Last week, a strange headline appeared in the Newswire section of The A.V. Club,The Onion’s sister publication. “An apology from The A.V. Club,” it read. It turned out that one of the site’s freelance writers had turned in a review of a comic that he hadn’t read- that, indeed, he could not have read, because the book wasn’t even finished yet. Keith Phipps, the site’s editor, apologized sincerely and promised in no uncertain terms that the writer was finished at The A.V. Club:
This sort of behavior is absolutely unacceptable, and we will not be working with the writer again in any capacity going forward.
As a regular reader of the site, I was shocked to discover the writer’s identity (in the comments section- Phipps declined to name him): it was Leonard Pierce. Pierce had only joined The A.V. Club’s freelance pool about two and a half years ago- the site was founded in 1996- but in that short time, he had established himself as one of the site’s most talented, multifaceted and popular critics. It sounds ridiculous to say this about an arts critic, but Pierce’s tenure at The A.V. Club was something akin to a meteoric ascent to stardom.
Reading over what I just wrote, it sounds like contemptible hyperbole. But here’s how Pierce first came to attention of A.V. Club readers, in September 2008:
Why Slayer Owns
22 SEPT. 2008 | 3:40 PM CDT
As the AV Club’s token metalhead, I could write an entire essay on this, but let’s breaker down like a (five-chambered) shotgun:
1. GOOD TIMING. Slayer came into their own at the exact time metal needed a really good hard kick in the teeth. Thrash had largely fallen by the wayside and been replaced by glam/hair metal, which very quickly got bloated, self-parodic, and worst of all, un-rockin’. Too many ballads, not enough bad-ass. Slayer appeared at more or less the same moment in metal that the Ramones did in straight-up rock.
2. PROWESS. Metal is, for the most part (forgive me, my beloved Venom), a genre where chops count, and Christ, did they ever have them. People raised on a diet of saying that, say, Dave Mustaine was an awesome guitar player were now forced to confront the question, “Okay, what if he was, like, TEN TIMES BETTER THAN THAT?” The King/Hanneman duo is still one of the greatest guitar tandems in all of metal, and if you want to talk about great fucking drummers, you could pretty much stop the conversation with Dave Lombardo.
3. SONGWRITING. Whether or not you like their material, you really can’t gainsay the amount of skill that goes into Slayer’s songwriting. They’re formally sophisticated in a way that a lot of other great metal bands can’t touch — Metallica, for example, just doesn’t have Slayer’s ability to incorporate a blistering riff into a larger framework of good song structure. Take, for example, “Angel of Death” — there’s a reason that Rick Rubin sampled that amazing break in the middle of it: because it’s formally dynamite, completely changing the whole tenor of the song. Or “Altar of Sacrifice” — the way the whole song retains the same pummelling force, while the variations in the guitar keep it sonically interesting, is evidence of some people who know what they’re doing.
4. DEATH. Slayer paved the way for death metal by combining the ultra-fast, ultra-skilled musicianship of thrash/speed metal with the bleak lyrical concerns and bad-ass stance of black metal. By doing so, they created what would become the most exciting form of metal music of the 1990s, and with a couple of minor exceptions, most of the interesting things that have happened in metal since Slayer (the rise of extreme black metal, TDM, deathcore, black ambient, and the thrash revival, to name a few) have drawn on what they did. Everything that came in their wake wasn’t necessarily good — in fact, a lot of it was lousy — but they were influential like you would believe.
5. AWESOME. Slayer is awesome. They completely embody the fuck-you attitude that metal is supposed to be about. They’re totally bad-ass and they absolutely live up to the image they created for themselves without apology. They’re a band that intellectuals can like and appreciate, but they don’t put up any front themselves. They let their sophistication be made clear in the music instead of a bunch of self-congratulatory hype, and they’re provocative without being cartoonish. As I’ve said elsewhere (about Lair of the Minotaur), they’re not their to pat you on the back and say congratulations for being so smart; they’re there to remind you that metal, at its best, is fucking awesome.
This isn’t an article. This virtuoso piece of musicological analysis appeared as a comment on Noel Murray’s Popless column before Pierce had a single solo byline on the site. Yet barely six months later, Pierce had something up on the site nearly every day; in June 2009 he inaugurated the Metal Box column, a monthly roundup of heavy music of all stripes.
Although Metal Box only ran once a month, it became an important part of The A.V. Club’s music coverage. Pierce is an engaging and knowledgeable writer, and judging solely from reader response, the feature clearly filled a need that had not previously been met- the very first installment received nearly 500 comments.
To be brutally honest, Metal Box was one of the few music features on The A.V. Club that was consistently worth reading. The A.V. Club was founded by film geeks, guys who worked at video stores, and that origin is reflected in the site’s film criticism, which is concise and direct (mostly) but informed by a wide and deep collective knowledge of film. The site’s music coverage has never measured up to that standard. The two senior writers that cover music, Murray and head writer Nathan Rabin, split their time between music, film and TV, and while the better junior writers in the music section have their areas of expertise, by and large, they’ve never displayed writing, critical skills, or a knowledge base on the same level as the site’s core film staff (Phipps, Scott Tobias, and Tasha Robinson).
