Sunday, May 10, 2009

Press Pressure

When we were doing our section on critics, Susan did a presentation on Frank Rich. You may remember that Rich had a background as a theater and film critic but that he's now mainly known for his Sunday op-ed column, which focuses on politics, in the New York Times. We talked a little bit about the possible connections between the worlds of theater and politics. This week, Rich's column presents a good example. Pay attention to how he deploys his stage background in the service of an argument about the newspaper business and its role in American politics. Notice the connections he draws between the demise of vaudeville, radio drama, movie newsreels and the state of print journalism.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

List of Lists

The other week I realized that I'd piled on readings by Louis Menand for this class. But here's one more. This came out at the end of the year in 2004 and it's basically about the whole business of the end-of-year Top 10 lists that appear in practically every publication. It's funny, but it's also a smart and insightful explanation of why we need critics to begin with -- in case you needed a reminder.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


This story in last week's New Yorker is about the "cosmetic" use of prescription drugs used for attention-deficit disorder. It's probably old news to many of you -- but the story looks at studies that indicate some of these drugs can improve one's ability with certain tasks, like memorizing numbers, and that some people find they can concentrate better and for longer under their influence. She raises the question of whether college students who use these drugs should be punished for cheating. Toward the end the author makes an interesting connection with the "transhumanists" like the guy we read about in Wired who hopes to live forever if he can get to the singularity.

And I know I've been shoving Virginia Heffernan down your throats all semester, ... but there are a few more weeks left. Here's her column from the Sunday Times Magazine. Again, she's right on the money, taking the somewhat contrarian view that user comments online are basically a wasteland of ill-considered poison. We've discussed the merits of user-generated comments in class, and many publications go out of their way to get as many as possible. And many readers seek the most-commented-upon stories as well. Heffernan suggests reader comments should rise to a base level of insight.

Which brings us back to snark. Here's yet another review of David Denby's book Snark. This one, coincidentally, is written by Toby Young the British critic who we'll be reading for class and discussing on Tuesday.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Business as Usual

I know that you're all digital creatures, and, as such, you probably don't prefer to read the hard copy of the newspaper, but since they distribute the NY Times for free on campus, you should all make an effort to get today's (Monday's) paper so that you can catch a glimpse of the bundle of journalism-related stories as they appear on the front page of the business section. There's one about new hyper-local web sites (some of which use reporters, some of which don't). There's one offering another iteration of the micro-payment theory (with interesting new developments with regard to the AP and Google News). There's another about the possibility of The Boston Globe going under. And there's another about how magazines are having to raise their cover charges just to survive. It's worth seeing it all in one place, on paper, while you can.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Print's Past

Anyone interested in the newspaper-history and media-criticism elements of some of the readings -- the Hirschorn piece about front pages, the David Carr story's about online payments and alt weeklies, and the Louis Menand story about the Village Voice -- should read this story in the New Yorker about the history of the Wall Street Journal. The creation of both the Hearst empire and the New York Times is also covered.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

On John Leonard

NY Times critic A.O. Scott wrote this nice remembrance of the critic John Leonard when Leonard died at the end of last year. It's worth reading to get a sense of just how much a book/culture critic needs to know and read, and just how far and wide their work and writing can reach. (Leonard is the critic who wrote the book reviews from Harper's that we're reading for Tuesday's class.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Other Models

You'll be seeing a lot of these -- stories about daily papers going digital and other stories about other types of papers that somehow are succeeding. I mentioned David Carr's media column the other week, and you should all make a point of reading him every Monday in the NYT (in the business section.) Carr has a very interesting history. He was the editor of an alternative weekly in DC, I think, before coming to the Times. Before that he was actually a crack addict (he wrote a book last year on the subject.) He's a very smart and funny and sharp writer, and he knows newspapers and magazines inside out. Here's his column from yesterday, written from Austin, Texas, where he was covering SXSW.

And here's a more newsy piece about the impending demise of daily print in Michigan.

