Recommended Reading: Robert De Niro, Aging in Bookstores, and Why Cultural Critics Matter

The sharpest, funniest, and most thoughtful writing of the week.

Modern online media is all about the signal boost, so every Friday here at Flavorwire, we take a moment to spotlight some of the best stuff we’ve read online this week. Today, thoughts on how our reading habits change, a troubling exposé of a YouTube scam, a call for more arts criticism, and an interview with a legend. 

Michael Schulman interviews Robert De Niro.

Robert De Niro doesn’t give a lot of interviews — and when he does, he’s known to be a tough one. He’s not combative or evasive; he just does what he does, and doesn’t really like to talk about it. But Schulman’s sit-down for the New Yorker gets some good quotes out of the iconic actor, particularly on how his best-known characters relate to the current cultural moment:

I do find it interesting that you’ve played so many men who’ve felt this rage and alienation—even Jack Byrnes in “Meet the Parents,” who can’t access his emotions. Between Trump and #MeToo, it’s been a rough couple years for masculinity. What does being a real man mean to you?

Being a real man is not just being a man the way you’d think. If you think that I should do this or that or I’m not a man—I’m sorry. Men are much more complex, and there are many more sides to them. You gotta be sensitive. You gotta care about people, have empathy. And someone like Trump, he’s got something screwed loose in his head. But it’s through some deep insecurity that he actually behaves the way he does, because it’s all bullshit. And people buy into that with him, with his behavior. It’s sad. That’s not what life is about. But some people are in cultures where they’re all like that, they all reinforce it in each other. The sensitive ones are afraid to say anything. I made a movie, “A Bronx Tale,” and those kids, they don’t want to look like they’re not tough with their peers. The bottom line is, you gotta be an individual and you gotta stand up and be who you are.

That’s a good way to put it: toughness. People see Trump as tough—

He’s not tough.

—but your work has explored toughness in a lot of different varieties, and there’s good toughness and bad toughness.

You don’t have to behave the way he does. That’s just bullshit bravado. It has nothing to do with anything. If you’re tough, you’d be making decisions that he hasn’t made.

Steve Edwards on aging and reading.

We can all agree (well, those of us who aren’t jerks) that few things are as exciting and enlightening as a trip to the bookstore, wandering the aisles, deciding what deserves not only our hard-earned money, but our hard-fought attention. In an insightful personal essay at Lithub, author Edwards notes the difference between taking that trip in his 20s and taking it now, in his 40s — how the book stack used to tell him who he wanted to be, and now it says much about who he is and was.

I’d started coming to bookstores because I wanted to learn how to write and the only consistent advice I got from established writers was to read everything. It was good advice. It’s still good advice. It’s also impossible. No one reads everything, nor even all the books they’d like to. You make your choices, come what may. John Muir’s famous quote about ecology might as well have been about choosing what books to buy: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” The bookstore is a liminal space. Even if like me you don’t have the cash to buy a box of new titles and reinvent yourself week to week, you have the moment of the choosing and everything it tugs upon.

As a young writer, I thought I had to read widely in order to learn different authors’ styles and sentence structures and voices. I thought I needed a sense of what sang and what sold, what had been done and done to death. But what I needed more than anything were the consequences of my choices. I needed to live the lives the books I read compelled me to lead—to be brave, big-hearted, open to surprise and welcoming of mystery. Until I had a lived, my study of sentences was nothing more than a corkboard of pin-stuck insects arranged by genus and species. I could gain knowledge from such cold classifications but it wasn’t the same as standing in some open mountain meadow, flowers teeming with wings, crickets under every rock. What I needed was the quality of attention the writers I loved brought to the page, their fidelity to translating perception into sequences of language that edified me for losing (and finding) myself in them. If I wanted to understand crickets, I had to become like the grasses in the meadow soaking up every call.

Julia Alexander on “Mystery Brand.”

Few writers are as skilled at navigating the confounding waters of YouTube “influencers” like Alexander, and her latest for The Verge is a doozy: Jake Paul and Brian “RiceGum” Le are in hot water for running sponsored videos for a sketchy company called Mystery Brand, “a form of loot box-style gambling” in which buyers might win valuable prizes like designer clothes, high-dollar sneakers, and even cars and houses. But probably not. And YouTube isn’t doing a thing about it.

“YouTube believes that creators should be transparent with their audiences if their content includes paid promotion of any kind,” a YouTube spokesperson told The Verge before Le’s apology video was posted. “Our policies make it clear that YouTube creators are responsible for ensuring their content complies with local laws, regulations and YouTube Community Guidelines. If content is found to violate these policies, we take action to ensure the integrity of our platform, which can include removing content.”

YouTube’s policy allows for responsible gambling ads, with restrictions and protections for those watching, but the site doesn’t consider Mystery Brands or loot box-style games as gambling. Essentially, Paul’s and Le’s videos exist in a very specific gray area. YouTube’s policies do state that creators can not promote spam, deceptive practices, or scams, even through partnerships. If YouTube determines a company is taking advantage of users, its policy is to take down sponsored videos for violating the company’s community guidelines — but so far, it’s not clear whether Mystery Brand has broken those rules. But those policy nuances haven’t stopped other creators from calling out Paul and Le for intentionally misleading their followers.

Todd VanDerWerff on why cultural criticism matters.

And here’s one more year-end piece, which snuck in just under the wire on New Year’s Eve. It’s been a rough damn year for arts criticism. The Village Voice is gone, and Voice Media is shuttering its TV and film verticals. The AV Club, BuzzFeed, The Fader, and this very site have seen layoffs for critical voices. And it’s easy to assume that in this moment where the stakes of our politics are literally life and death, such losses are acceptable — after all, it’s just entertainment. Vox‘s VanDerWerff argues the contrary.

Once we know where we’re going, all of this will make more sense. But culture writing isn’t about predicting the future — it’s about predicting the present.

When I make the above argument in favor of cultural criticism to journalistic colleagues who deal in what might be dubbed the “hard sciences” of journalism — data-driven, boots-on-the-ground reporting — I am always aware that it sounds just a little fantastical. And there have been many times that I and my critical brethren have just plumb missed something burbling away in the national subconscious. Few critics looked at the pop culture of the early 2010s and said, “Yep, a culture war’s brewing,” even if it seems blindingly obvious in hindsight.

You can attribute at least some of missing that particular boat to the geographical concentration of cultural critics in New York and Los Angeles (where I live). The homogeneity of critics — too many of us are white, too many of us are male, and too many of us live on one of the coasts — is a real problem that needs to be corrected sooner, rather than later, if we are to better understand the dreams a multicultural nation is having, sometimes in parallel and sometimes in bloody intersection.