Misapprehending What's Popular

by Rob Horning

4 February 2011


I don’t recommend this essay about Mad Men by Daniel Mendelsohn; it seems like an extended exercise in shaming its “addicted” viewers, who are assumed to be prurient poseurs trying to excuse their interest in a soap opera (used pejoratively throughout the piece) by overhyping its supposed smartness. Mendelsohn writes as though he is shocked and affronted to discover Mad Men is not as good as the hype promises. What is?
I find I often make this mistake; I expect culture product that is widely discussed among the intelligentsia will be somehow extraordinary rather than adequate, when really what is at work is a kind of power-law phenomenon: one show among many worthy contenders will start to get momentum in the attention it attracts, and suddenly, thanks to the supercharged network effects and all the mediated feedback loops in society, it looms large. It becomes something that must be discussed in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books and so on. Late comers, like Mendelsohn to Mad Men (or me to such things as Radiohead, Pixar movies, Harry Potter, etc., etc.) can’t help but wonder what all the fuss is about, and tend to import critical standards that the work itself doesn’t warrant. It becomes hard to take a work on its own terms; instead, the zeitgeist around it is judged, and almost always condemned as vulgar or vaguely dangerous.

Mendelsohn accuses Mad Men of the “worst possible offense that can be committed in a creative work set in the past: it’s simultaneously contemptuous and pandering.” I wonder what works set in the past aren’t pandering and contemptuous when viewed without sympathy; what historical fiction isn’t at once also about the era in which it was conceived and thus suffused with doubleness and distortions? Such judgment is an expression of the critic’s temperament, not an account of the work being assessed. (And really, the “worst possible offense”? Lots of revisionist history arguably does worse things than that. And does Mendelsohn really think that most people assumed Mad Men would be watched by 70-year-olds? “This, more than anything, explains why the greatest part of the audience for Mad Men is made up not, as you might have imagined at one point, by people of the generation it depicts.” ?!?) 

Critics aren’t obliged to be sympathetic to everything they write about, of course, but it’s unsatisfying for me as a reader to get nothing from an essay but “that critic thinks he’s too good for that thing he’s discussing.” Probably too much of what I write has that effect on others.

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