“Anyone can be a critic”, is said often. Unfortunately it’s true, and the followup is often left out; “But few people should be”. To be a critic only requires that you have an opinion on something. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but I’ve found that there is an issue to that entitlement.
The reason I find this subject important can be found in Jerry Holkins blog post for Validation Syndrome, regarding video game journalists:
There are people who walk on eggshells out of fear, but there is a second type of person who literally distributes eggshells for other people to walk on. Try to imagine how I feel about this second person, who is the negative space around which the exploratory, human work of creativity is allowed to take place.
The joke here, at first blush, is that Gabe — the character on the right — takes opinions too seriously and it’s a problem for him. Actually, that’s true. But the deeper statement is that Gabe is an artist — a wildly successful one, an industry-leading professional — and he’s deeply affected by what even hypothetical people think of him.
Creators can be pretty fragile beings. It takes a special kind of person to put that much of their time, effort and skill into getting external validation. Recently, at a panel, I was asked what got me into writing. My answer was so honest that I think people thought I was joking: “I just wanted people to like me”. At the end of the day, I think that’s the core truth at anyone’s answer.
Many, especially the critics I talk to about this, seem to come to the conclusion that the creators need to eat a bag of cement and harden up; That criticism itself is inherently beneficial. Anyone who’s ever had an abusive parent can tell you, no, no it’s not.
This answer is especially frustrating when the criticism is in the direction of a nebulous, ill-defined concept of ‘improvement’. The problem here is, what needs improving is often just that the work didn’t align with the commentator’s subjective biases.
Literally as I was writing this, a friend of mine disabled the comments on their online stories, as that feature had been made available to them. In a blog discussing the decision, they received this comment:
“I always say this, but comments and especially constructive critique is an author’s best friend. I mean, how do you know what you’re doing wrong if you don’t get that?”
It’s never acceptable for an author to say; “Because I disagree with your definition of ‘wrong'”. It’s never a good look for an author to criticize the notion of criticism, for that matter. Let me be your shield on this one.
The heart of this piece should be seen as addressing the specific ways I disagree with this. Not that criticism isn’t useful — it certainly is! — but in people’s belief that the criticism they give is inherently beneficial to creators, disregarding the effect it can have on their mental health or drive to create. This can’t be disregarded as irrelevant, or purely a character failing on the part of creators.
What use is ‘better’ if it saps a creator’s drive and personal motivation to create? And why is criticism somehow purest when it comes to anonymous internet strangers, as if seeking criticism solely from people you trust and respect is an inferior decision? Why is positive reinforcement seen as condescending, or outright dishonest?
This piece is mostly directed at non-professional commentators, the kind that you see pop up in fandoms or any creative community, self-appointed gatekeepers. I’m going to draw them up into six archetypes of commentary, and I’ll define my coding here.
The reason for this is that I want to draw a clear distinction between ‘reviewers’ and ‘critics’, and a neat categorization might go a long way to making a lot of the issues I have easier to explain.
The ones I have identified are as follows:
Rubberneckers: The people who go looking for absolute wrecks, to see if they can poke the corpse with a stick.
Examples: Fatal And Friends, FATAL
Highlight Reels: These people try to focus on bringing good media to your attention.
Examples: The Oscars, the Golden Globes, the Emmys, the Grammys, etc.
Interesting note: The reviewing itself is behind closed doors, but still results in a ‘trusted’ recommendation. It still counts for our purposes, though.
Reviewers: As far as I can tell, the main difference between these people and highlight reels is that they believe that occasionally giving bad reviews is necessary to having ‘journalistic credibility’. They largely produce content which sticks to giving their personal impressions, thoughts and feelings about why they liked or didn’t like something, which means it’s most heavily focused in their subjective feelings towards a work.
Critics: The critic uses the pretense of their own expertise to break a work down to help an audience better understand the media they consumed, and to supposedly have an expert opinion of the quality of the media piece in the context of the broader media canon.
I’m classifying a critic as distinct from a reviewer when they try to dissect the mechanical and design reasons that made them feel the way they did, and not just dissecting the feelings themselves. There is some attempt of objective analysis in the commentary.
Analysts: These people try to break down the craft of art. and treat media construction like a science. Their breakdowns won’t be on the entire work, but on one specific part of a work that was done especially well or poorly. This might also stretch to treating a creator’s entire body of work as a single piece for dissection. Their approach is often more academic.
Meta Analysts, These people usually only use works as an example to instruct their audience on core underlying concepts, and will cross-reference their ideas heavily with similar works to show trends across the entire genre, or media landscape. An analyst who is one step further abstracted.
To be clear, this is not in an order of merit. There are plenty of brilliant rubberneckers and plenty of terrible meta-analysts.
This is instead to show an order of abstraction from the work, and how derivative from the source material the final product is required to be. Rubbernecker pieces rely heavily on directly quoting the source material and letting you see it in its rawest form, whereas the meta-analyst is basically drawing entirely from their own expertise, and the media is used almost incidentally.