I don't mean for these to be too depressing. As we discussed in class, there will still be plenty of writing, blogging, and web reporting. The more aware you are of the landscape, the more prepared you'll be for whatever turns you need to take.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Mysterious Blog Behavior

Ok, well Caroline has been having some strange tech trouble with the blog. And now I'm sharing some of the same confusion. When I try to paste the URL to her blog into the blog roll with the rest of the class blogs the link keeps taking a user back to this blog. So here's a link to Caroline's blog. Go read it. (If the link works). She has some links to interesting stories about arts and artists and technology and the economy.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Steinem Vs. Solomon

You should all go hear Gloria Steinem speak March 19 at Torp at 2 pm.
Here's a Q and A with her if you want some background.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

DFW, DC and VF

In case any of you are inclined to read more on David Foster Wallace, the writer who wrote the piece that we read about the Maine Lobster Festival from Gourmet, here's a longish story from the New Yorker about Wallace's career and his struggle with depression.

And here's David Carr's Media Equation column from Monday's New York Times in which he again articulates the logic behind his micro-payment proposal and how it's seemingly the only idea that will save newspapers.

And, while we're at it, here's a fantastic Virginia Heffernan column that came to mind after our discussion Tuesday regarding different newspaper policies with respect to reader comments and how to edit, clean-up or attribute them. Very funny, smart and insightful as always.

... OK, and one more. This just went up on the NY Times site about 20 minutes ago, and it offers more dire news for newspapers.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Two strands of class discussion come together in this review of David Denby's book, Snark. Walter Kirn wrote a great review/critique of the book in the New York Times Book Review this week. Kirn raises the question of whether allowing irresponsible and reckless powers to proceed without being ridiculed and laughed at is, in the end, in worse taste than any tacky joke, cheap-shot chuckle or ill-considered dismissal. It's worth noting that The Believer, the magazine that published the Q and A with Steven Soderbergh, was started in part with a mission to combat snark. It's also worth noting that the battle against snark has been going on for years and years, now, as can be seen from this old story on The Believer from The New York Observer. You can read The Believer's opening salvo against snark from back in 2003, right here. All of this comes together in the discussion of these Q and A's because many of these interviews touch on questions of taste, decorum, artistic honesty and protocal. Because the interview subjects -- a comedian and two film directors -- all work in the media, the questions seemed naturally to gravitate toward issues of how best to represent truth and reality, without distorting everything through the lens of self-consciousness or unnatural abreviations and abridgement.

Our discussion of Q and A's will be enhanced if any of you can read this story about Deborah Solomon's interview and editing techniques from the New York Press. There was a whole mini-flap about this issue, and the Times ended up changing the text that runs with her popular interviews each week as a result.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

To Pay or ...

I'm curious what you all make of the discussion about paying for magazine and newspaper content online. This piece in Slate is one out of a whole string of things that have shown up -- first in David Carr's business column in the NY Times, then on the cover of Time Magazine (maybe you saw Walter Isaacson discussing his story about the future of Linknewspapers on The Daily Show?), on the opinion pages of the Times, and elsewhere. The idea is that consumers, the public, (you/we) would be willing to pay "micropayments" for articles and stories online, in much the same way people pay for MP3s on iTunes.
So, informal poll then, how many of you pay for music? Would you be willing to pay 10 or 15 cents or a quarter for every story you wanted to read from your favorite magazines? (Magazines whose content, I'm assuming, you can't access fully online for free at the moment.) I feel like if I could read magazines like Mojo, Paste, NY Review of Books, the Believer, Cabinet (not even sure it that's still around), and lots more for such cheap little installments, I would. But maybe I'm dreaming. Maybe a $20 or $30 or maybe $50 monthly fee for reading stuff that I could just as easily browse through at Borders or at the library would be way out of my budget, especially in this economy.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Days of Future Past

This story from the New York Observer -- in which the writers interview a number of magazine editors about the future of long-form journalism, magazine writing and magazines in general -- is only almost a year old, but reading it now, in the midst of all the hand-wringing and gloomy about the economy and the future of print publishing, seems like reading something from a different century. Particularly interesting are the stories about how magazine writers used to go in deep back in the old days.


Some of you have probably noticed that there's an apparent disconnect between the subject description of the Adam Gopnik reading on syllabus and the content of the story that comes up if you follow the link. There was a slight bit of sloppiness on my part. The reading is about Shaker art, not about director's commentaries on DVDs. In case there's any doubt, read the Gopnik story about Shaker art that comes up. The story ties in nicely to a theme that we'll touch on Tuesday night -- commerce and creativity. Which brings me to a story that appeared in the NYTimes Sunday magazine today. It's from Rob Walker's "Consumed" column, which is always about commodification, in a way. This story explores the points of connection between design, social networking and stock agencies like iStock. As with the Gordon Ramsay profile, the Consumed column is a good example of the ways that the solid reporting skills that many of you are already acquiring in your roles as writers for the paper can come in handy when writing an arts and culture piece. And as you think about the Gopnik story on Shaker art, take note of the breadth and scope of his artistic, cultural and historical references.

