Meet a Critic: Nathan Lee Weighs in on Leaving the Village Voice, Why Critics are Ineffective, and What's Next
The outspoken young writer on the Voice and how the word "boner" defines the generational divide in criticism.
One of the more surprising cuts in the recent spate of lay-offs, buy-outs and re-assignments of print critics came last March when the Village Voice fired star staffer Nathan Lee. The 33-year-old writer's lively and irreverent style seemed to fit right in with the Voice's historically bold sensibilities -- and his departure would leave the publication with only one full-time critic, J. Hoberman. (The paper, owned since 2005 by the New Times conglomerate, now supplements their film reviews with pieces pooled from sister publications LA Weekly and OC Weekly.)
Since his abrupt exit from the Voice, Lee has been relatively quiet amidst public discussion of the "disappearing critic." But as he told RT in a phone interview, he has no regrets about his year and a half stint. "In some sense, getting fired from the Voice was maybe the best thing to happen in my career," he reflected. While he will continue to contribute to Film Comment, Lee also shares the news that he has accepted a steady freelance position at a major American newspaper to begin soon.
In Part II of our conversation with Nathan Lee (click here for Part I, in which he answers the Meet a Critic questionnaire) we delve deeper into his recent public break with the Voice and get his thoughts on the future of film criticism.
What have you been doing since leaving the Voice in March?
Nathan Lee: Work-wise, I've been fielding a lot of offers for freelancing, one of which I am accepting and you'll see my byline popping up, probably in early May. So in some sense, getting fired from the Voice was maybe the best thing to happen in my career. Before I wrote for the Voice, a certain number of people were familiar with my work, from either the New York Sun or the New York Times or Film Comment or various places. But I think having been able to write at the Voice for about a year and a half, I got to show a lot of people what I could really do. Because you can write at length and it's very unfettered; you can sort of say whatever you want, and I did. There's not a lot of places -- certainly there are online, but not in print -- where a) you can use whatever language you want, profanity, slang, and so forth; and b) have the kind of very specific, very intense personal point of view that you can at the Voice.
So that was great. I don't regret being there at all. It gave me a chance to write some really great pieces that I'm really proud of, and having left...having been let go at a time when all these other critics were being fired, and there were a lot of stories generated, it was kind of like sending my resume off to the entire world. I get to be the poster boy for the death of film criticism for 15 minutes! So yes, it's sad; I would really have liked to continue writing at the Voice because there's not a lot of places you can write where you have this sort of freedom to write in your own voice -- no pun intended -- as you were there. It's too bad, but I understand the state of things, and they're not very good.
Does the Voice allow for considerably freer writing compared to other outlets?
NL: I come out of daily newspapers; I came out of the New York Sun, the New York Times, and the first thing I did when I got to the Voice was write a column that was like, "F---, f---, f---, f---, f---." I would let the language fly. In daily papers, you were restricted more to certain journalistic conventions, and you have infrastructure in place that, for better and for worse, is helping shape the copy. Copy editors, fact-checkers...at the Voice there is almost none of that. [Laughs] But on the other hand, the Voice traditionally is a place where very strong, idiosyncratic, biased, unapologetically partisan, advocate voices made a home. People at the Voice have an agenda; it's part of what the Voice is. And when you're at a general publication, you're writing for a general audience. The Voice until very recently was writing to a very specific audience, which was downtown New York -- downtown being more of a state of mind than a geographical location. With the changeover to New Times and becoming part of a larger national chain, that changed.
At the same time, my writing was never interfered with. I was never told you can't say this, you shouldn't talk like that, you should not be so New York-centric; but the fact was that my reviews were being sent across the country to all these different papers. And I, like a lot of my associates at the Voice, took the opportunity to write at this paper to talk to a local audience. To have a set of references and a type of attitude that would appeal to New York. And I don't know how well that translates to other markets.
Next: The public's reaction and the problems with modern criticism...