You're Wrong About Critics: Myths, Delusions, and Scorned Artists

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We’re going to be doing something a little different this week.

You see, I’m in the midst of watching a couple shows for this blog (a couple shows I’ve already introduced here, some new ones, and my secret end-of-semester surprise), so I don’t think I’m ready for a proper review this week. I guess if you really want to hear what I think about, say, the first three episodes of “The Venture Bros,” just ask me in person. I’m literally everywhere. Instead of telling you about a show you should watch, there’s an issue very close to my heart that I’d like to address.

I self-identify as a critic. With the exception of this post, this blog is a review blog. I have two other editorial positions – at Video Game Choo Choo and Flixist — where I spend most of my time doing reviews. I love trying to properly articulate an opinion. Taking part in a spirited discussion of a film or game’s merits is something I genuinely enjoy. I’m planning to create my own major that will allow me to be a professional critic. And yet, I approach this career with some trepidation, because – in 2014! – people still hate critics.

Around two months ago, I had a conversation with a nameless Occidental Theater Department participant who expressed dissatisfaction with the Occidental Weekly’s review of “The Thugs.” Keep in mind this review was published in November of last year. I’ve heard many people involved with the Theater Department complain about the review to this day.

This problem isn’t just confined to the “Oxy bubble,” although I’ve certainly seen people here take a very hard anti-critic stance. People take pride in avoiding reviews. I’ve been in conversations where people discuss a film critics have been savaging. All it takes is the phrase, “Oh, I heard bad things about that,” for every other conversational participant to go on the usual anti-review tirade.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard an argument that didn’t hit four points: original thought, critics as snobs, lack of knowledge and bias. Together, these ideas are a vicious assault on logic itself, but I think I can pick them apart one-by-one (I will not be addressing the idea that certain things don’t exist “for critics” because tackling that inane concept will require a straitjacket and several gallons of sedatives, neither of which are readily available).

1. Original thought

The first circle of anti-review hell is the idea that reading a review makes you a member of the herd. Following a consensus is for the mentally weak. In order to properly defuse this idea, you must understand what value a properly executed review can hold.

When I write reviews or critical pieces, I am trying to let the reader into my brain. If I’ve done my job properly, the reader understands my thought process and how this piece of media settled into my brain. They can use my experience, relate it to their experiences and form an educated guess. Let’s say I read a review of “Fast and Furious 6,” having enjoyed the previous film. A well-written review of “Watch Vin Diesel Go Fast Six: Another One” can hold value for me. This critic’s reaction to the previous film will define our shared experiences. Did they like “Fast Five?” How did they feel about “Furious 6?”

The critic doesn’t even have to specifically call out the previous films to write a useful review. A well-executed criticism of “The Angry Fast People VI” – one that picks it apart, explaining what about it didn’t work – can still hold value to a discerning reader. And if you’re not a discerning reader, well, then you’ve probably seen the movie already instead of checking out The New York Times first.

Reading a review doesn’t make you a sheep, it makes you a discerning consumer. Things cost money nowadays, and reading a series of well-written reviews can help weed out a potentially disastrous purchase. But hey, if you really want to go against the grain and see “Endless Love” or whatever despite what critics say, go for it! I hope you like one of the worst romance films ever made!

2. Critics as snobs

In my home area western New York, I got beaten up for using big words. They don’t like smart people over there. So perhaps my anger at this idea comes from a very personal place.

When people decry reviews, this old standby is one of the first pulled out of the sack. To hear the public talk, all critics are stodgy old men who push fun blockbusters to their deaths off the critic-only ivory tower. Except literally none of that is true.

Okay, hands up, how many of you regularly go to critic screenings for movies? No? Just me? I think I can count all the stodgy old men I’ve encountered on a single hand, and that’s because I haven’t met any. The old guys I have met were cheery and ended up liking certain films more than I did.