Voice, Race, Obama

Here's an essay by the novelist Zadie Smith in the recent NY Review of Books. She writes about Obama's voice, as the product of Kenyan and middle American parents, and his experience in Hawaii, Indonesia, Harvard and elsewhere. Smith finds hope in Obama's ability to operate in more than one cultural world. Bringing George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare into the discussion, Smith makes a leap from theater and character-generating to politics. Consider how a knowledge of current events, reporting, politics and arts, as well as writing, novels and theater all play into this piece.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Plight of Hartford Paper on NPR

There was an interesting story on NPR this morning about the possible demise of daily newspapers like the Hartford Courant. The reporter tried to speak to the paper's editor. No luck. The story runs down some of the problems facing newspapers -- troubled economy, online classifieds, shrinking ad revenue, the difficulty of converting online traffic into revenue, etc. It's worth thinking about what might be lost if daily papers disappear. How does that change the landscape of local arts coverage? Many of you work at the school newspaper, some of you have interned at dailies, some of you hope to work as journalists -- how would it change your life if the Hartford Courant disappeared? Seriously.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Let's Talk About ...

What's the logic behind the way that Ann Powers links the three artists she writes about in her piece in the LA Times? What areas of cultural knowledge does Powers bring to the piece in addition to a consideration of music?

In the Christopher Benfey book review, what was his critical response to the book under consideration? After our discussion of whether a critic's role is to convey a judgment of a piece of art, did Benfey's review leave the reader wanting to read the book? Why? What did Benfey focus on communicating in the review?

What's the premise of the New Yorker piece about Gordon Ramsay? How did Buford treat dialogue and speech? Did Buford's "voice" come through? Was the Ramsay profile about food? Is there tension in this story? What is it?

On the subject of your restaurant reviews: What was the hardest thing to do with regard to the assignment? Was it difficult to contain your thoughts and opinions in 600 words?

Sunday, January 25, 2009


>John Adamian:

Spring 2009: Tuesdays 6:50 – 9:30 p.m. Emma Hart Willard Hall 214

Office Hours: By appointment.

This course is designed to give students a broad understanding of contemporary American arts journalism – including blogging, lists, profiles, reviews, previews, Q & As, larger wide-ranging pieces, and blurbs. The readings represent a wide range of styles, tones, genres and approaches, from pedestrian to academic, from off-the-cuff blog posts to deeply researched pieces.

We’ll spend time considering the following: what it means to be a critic or an arts writer; what the reader expects or hopes to get from a piece of arts journalism; what background information is crucial; what can be left out; how best to begin a piece of writing; how best to end one. We’ll consider the challenges of writing on subjects about which we might have only limited knowledge or expertise. The class will also focus on the pitfalls of needlessly overselling a subject; the difficulties of crafting a negative review; the importance of keeping the writer out of a review, and when to ignore such rules of thumb. Tone, voice, style and attitude will all be discussed.

Final grades will be given based on the following:

Blogging : 20 percent

Quizzes: 20 percent

Writing: 40 percent

Class participation: 20, attendance, discussion

Extra credit: there will be opportunities for extra credit

Blogging: Each student will be required to setup a blogging account and a personal blog for the class. Every blog will include links to all of the other blogs in the class. Students will be required to make two posts a week, comment on two other class blogs per week. Posts can be about books, movies, restaurants, art, concerts, records, other blogs, newspapers, web sites, magazines, dance, theater, poetry readings, etc. Posts and comments can be any length.

Quizzes on the reading will be given at irregular intervals.

Readings: You should bring a printout of each week’s reading to class.

(All of the readings for this class are available online. You will need to complete a free registration at some the sites in order access the articles.) Schedule is subject to change.

Writing: You will write a preview, write reviews, conduct interviews and edit. You will do a short Q and A with an artist (or an arts journalist) and create pitches for story ideas. We’ll consider other forms as well. Paper copies of writing assignments should be brought to class, and Word files should be e-mailed to me. Assignments are subject to change.

