Comment is free

OK, here’s where I break my first New Year’s Resolution, but it is an illuminating case. I don’t get to write for the newspapers very often. But in the limbo between Christmas and New Year, the Observer called and asked me if I would write a 1,450-word profile of the actress Natalie Portman. It was New Year’s Eve. I said yes, and spent the rest of the day researching it, online, and writing it up. By the time I filed the copy, at around 6pm on Friday December 31 for publication on Sunday January 2, I was something of an expert on Ms Portman’s life and work. It was to tie in with the imminent release of the ballet thriller Black Swan, which is kicking up quite a lot of interest because Darren Aronofsky directed it, it has received seven Golden Globe nominations and it has a lesbian scene in.

Anyway, I was delighted to be asked to write something for a national newspaper. They don’t use non-contracted freelancers at the Guardian and Observer as a rule, so they must have been pretty short-handed to offer me the gig. It appeared online on the Saturday night, and in the paper the next morning. They cut some passages, and neatened it up, but it’s pretty much as I wrote it. A couple of attempted gags, but mostly fairly vanilla. It is, after all, a profile, and not an opinion piece. It’s not about me, it’s about her. You can, if you wish, read it here. It’s pretty benign stuff. Or so I thought.

By the end of Sunday, in the statutory comments section underneath my piece, I had, variously, been accused of “intellectual snobbery”, of being “embarrassingly in love” with my subject, of using “a stupid turn of phrase”, and of tacitly supporting Israel’s massacre of Palestinians because I failed to mention Portman’s association with Alan Dershowitz, the pro-Israeli lawyer who publicly defended Israel’s attacks on Lebanon in 2006, and her own failure to denounce the state of Israel, where she was born. After – stupidly – leaving a comment defending my decision not to write in detail about the Israel-Palestine question because that wasn’t the piece I was commissioned to write, I was duly accused of “recoiling behind the convenient and elastic idea of not being asked to engage into a political agenda.”

Hey, most of the comments – an astonishing 73 before they closed it – were harmless, either commending Portman for being a committed vegetarian or doing a degree at Harvard and potentially harming her own career in Hollywood; others discussed the merits of Black Swan. But even when writing a vanilla profile of a Hollywood actress, you still draw aggressive flak from certain quarters. (In other papers, profiles of this type are run without a writer’s credit.) To be honest, I can take or leave Natalie Portman. She’s alright. The new film looks interesting. I couldn’t give a toss whether or not she was in the rubbish Star Wars films. She comes across as a bit of a dullard in interview, and I’m certainly not that impressed that she did a degree. I know lots of people who’ve done degrees. They are not better than the people who didn’t. But I reiterate: it’s not about me, it’s about her. The big illustration is of her. That’s what a profile is. Had I interviewed her, and failed to ask her why she killed all those Palestinians, I would be journalistically deficient.

I have pretty firm views on Israel and Palestine. So, I’m sure, does Natalie Portman, having been born in Jerusalem, but these are not in the public domain, or at least, over the course of an afternoon at my laptop, I didn’t come across any. I know that she studied under Dershowitz, but didn’t think it central to a profile of her life and work. Maybe a profile of Dershowitz? You’d be amazed how quickly 1,450 words get eaten up. (One commenter castigated me for not mentioning Goya’s Ghosts, a film she was in. She’s been making films since the mid-90s; I did not mention them all.)

All this goes to show why you should not get sucked into a dialogue with anonymous posters on newspaper comments sections. I’ve done it before, and I had sworn not to do it 2011. It only took me two days to break that resolution! And there really is no reasoning with someone whose views on a volatile international political situation are so passionate they feel the need to weigh in after the profile of an actor.

Oh, and later on, I got this: “This obsequious gushing about how perfect Ms. Portman is in every way is simultaneously dull and distasteful; it’s rather like reading a lonely man’s intellectual masturbatory fantasy.”

Spare me. (Mind you, in my haste, I did say she was “christened”, which is rather unlikely for a Jew born in Israel. But the Observer subs didn’t pick it up either. It was New Year’s Eve!)

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31 thoughts on “Comment is free

  1. I read the piece and thought you did a good job. You can’t capture a person’s whole existence in so few words and it is silly that some of the commentators seem to have expected that.

    I loved her in Leon, but I can’t say I particular enjoy or dislike her acting. Quite dull really.

  2. It really is a shame that you don’t seem to be able to discuss anything even tangentially related to Israel/Palestine without it turning into a warzone (pardon the pun.)

  3. I read the piece Andrew, it was fine (I’ve no particular interest in Portman so can’t really say more than that). Here in Ireland we have the phrase “fuck the begrudgers”
    I suggest you take it to heart and remember it the next time you get such a flood of petty negative comments.

  4. Surely the comments were worth it purely for the wag who said “she’s mah favourite actress” 🙂

    The Guardian comments pages are full of stuff like this – you can guarantee at least one person will ask “how is this newsworthy?!” or will take the time to log-in and post a comment about how they couldn’t care less about the article in question. Maddening.

