for television in the medium’s history, and she still lists The Wire as her favorite show in her website bio. Now that she’s the author of a huge book that’s becoming a David Fincher film (and will soon have her own HBO show, in the adaptation of British series Utopia she’s scripting for Fincher to direct), Entertainment Weekly readers can only say they knew her when. But she was a lively, important voice in the television-criticism conversation at a time when the medium seemed capable of new and amazing things.


9. James Wolcott, novelist
From his start at The Village Voice in the ’70s, to his current long-term home at Vanity Fair, critic and blogger James Wolcott has earned a reputation as an equal-opportunity cutthroat with a take-no-prisoners style, happy to say exactly what he thinks about anything that an editor puts in front of him. In 2001, it was reported that Wolcott, who in addition to being one of the funniest put-down artists around was also “one of the highest-paid journalists in America,” was finally bringing out his long-awaited first novel, a comedy called The Catsitters. It was further suggested that the long list of “the insulted and the injured” were getting their knives ready for the reviewers’ gauntlet. In the end, the book was mostly deemed too mild and modest to get worked up about one way or another, and generated far less buzz than the even-more-belated publication of Wolcott’s first collection of essays last fall.

10. Jim DeRogatis, musician
Even among music critics, Jim DeRogatis is known for being especially vehement about what he does and doesn’t like. He’s vicious when something falls short, ebullient when he finds something he loves, and remarkably nonplussed about everything else. That’s why it’s so surprising that the Sound Opinions co-host would put himself out there as a member of a band. DeRogatis has drummed in several of them, including Speed The Plough and Wire cover act Ex-Lion Tamers. His current band, Vortis, is a Chicago punk outfit that rarely plays shows, but has released two full-length records. The group’s latest, Things Won’t Get Better, is available for free download—and harsh, harsh criticism—via the Vortis website. DeRogatis’ accountings of the band’s rare shows are on WBEZ’s website under the header “The Vortis Diaries.”


11. Lloyd Rose, novelist
In the ’80s and ’90s, Lloyd Rose attracted attention for her essays on movies and books in such outlets as The Atlantic and her long tenure as theater critic for The Washington Post. She also wrote a brief but impassioned and insightful piece on Doctor Who for Film Comment in 1983, when the best-known version of the Doctor on this side of the pond was still Tom Baker—not that he was all that well. In 2001, Rose—who’d earlier tried her hand at writing for TV with an episode of Homicide: Life On The Street—decided to do her part to keep the Doctor alive between TV series by writing an original Doctor Who novel, The City Of The Dead. Its success led her to write another couple of books, Camera Obscura (2002) and The Algebra Of Ice (2004), as well as an audio play, Caerdroia, which was issued a year before the Doctor’s return to TV. Well-received by Who fans, they may now be her best-known work.

12. Sasha Frere-Jones, musician
New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones has perhaps had longest tenure as a musician of any of his fellow music critics, possibly because he didn’t start as one. As he said in an interview in 2012, it wasn’t until after an encounter with a writer he admired in 1994 that he considered writing. In the two decades since, Frere-Jones has become much more known as a cultural critic, but he has never lost touch with his music. He currently performs in the DFA-affiliated group Calvinist.

13. Rex Reed, actor
Rex Reed made a name for himself as a writer of tart celebrity profiles in the “New Journalism” era of the ’60s, then settled into a long career reviewing movies on TV and for such outlets as Holiday, Women’s Wear Daily, and The New York Observer. In 1970, director Michael Sarne decided that Reed’s colorful presence made him perfect for the role of Myron, the “before” version of the title character of Myra Breckinridge, the movie adaptation of Gore Vidal’s satirical bestseller about a post-op transsexual and movie buff on a mission of revenge against the whole “straight” world. (Raquel Welch played Myra.) The movie was a critical and box-office disaster from which no one emerged unscathed.

14. David Thomson, novelist
Thomson, the author of the Biographical Dictionary Of Film and “Have You Seen…?”: A Personal Introduction To 1,000 Films among other works, often writes about movie actors and directors with the speculative richness of a frustrated novelist. He may have felt a little less frustrated after the publication of Suspects in 1985. A bravura experimental novel, Suspects consists of a series of short “biographies” of scores of characters from famous movies, ranging from Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle to the detective hero of Klute (who, after his movie ends, is dumped by the prostitute he’d fallen in love with and turns into a derelict stalker). The pieces only slowly come together to tell a story, and to reveal the painful identity of the narrator, the hero of a beloved old-Hollywood classic, who has some unhappily close connections to the protagonists of some dark, new-Hollywood classics.


15. Manny Farber, painter
As a movie critic, Manny Farber was brusque, slangy, and often hilariously dismissive of the kind of Oscar-bait pretensions that he summed up with the immortal phrase “white elephant art.” After abandoning criticism in the ’70s, Farber devoted much of his time to painting, in which he used images instead of words to sum up his feelings about the films that nagged at his consciousness. (He even named his paintings after films.) Reviewing a show, James Wolcott wrote that “His McCabe And Mrs. Miller features a broken bar of Hershey’s chocolate, and The Films Of R.W. Fassbinder so trims the fat from Fassbinder’s blobby corpus that what’s left is a pair of toilets, a telephone cord and receiver stretched across an empty bed, a giant beer bottle, and a magazine spread on Hanna Schygulla.”

16. Samuel Johnson, poet
The famous Dr. Johnson was an essayist, critic, and the author of the first English language dictionary. But he also dabbled in creative work—imitative poetry, one very bad play called Irene, and a novella called The History Of Rasselas, Prince Of Abissinia. It’s clear in all of his work that Johnson the critic superseded Johnson the creative—in his most famous poems, “London” and “The Vanity Of Human Wishes,” he paid homage to the style of the classical poet Juvenal, engaging with politics and philosophy to make his point. The History Of Rasselas was a parable arguing against slavery, and Irene was almost universally panned, even by Johnson himself. Either way, his creative efforts pale in comparison to his criticism—not only is it considered foundational to the study of English literature, but there’s also just a lot more of it. Johnson barely knocked out more than a few poems, and instead admired other works in his editing and essays.


17-18. Greil Marcus and Langdon Winner, hoax musicians
The Masked Marauders, an album that appeared in 1969, was the rock-scene equivalent of a literary hoax. Greil Marcus, then the reviews editor of Rolling Stone, had become so fed up with the trend toward lousy, heavily promoted records by “supergroups” such as Blind Faith and CSNY that he cranked out a review of an imaginary bootleg of an Al Kooper-produced session featuring Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney, performing together under the pseudonym The Masked Marauders, doing such numbers as “I Can’t Get No Nookie,” “Cow Pie,” and an 18-minute version of “Season Of The Witch.” Marcus tipped his hand by signing the review “T. M. Christian,” in tribute to The Magic Christian, Terry Southern’s novel about a rich, malicious prankster. Even so, the magazine was so deluged with requests for more information about how to obtain copies of the album—which Marcus had done his best to describe as unlistenable—that Marcus and fellow reviewer Langdon Winner enlisted the Cleanliness And Godliness Skiffle Band to cut an actual album along the lines of the review, with Winner sitting in on piano and backing vocals. (“T.M. Christian” provided the liner notes.) Boutique label Rhino Handmade reissued it in 2003 as The Complete Deity Recordings, limiting the run to 2,000 copies.

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