Plagiarism: If you copy someone else’s work, copy and paste without attribution, or otherwise misappropriate information, you will be given a failing grade. You should be aware of the honor code and ask questions whenever you are in doubt. You may have new questions regarding the appropriate use of the ideas and work of others. Remember that questions asked in class may help other students.

Readings: (to be completed by class date listed)

Feb. 3: Set up your blog. Read the following (your blog posts can be on the readings, but they don’t have to be). Go out to eat – anywhere – and write a review (between 500 and 600 words). Describe setting, service, food, and whatever else jumps out at you.

Ann Powers on urban bushwhackers (LA Times):

Chris Benfey book review (New York Times Book Review)

Bill Buford (New Yorker)

Tables for Two (New Yorker)

Feb 10: Come to class with an arts event occurring in CT during the month of March – a concert, exhibit, play, reading, dance, etc. – that you’d like to preview.

Readings for Feb 10: (the pan/take-down)

Sasha Frere-Jones on Coldplay

Ratliff on Kenny G

Cintra Wilson on Robby Benson

Keiller on melancholy

A.O. Scott on Wild Hogs

Klosterman on GNR

Anthony Lane on Mama Mia!

Feb17: High Concept: Come to class with an event (concert, exhibit, reading, play, show, dance, etc.) occurring between Feb 18 and March 31 that you’d like to attend and review. (You’ll be expected to pay for your admission.)

David Foster Wallace on lobsters (Gourmet)

Gopnik on abridgements and DVD commentary (New Yorker)

Washington Post Joshua Bell

Feb 24: Social-Networking as Entertainment and the Q & A. Come to class with an idea for an artist (choreographer, actor, writer, musician, etc.) you'd like to do a Q & A with.

New York Times Mag Twitter:

Deborah Solomon and David Lynch

Believer interview with Steven Soderbergh

Jon Stewart in Hartford Advocate

March 3: Finding Your Subject

Virginia Heffernan


YouTube professors


March 10: Blogs, web-only writing and the art of pitching a story idea

Salon, Slate, Stuff White People Like, Perez Hilton, Pitchfork, Moistworks, The Sartorialist (fashion) etc.

March 17: Meta-Media

Hirschorn on quirk

Hirschorn on papers

Menand on Village Voice (download PDF)

March 24: Going Academic

Menand on Timothy Leary

Leonard book review from Harpers:

Obrien on Anthology of American Folk Music

(I couldn't figure out how to solve the annoying formatting problem on this one, but I e-mailed a version to you all.)

David Gates book review in Newsweek

March 24: Spring Break

March 31: The Profile

Sly Stone Vanity Fair

NYT mag cocorosie

Jeff Koons profile in New Yorker

April 7: Left Field

Chuck Klosterman on Guns N Roses (NY Times Mag):

Or, if that doesn't work, try this link to the same piece, The Pretenders.

Trillin on fish in New Yorker

Wired on Kurzweil

Cintra Wilson

April 14: Low Culture/Freaks and Geeks

Menand on Comics Scare



April 21: The Brits and others

Deborah Ross

French critics

Toby Young:

April 28: Stunts

Julia Child



May 5: Serious Business – the book review as cultural history

Luc Sante on Boogaloo (NY Review of Books)

May 12: Taste

Slate on Billy Joel

Klosterman on Billy Joel

NYT on Rockism

New Yorker on Whiteness in Indie rock

Things to Keep in Mind as You Write For This Class (and in General):

How much background information you’re providing on your subject.

Be aware of when you’re writing in the first person. Be aware of when your experience and your life are entering your writing. Make sure it’s necessary.

Word choice: pay attention to your verbs. Avoid adverbs when possible. Don’t be long-winded. Don’t be a smarty-pants. Bigger, less well-known words are usually not better than more familiar words. Kill your darlings: if you’re overly fond of a particular phrase, passage, section, word, you may want to consider whether it’s over the top, unnecessary, pretentious or condescending.

Vary sentence structure and length.

(With the exception of articles, pronouns, prepositions and conjunctions) avoid the repetition of words in sentences, paragraphs and throughout a whole piece if possible. Don’t create worse problems of awkward phrasing when trying to avoid this situation.

Pay special attention to your opening sentences. Pay special attention to your closing sentences. Pay attention to everything in between.

Resist the urge to make grand sweeping statements at the conclusion of your pieces.

If you’ve done an interview for a story, it’s rarely a bad idea to end with the voice your subject (in a quote) as the final bit of a piece.