  5. I quite like the essays that the Comment Is Free format prompts, but find it very difficult to stop before the comments start, which is a shame, as they are maddening and depressing in equal measure.

    Reading the comments on newspaper sites (CIF in particular) is snorkelling in sewage.

    (He said in a comment on a blog.)

  6. Tempting as it is to react when someone slags you off, just don’t do it!

    Be like Israel when provoked by its enemies. Do nothing.

    Love the new look. I’m moving my blog to WordPress too.

  7. The problem with the CiF commentards is that they really prove that the people who read the Guardian and Observer are people who love society, but hate people. I’ve stopped looking at comments on the features there as they probably make me angrier, even, than looking at the Daily Mail website.

  8. Working in reference to the Arab/Israeli conflict looks to me like pure opportunism on the part of the commenter – your defensive reaction seems surprisingly naive for such an experienced journalist

    “christened” was pretty sloppy by the supposed high standards of broadsheets

    I can never undersand the use of the word “nerd” synonymously with “geek”. A nerd is surely a pedantic conformist – the very opposite of a geek i.e. misfit

    “But the intellectual snobbery was a joke” – evidently the commenter failed to appreciate the irony – something of which you yourself have recently been guilty 😉

  9. I just can’t understand why a (nicely written) profile of an actress *needs* a comments section. I don’t really care what a self-selected group of internet nutjobs thinks about anything (apart from the discerning commenters above, that is).

  10. I too found the article offensive. How dare you conflate the work of Northampton’s greatest son, Alan Moore, with Star Wars movies as the preserve of ‘nerds’!?!?!
    😉
    (j/k)

    Hope you manage to stick to your resolution, Andrew. I mostly only read the sports elements at the guardian – superb, but even they’re full of flame wars and abuse at commentators, sparked off by irrelevant agendas and single-issue zoomers. You’re better off out of it.

    Personally, I actually like the Star Wars prequels, but those who dislike Portman’s performance in them could better aim their ire at George Lucas. He favours the wooden, 30s etc style for *all* his actors – did anyone come out of the Star Wars prequels with plaudits for their acting? I’m not sure what Portman was doing anything different from, and inferior to, what was expected of Ewen McGregor or Christopher Lee.

    To be honest, I wonder sometimes if Guardian contributors are aware of the comments section. Any time the former England cricket coach Duncan Fletcher gets an article posted, it soon fills up with inane ad hom abuse along “what do you know, we lost 5-0 in the 06 Ashes” lines. Doubtless he’s handsomely rewarded for his column, but I can understand writers (especially more old school ones) thinking that enduring endless anonymous abuse on the *same page* as their article is not what they signed up. Is it assumed that anything you write for the Guardian can be posted online at their website in any way they see fit?

  11. I’m going to be contrary (as someone who writes occasionally for Cif and more broadly for the Guardian’s Tech site) and say that it’s really important to engage with commenters below the line.

    For starters, it actually helps to keep the comments thread civil – there’s nothing like the writer coming into the thread and saying “yep, actually, good point” or “no, I don’t agree with you because … ” to get people to stop sniping and to start discussing.

    I think it’s rude not to, actually; rude to sit loftily above the line and let the plebs scrap away beneath. Engaging with commenters show you’re taking them seriously (the ones that deserve to be taken seriously, anyway), and that builds both your credibility and yes, your brand. People you’ve talked to below the line will remember that and will come back to your pieces, wherever they are published. As a writer/telly person you need that audience – it’s a good idea to remember that.

    Writers are having to get used to not being unassailable or unaccountable any more. The social nature of Cif (and Twitter and any other public, interactive forum you take part it) means that you by definition invite interaction. I think to ignore it is a mistake.

    It’s good not to be precious about your work; the comments of real people should deflate any tendency to preciousness by writers. And to be brutally frank, as much as I like your writing, Andrew, there’s not a huge amount of skill in cobbling together via Google a profile of an extensively written-about actor. So, with respect, a little bit of ego-puncturing via Cif is a good thing for keeping one’s feet on the ground. It’s happened to me. Ignore the real nasties/timewasters, engage with the ones worth talking to.

    • Kate, I appreciate what you’re saying and you make some very fair points about preciousness and engagement. And it’s for the very reasons you state that I *did* engage with those who commented under the Portman profile.

      To put this blog entry into context – I won’t assume you follow my work with forensic interest! – I’ve spent a lot of the past couple of years dealing with abuse via various forums, including my own blogs, so the post about the Portman effect is intended to be read in relation to a lot of the grief I’ve been failing to deal with in a suitably thick-skinned way in other quarters. I write something as apparently inoffensive and uncontentious as a profile of an actor and still the abuse comes!

      If I wrote contentious political opinion pieces, I’d expect it, and would be duty bound to deal with it, or get off the pot, as American say. My dismay here comes not at the very concept of interaction – I’ve been in the communications caper for long enough now to view that as part of the furniture – but at the speed and voracity at which the spray comes back to hit you in the face, with agendas and assumptions flying under the approved protection of pseudonyms.