Pierce, though he was only a freelancer, brought the music section into better balance with the other sections of the site. He came off as a true music geek, in the same way that Phipps, Tobias, and Robinson do about film- and that Donna Bowman and Ellen Wernecke do in their book section, Murray and Todd VanDerWerff do in TV, and- let’s be honest- all of their critics do in video games, because video game critics are pretty much geeks by definition, hardy har har. Pierce has the voluminous knowledge and the agile, open mind that should be expected of an arts critic, such that he can talk intelligently about the ridiculously Balkanized and obsessive world of metal one day, and deliver a coherent primer on one of the most productive and varied careers in jazz the very next- and he recently did exactly that.
The Miles Davis primer turned out to be the last Pierce article to run in The A.V. Club, appearing the same day as Phipps’ apology, as well as a comment that Pierce left on his own blog owning up to his deception and apologizing, without giving an explanation for it. Pierce’s importance to his readers can be inferred from the fact that more than a hundred A.V. Club readers cared enough to track down the post and comment in response, almost universally expressing their admiration for Pierce’s writing and sorrow at his departure, along with their appreciation for its necessity. Some even went so far as to offer Pierce encouragement:
You may be down, now, but all you gotta do is keep your head down, pay your dues and keep working on your trade. You’ve got the talent to get another chance, just make sure you don’t fuck it up. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get back to work.
While I sympathize with the general sentiments expressed by some of these commenters- that Pierce is a talented critic, and that people in general deserve second chances- I don’t think all of them appreciate how badly he has screwed up here. The A.V. Club really was the perfect place for Pierce, partly because he filled an open niche, but partly because he was a guy with a lot of personality (in print, at least) on a site that’s really driven by personality. To some extent this is true of all arts criticism, because there is some subjectivity that’s inherent in the form, but The A.V. Club I think has done a very good job of nurturing writers who have a certain degree of critical rigor but also a considerable amount of soul- Robinson, Rabin and Murray especially come to mind (as well as Steven Hyden in music, whom I like as a critic of music culture more than a music critic per se).
This is exactly the kind of writer that Pierce is. I think that’s why he succeeded so thoroughly there. And I think it’s because he fit in so well that he was given the opportunity to branch out into so many different sections of the site- books, film, TV, and, of course, comics. In his last week at The A.V. Club, Pierce covered Miles Davis; contemporary metal; Batman: The Animated Series; The Walking Dead; news items about Dora the Explorer, Kirsten Dunst, and the Grammys; Sam Peckinpah; comic writer Alex Toth; and a book about the Mickey Mouse Club. I can’t think of many other culture-only publications that even try to cover such a breadth of material, let alone that would run articles by a freelance writer on all of them at the same time.
Even less that they would pay for them; I of course have no idea what The A.V. Club’s freelance work pays, but given the quality of their content, I have to imagine it’s better than, say, alternative newsweeklies, who these days either pay so little for online work that it’s frankly not worth doing, or have cut their freelancers loose because they simply have no money at all. (The latter situation hasn’t fazed Popmatters, who (as I’ve noted before) announce blithely that “we are unable to pay you monetarily at this time.”) Daily newspapers don’t do much better, and with corporate hiring rules, will be unlikely to take a chance on someone who fabricated a story. Maybe there’s some work at music magazines, but as short as everyone is on cash, I doubt it’s much. If Pierce feels inclined to start over “paying his dues,” my guess is that he won’t be paying much else if he’s trying to work writing music.
That’s if anyone is still willing to hire him. Falsifying an article isn’t just a black spot on his record; it also scars the publication that ran the article. To wit: the Wikipedia article on The A.V. Club now includes a subheading on Pierce’s trangression. It accounts for two of the article’s five citations. It’s anyone’s guess how long this episode will continue to a notable fact about the publication; probably not that long. But if you’re an editor, and you hire Pierce, you have to imagine that there’s a risk you’ll end up with some mud on your face. And maybe you don’t have the devoted audience and goodwill The A.V. Club has, or maybe you don’t handle it as well, and maybe it really costs you.
Pierce had the a situation at The A.V. Club that is as close to ideal as you can get in the world of freelance arts criticism. He had a devoted readership and steady work at a quality publication that cares about good writing and is going to continue to operate that way for the indefinite future. As someone who likes and cares about criticism, but who has no conception of how to make a career in it, it looks to me like he had it made: for a freelance music critic, spouting off about heavy metal and getting 500 comments has to be about as good as it gets. If he ever gets another shot at this kind of position, it will be a long time. That he could have gambled it just to crank out an extra review or two is baffling and sad. Pierce lives in San Antonio; maybe someday I’ll meet him, so that I can buy him a drink and have the opportunity to put the question to him: why?