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The “I”s Have It: Should Critics Use the First Person?

The "I"s Have It: Should Critics Use the First Person?

When The Dissolve went down last week, it took with it the site’s firm policy, carried over from editors Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias‘ former home at the A.V. Club, against the use of the first person — any sentence whose subject is “I” — in critical writing. At his blog, former Dissolve and current A.V. Club contributor Mike D’Angelo argues that ban was and is a mistake, and establishes four categories where personal statements can both enhance and clarify a review. First, there’s the confession of ignorance (“I’ve never seen a Woody Allen movie before, but…”); second, the acknowledgment of “extreme subjectivity” (“I’ve never much cared for Eastern European comedy…”); third, the use of relevant personal history (“I may be predisposed to like “Ant-Man,” seeing as I was myself once an ant…”); and, finally, “Because style,” i.e. because the writer really, really wants to.

As a writer and an editor, I’ve long thought of the first person as the rhetorical equivalent of hot sauce: Slather it over everything and it overwhelms the taste, but no kitchen is complete without it. I get the reasons behind the police: Their aim was to foster an “institutional voice,” elevating the publication as a whole over the individuals who comprised it, and the collective identity they established, first at The A.V. Club and then at The Dissolve, shows how effective it can be. A ban on the first person also has the benefit of forestalling a lot of terrible writing: Nothing reveals an inexperience writer so quickly as the overreliance on the “I,” especially in the form of superfluous qualifications like “I think.” You’re writing this: We know it’s what you think. (Or, to put it less kindly, who are you and why do we care?) When she was asked if she’d ever write an autobiography, the great New Yorker critic Pauline Kael replied that she already had in the form of her movie reviews. Great criticism is always personal. There’s no need to underline it.

There are exceptions, of course. David Ehrlich’s Dissolve essay on “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” — granted an exception to the ban on the principle that it was not a review — interweaves his reaction to the movie with the experience of watching his father receive treatment for cancer, and becomes an examination of how other people’s lives, and their art, are always filtered through our own experience, whether we admit it or not. Wesley Morris’ review of “Magic Mike XXL” addresses watching a movie primarily intended for straight women as a gay man, and ends with the immortal first-person kicker, “I wasn’t hard when it was over. I was wet.” Any attempt to extricate either critic’s personal experience from those pieces would simply result in gobbledegook. But the fact that two very talented writers can make excellent use of the first person doesn’t mean other writers should, any more than David Foster Wallace’s brilliant use of footnotes meant everyone should start peppering their work with annotations. (They did, I know, and look how that turned out.)

On the other hand, no harm, no foul. Critics have abandoned the pretense of objectivity, and the web has made writing a two-way street. Readers expect to be engaged, not have pronouncements handed down from the mountaintop, and weird end-arounds like “In this critic’s experience” make it sound like you’re writing from another century. The danger in over-using the “I” is excluding the “we”; use it too much, and you start sounding like a tiresome party guest who can’t stop talking about himself. Criticism should be personal for the people who read it as well as the people who write it. The question is whether you’re using the first person to invite your audience along or shut them out.

Update: Roger Ebert’s thoughts on the subject, via William Leitch.

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