The lines also blur, a lot, between categories. Notice HBomberguy is my first example for both an analyst and a meta-analyst. Also note that the distinction between reviewer and critic can also blur: That blurriness between ‘reviewing’ and ‘criticism’ seems to cause the most problems of what I’ve seen.
For now, I’m going to call this broad and diverse group of overlapping people “commentators”. It would be fair to call all these people ‘reviewers’ or ‘critics’ in most contexts, however I want there to be a clear distinction between these elements for my purposes in talking about them.
There are many linguists who argue that there would be no arguments in a purely logical constructed language, because clear terminology would eradicate the need for disagreement. This is wrong, but they make a good point.
One thing I like most about this chart is that it classifies Cinema Sins as “Analysts”; Their work doesn’t usually say much good or bad about the movies they nitpick, but focuses on breaking down its use of tropes and common construction. Cinema Sins, then, can be understood as bad analysts, and not even as ‘critics’ at all.
Shaun’s video above demonstrates why they’re bad even at doing that one thing, and he has more videos on why their chosen approach is also bad, starting with:
Shaun leads directly into the first point I want to make here. A problem CinemaSins has in common with many commentators is that if their critique is called into question, they argue it’s because it’s an entertainment product and not to be taken seriously. If it’s criticized as an entertainment product, they fall back on the fact that critique is subjective, and you disagree with their assessment.
This is because commentators try to serve two masters at the same time: To the artform, to advance a discussion about what makes art good or bad or meaningful, and to their own audience, who they want to entertain.
It doesn’t matter how good your commentary is, you see, if nobody’s listening to it.
Which master does the commentator primarily serve? To put it another way: Is the focus on directing people towards the work, or dissecting it?
This might not sound like an important distinction, but it really is, and it does line up with the abstraction chart I put above. It lines up with how important spoilers are to compliment the commentary. “Highlight reels” do as little to spoil you as possible, and are there to encourage you in the clearest possible terms to go consume the damn thing. At the top, though, analysis requires shredding a piece of media down to its finest pulp, and trying to give you conclusions about it you couldn’t have otherwise reached.
Where it’s murkiest, however, is how it draws the line between reviewers and critics. And I think the effective distinction of spoiling or not spoiling is significant.
Red Letter Media, who did Half in the Bag linked above, are probably the best way to illustrate both the murkiness, and why the difference matters. The first half of their takes on a movie are reviews. The second half is criticism.
And the difference, which matters significantly, is the spoiler break.
The first half of their commentary is reviewing. They give broad impressions, highlight actor performances and compare it to other movies of a similar nature, and rank them compared to that. This lets an audience know whether it’d be the kind of movie they’d want to watch, and whether it’s a good or bad take on that kind of movie.
Then there’s the spoiler break.
If the movie sounds like something you want to see, you stop watching the video there and go see it. Their service as a clearinghouse to the audience has been fulfilled, and the criticism part of their commentary begins. Either you have seen the movie, or you don’t want to at this point, and they break down the specifics of individual events of the movie and dissect it with each other.
This is an ideal way to split those two roles. They are concurrently reviewers and critics, but make a distinct split in their commentary so they don’t overlap. Problems arise when commentators try to be both critics and reviewers at the same time.
A reviewer who provides spoilers to give his review doesn’t become a critic. He’s being a bad reviewer. Likewise, a critic who tries not to go into detail is going to give ineffectual criticism.
Let’s use fanfiction commentary as an example here, since it’s a very common way for people to find fanfiction stories at all. Navigation on sites like Archive of Our Own and Fanfiction.net can be… unintuitive.
I’m going to be very clear and upfront with this statement. I don’t believe there’s a role for negative reviews in fan communities because of this split. I think they’re inherently negative and detrimental to hobbyist creation. There is a role for criticism, but these are two different things.
This is probably the most controversial opinion I hold. Yes, including all the political ones.
The retribution I am given boils down to the fact that criticism needs to be accepted when you make your work public. But a bad review isn’t criticism. It’s directing an audience to a work for the explicit purpose of telling them not to engage with it. It’s a person’s negative impressions of a work.
This isn’t of much merit, and a strong argument can be made that this is essentially just bullying.
However, what if a work has just really annoyed you? It’s bad and you want to talk about why it’s bad, or about how it came so close to being good? Or, at the meta-analysis level, what if you want to give examples to cite a bad trend going through your community you want to isolate and call out?
That’s fine. Just try to do it well. This is fine as long as there is no pretense that it’s being done for the author’s sake or benefit. In the words of someone I just ran this argument by; “So, just don’t piss on my trousers and call it dry cleaning.”
This is because a negative review isn’t the same as criticism just because it is negative. It doesn’t break down the actual mechanics of a story, and it purely goes into the reviewers impression which, obviously, wasn’t good. Bad reviews might save you some money in a professional setting, but in a hobbyist setting? It just seems like a good way to kick someone else’s sand castles.
If your criticism is sincere, and it’s truly to help that creator improve… consider private messages or their comments section. The quality of criticism isn’t measured in witnesses, and creators should have the right to choose not to deal with it.