This myth of the “old snob film critic” stems from the legacy of the late Roger Ebert, but was he really a snob? I took a look into his archives, and found a couple surprising reviews. He really enjoyed “The Amazing Spider-Man.” He liked the “Total Recall” remake. He thought “Premium Rush” was good. “Premium Rush.” The bike movie with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The really dumb bike movie with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Hardly the arthouse mumblecore fare people seem to believe critics adore. Ebert even gave “Skyfall” a perfect score! You loved “Skyfall,” didn’t you? Of course you did. That move was showered with praise when it came out.

Most critics are not snobs. They’re just very good at explaining why they don’t like things. And it’s okay if you can’t pick apart the latest awful summer blockbuster like a seasoned writer. I’m not saying the idea of “critic equals snob” might come from a place of impotent jealousy, but I’m definitely implying that.

3. Lack of knowledge

Thankfully, this concept very rarely, if ever, follows the previous idea. Dumb and hypocritical would just be too much for me.

This complaint usually comes from someone involved with the production of a work. When a negative review comes out, it’s not hard to find some person claiming the writer lacks the knowledge necessary to properly criticize a work. Until now, I’ve mostly been talking about the film industry, but I’ll need to hop the fence over to videogames for a second. When game reviewer Jim Sterling panned the downloadable game “Hydrophobia,” he got complaints from the game’s developers, claiming that he “played the game wrong.” His response? “Whose fault is that? If somehow I’m playing the game wrong with the information the game itself gives me, that’s on your head, not mine.”

Let’s come back to the Occidental theater department for a second. Much of the tension surrounding aforementioned “The Thugs” review seems to lie in the idea that writer Jeremy Childs somehow lacked some intangible quality necessary to properly review the play.

Not all criticism is valid, but well-written and even-handed criticism absolutely holds value for someone. Childs may not be a theatrical scholar, but does that mean his experience is somehow invalid because he didn’t inherently understand “representational acting?” Absolutely not, and to suggest otherwise is simply absurd. Do you plan to hand out mandatory tests to everyone who buys a ticket so the only people who will see your play are those who inherently “get” it? That review will hold value for someone who doesn’t study post-modern theater. It all comes back to “letting the reader into my brain.”

Claiming a critic isn’t allowed to review something because they don’t know as much as you’d like is not just arrogant. If it’s something you’re involved with, it’s also cowardly.

4. Bias

This one is a particularly sore spot. I cut my teeth on reviewing video games, you see. I got my first hate-filled comment about one year into my first position, because I dared to give “Assassin’s Creed III” a middling score. I was accused of letting my biases get in the way of my review, and thus my opinion was invalid.

This goon apparently forgot that “bias” in reviews is literally impossible to stamp out because critics are human. When people say “bias,” what they mean is “your opinion is different.” Do you know what an unbiased review looks like? Neither do I because an unbiased review is literally impossible. An “unbiased review” is literally just a list of features. If somebody goes into their review process looking to hate whatever they’re reviewing, that will be obvious! It always is!

Look, other kinds of bias in reviews exists. There are racists, sexists and homophobes out there, all of whom will denounce a work because of their predisposition towards hatred. But they are not the majority. Poor reviews aren’t the majority. Jerks who personally denigrate artists aren’t the majority.

When you pretend critics are just a bunch of mean-spirited elitists out to ruin everyone else’s fun, you are perpetuating a bold-faced lie that someone else told you and you gobbled right up. I have literally never met someone who got into critical work for the express purpose of destroying an art form. Reviews ultimately comes from a place of love, especially negative reviews.

If you take pride in not reading a review, insult a writer or labor under the delusion that all written opinions must line up with yours, then I’m genuinely happy you don’t read my work, because then I’d have to get an earful of your nonsense every time we disagreed. And if you’re an artist who shuns all criticism they don’t agree with, you have nothing of value to say to yourselves or the world, and you should be treated as such.

Mike Cosimano is a first-year psychology major. He can be reached at cosimanowhite@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyMCosimano.