April 2018

Re: “Did virtue and the think piece ruin criticism?,” by John Semley

John Semley makes so many valid points concerning the collapse of criticism that I am tempted to attach the critical cliché “essential” to his essay. I wonder, however, about the use of “think piece” as a general term for anodyne writing, even if this writing is stylish in its first-person flavour or faddish in its recognition of contemporary causes and trends. My understanding of what can be classed as a “think piece” (which may be broader than in the early uses Mr. Semley cites) includes articles that deal perceptively with important developments in the arts. I recently proposed a think piece on Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize for music. I would have attempted earnestly in this column to make critical observations. (The proposal was rejected.)

It seems to me that the true foe of criticism on the ground is the advance piece. This is an article published before a concert, exhibition, or movie opening, and based on an upbeat interview of the star (or organizer) of the show. Many assignment editors regard the advance piece not only as a valid means of “covering” a performance, but as a more worthwhile thing to offer readers than an after-the-fact review. Theatre is somewhat exempt from this trend since a promptly filed review of the opening of a three-week run functions, in its way, as an advance piece. Yet, given the option of an advance piece or a review—and there is seldom space, staff, time, or money for both—many editors will choose the advance piece, obviously with no objection from the officers of the theatre company, art gallery, opera house, or concert society whose presentation is being advanced.

Movie reviews remain abundant, and book reviews are still with us, even if they are now shorter and more likely to be boosterish in the ways Mr. Semley describes. Television (its “golden age” be damned) is often serviced by what’s-on-tonight capsule advances that are not much different from the soap-opera-digest columns of old. Undoubtedly there are many trend-conscious think pieces that seek what Mr. Semley calls “the mellow middle of consensus” and otherwise do little to enlighten the reader. But in today’s review-free environment, the think piece may be the only available forum for real criticism.

Arthur Kaptainis
Montreal, Quebec

Re: “A few words of praise for Jordan Peterson,” by Marc Lewis

Marc Lewis writes that Jordan Peterson “wants to instruct us on how to improve ourselves”—according to what Peterson thinks is best, of course. Lewis seems to accept that Peterson is simultaneously “suspicious of authority” and taking an “authoritarian stance.”

Young men feel lost because that’s what being young means: finding your identity while dealing with different pressures pushed on you by society. Youth is about experimenting, about resisting these pressures or gladly obeying them, and finding out where you fit between these two approaches. Young women have been voicing this feeling for a long time now. The fact that Peterson and Lewis are surprised and worried about the “lost” youth tells of a generation that believed that everyone had a fixed role in society and was happy about it.

Ironically, the things that seem to scare Peterson the most are also the things that he advocates for. As Lewis points out, “other themes [of Peterson’s book] include responsibility; self-awareness and conscientiousness; bravery versus cowardice, and especially the importance of speaking out against falsehood.” I’m guessing this only applies to the ideological side Peterson favours. What emerges from Peterson’s writings and YouTube lectures is the implication that women are naturally submissive and men should either be aggressive and dominant or resign themselves to being losers. The younger generations today are more courageous, proactive, and engaged than we have seen for decades. Young men and women are standing up for themselves and protesting gender inequality, racial discrimination, and sexual harassment.

Lewis asks, “How could Peterson’s authoritarian stance and wacky phrasings lure hordes of especially young male readers from his online lectures to his book?” I have asked this question many times and still have no satisfying answer. I’m baffled by Peterson’s followers’ willingness to accept how he “cherry-pick[s] data from across fields to support whatever arguments he thinks will benefit from it.” I also don’t understand how his distrust of the hard sciences doesn’t apply to the data that suit his opinions.

Leonor Barbosa Gonçalves
Co-Chair, Neuroscience Careers Network; Neuroscience, Physiology, and Pharmacology
University College London

The LRC welcomes letters. We reserve the right to publish such letters and edit them for length, clarity and accuracy. E-mail