Sometimes people really are just creating for fun and self-esteem. Unless they’re specifically asking how to do better, or saying they want to improve, then… maybe the help you’re offering isn’t helpful towards their desired goals?
There’s another point to make here. Critics aren’t superior to reviewers. Critics can use their knowledge of the medium to say interesting things, but there is still merit in having someone with an opinion you trust saying how something made them feel, and if they recommend it or not. This is especially true if you know a reviewer’s biases align with your own.
Reviewers can make up for their lack of deeper knowledge, or for choosing to use a more superficial explanation, by simply explaining and communicating those feelings well. Art is, effectively, about conveying ideas and emotions effectively. Just talking about what you experienced engaging with art can be effective and important.
Likewise, by engaging so closely to their emotions about a subject, reviewers may be more likely to be aware of the subjective nature of their commentary. Critics make a more objective approach to their methodology, and this isn’t necessarily good: It means that some critics, rather than being aware of their biases, deny they have any.
Introspection is important in art. Not only is it impossible to be truly objective, but it’s not something you should actually try for.
Even a mediocre reviewer, then, should be preferable to a bad critic.
On the other side of the coin, reviewers can also mistake their ability to convey their feelings on a subject matter with superior knowledge of the subject matter. If people like what they have to say, then it makes sense that they know what they’re talking about. And if they have their own audience, that implies merit in their ideas, doesn’t it?
Well. Not really. Popularity is a terrible gauge of ability. The most obvious examples here are famously Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, but a better comparison would be to say that a good Let’s Player doesn’t even necessarily have to be good at playing games.
Two of my favourite Let’s Players, Many a True Nerd and NorthernLion, are terrible at games I love watching them play, even though it’s their full-time job.
This isn’t immediately obvious to reviewers. Being told that your opinion is good or meaningful is an intoxicating experience, which can lead to a lot of arrogance. This is a problem when it leads a reviewer to believe that their subjective opinion is so good it is a form of objectivity, because of how ‘correct’ their feelings are.
And, as long as they only talk about what their feelings are, they can never be contradicted or outright ‘wrong’.
As a final note, there’s the notion of hiding behind a character. Commentators often play exaggerated characters of themselves for their pieces. Nostalgia Critic, Jim Sterling, Angry Video Game Nerd, Penny Arcade… and Cinema Sins, to name a few.
But let’s focus on Cinema Sins again for the moment. I’d rather keep the enemies list I make minimal here, so let’s just dogpile on the same person.
Cinema Sins’ criticism is often that they’re not really bad nitpickers, they just play bad nitpickers for the purpose of their channel. This is a fairly common defense: A creator has the right to disavow a character. Done well, it allows for creators to make complex arguments they don’t hold themselves to, as in Contrapoints:
In this, Contrapoints – herself a character played by Natalie Wynn – plays two distinct characters who argue mutually exclusive viewpoints, both of which Natalie may or may not sincerely believe.
This is the argument put forth: I don’t have to believe the things I say or do, I just play a character who does for a reason.
But above, Contrapoint’s reason is obvious. It’s to sincerely frame a debate. The nature of the character is easily understood.
Let me ask you this: What is the point, the purpose, of the Cinema Sins character? One played without criticism or contradiction in their entire body of work?
Because if the criticism is that the character flattens the entirety of the medium to tropes, bloopers and continuity, then not having a counter-example in the body of work itself makes it irrelevant whether that’s authentic or not. The received message is the same.
This ‘just a character’ argument persists despite Cinema Sins releasing behind the scenes video of their impressions coming straight out of the movie theatre, where we can see that… no, that’s just them and how they think. Which should show this defense for what it is: A deflection of fault from the creator onto a fictional character, to avoid having to deal with what that character means.
This might just be mild irritation on the part of Cinema Sins, but it becomes a genuinely serious problem when the character is smug, arrogant, all-knowing, wiser-than-thou, or an asshole, and the creator tries to live up to that character without seriously condemning that within the work itself. When that becomes popular, that behaviour becomes imitated.
It might not have been Ben Croshaw’s intentions, for instance, but ‘Yahtzee’ succeeded in making a cottage industry of assholes across the internet, regardless of his stance on the character. When people aren’t as good at it as Croshaw, and their targets aren’t triple-A games, then the result is just… well, a lot of assholes hiding behind a legitimacy of ‘criticism’ and the pretense of a character.
Criticism levelled at a commentator isn’t invalidated because they’re using a persona. While the commentator is free to deflect criticism away from themselves by using it, this is not a luxury that the targets for their commentary have when they’re on the receiving end of the persona: The end result isn’t less harsh because it’s ‘just a character’. And often that’s not how the audience is going to see it either.
And on that charming note, if you’re a commentator who’s been linked this and are wondering how much it applies to you, I’ll finish on the second half of the quote this article started on:
This is what I would tell you, and you can take this advice or not take it. Its truth is not dependent on your willingness to believe it, so your reaction isn’t super relevant. But goes like this: you will be an observer – that is to say, not a creator – forever, until the day you find a way to stop using creative people as a proxy for your own stunted drives. You can emerge from this cocoon you’ve made, or you can die inside it, half-formed.