      I hope I didn’t come across as “precious” about my writing. My feet are firmly on the ground with regards the artistic or journalistic merit of my work, and always have been. (If I was any good, I’d get more than one commission a year from the Guardian Media Group.) You’re not really puncturing my bubble by belittling my profile and saying “there’s not a huge amount of skill in cobbling together via Google a profile of an extensively written-about actor.” I take exception to “cobble” but made no bones above about the way it was researched. (And anyway: what happened to writerly solidarity?!)

      I promise you I am under no illusion about the lofty worth of the piece. It’s chip paper. If not for the internet, it would literally be that by now. But I didn’t write it to “build my brand”. I wrote it because I was asked and I am self-employed and if I do not write, I do not eat. I always engage with those who comment about my work unless it is pure abuse, and sometimes, even then. That is my curse!

      Good luck with the commenters on the Tech site, though.

      • I don’t think refusing to engage with comments is some kind of writerly bad manners or damaging to one’s ‘brand’. It depends on the style of the writer. If you enjoy taking them on, fine. But maintaining a dignified, aloof stance is fine, too. Haters gonna hate whatever, as I think the ‘kids’ say.

        Moreover, newspapers really should stop tacking comments boxes onto articles that clearly don’t need them, such as your Portman profile. You wrote it for the paper incarnation, not as a blog entry. If comments were switched off, would people take to the streets to complain? I doubt it.

        I love your honesty, Mr C, and hope you can keep up your resolution.

        Anyway, what does Ms Portman think? She’s the one who really should be commenting… Ah, she’s damaging her brand! She won’t last!

  12. Scott, you’ve hit upon a bugbear of mine – those feeble individuals who feel compelled to tell everyone else that they’re not interested in the topic of the article. And they expended actual energy and actual effort to share this with us.

  13. I think your response in the comments section is fantastic quite frankly. The New Year’s Resolution was maybe not necessary (just showing I’m not a sycophant).

  14. I’m not interested in any of this.

    All your comments read like masturbatory fantasies over the author of the piece.

    I want my money back: Andrew, you’ll be needing my paypal details.

    • more importantly – well, more than responding to Kate completely missing the original point – are we going to get a new WWM podcast this year?

      i used to look forward to you and Napolean talking utter balls on a (semi)regular basis…and then nothing for months?

      yes. i know. I KNOW. it’s an illness.

  15. Kate Bevan, I know you won’t be precious at all when I say the phrase “above the line” and “below the line” does not and never has meant blogs above and contributor comments below.

    ATL and BTL are terms that have meaning in the advertising and creative production worlds. They aint nuffink to do with flipping blogging.

    Don’t try and assimilate phrases from elsewhere to some spurious new digital meaning, especially when ham-fistedly talking down to our Collings.

    Keep fighting the good fight, AC.

  16. when will you ever learn Andrew..the internet is full of whackjobs who can insult you from the comfort of their laptops…twat..chicken…propeller..arseholes..rubber duck.

    • You are correct, Dara. But we all work – and play – in “the internet”, and the problem isn’t going away. I’m sure these people were always out there, but they only had radio phone-ins, placards and letter-writing paper by which to express their views. Now we are all equal. I do not advocate shutting down the internet. Instead, I look for ways through it without turning into a “whackjob” in the process. We’re all on the same quest, to a degree. You write for a newspaper now; your work is hung out to dry on the website; you don’t have a choice in the matter.

  17. That last mastubatory comment in Andrew’s blog is priceless. Look forward to using it in my online journalism lecture on the value (or not) of Commenting. Might even raise a giggle from the first year uni students…

  18. The obsession with Israel with some commentators is deeply worrying. I recently wrote an article praising a young socialist feminist writer for the blog, Harry’s Place. This article was copied, without my approval but not to my annoyance, to a different blog, Socialist Unity. In no place in the article did I refer to Israel, to Palestine, to Zionists, to Jews, to Arabs or Muslims, yet this is not what one would realise had they solely read the comments. As anyone can see from checking the Socialist Unity post, from comment number two, the thread deteriorated into an an ad hominem attack on me on the grounds that it is alleged that I am involved in “attempts to white-wash zionist crimes.”

    When I responded noting that I would ignore the abuse, I was told (and I apologise for the vulgar language but I quote directly), “Fuck off you pro-war, zionist, hang assange, prick. Hopefully your snake like efforts to co-opt a young left wing journo into your filthy little world will fail.” In other words, it was deemed that the reason I wrote the post praising the young socialist journalist was purely for nefarious reasons: to try and snare the journalist into becoming a Zionist. The possibility for this commentator that I might simply enjoy reading the journalists vibrant writing was an impossibility.

    Such behaviour really is a shame. Those that wish to direct venom at anyone born in Israel or to those with names such as “Ezra” who do not preface an article on any subject by condemning the State of Israel should consider what has happened to their own moral compass.

  19. Pingback: links for 2011-01-14 « feeling listless

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