When To Ignore Criticism (and How to Get People to Take Your Critique Seriously)

UK-based writer Damien Walter took exception on Twitter to my notation a few days ago that science fiction fandom was cheerfully ignoring condescending critiques of this year’s slate of Hugo winners, which precipitated a lively exchange between the two of us on the subject of criticism. For those of you who want to check out the back and forth, it’s all there on Twitter; have fun with it.

What I want to do now, however, is talk more generally about the fine art of criticism, when to listen to it, and how to have it listened to. These thoughts come from my own two-decade experience as a professional critic (primarily in film, although I have also been a pro critic for music, books and video games), and also my experience in the last decade of being critiqued on my written work. So there’s a little bit of perspective from both sides of the fence.

Let’s start with the critic. When the critic sits down to critique or comment, she has several choices for the goal of the critique, some of which are:

* Consumer reporting: Describing to potential consumer why a particular thing (book, album, film, game, etc) is or is not worth their time/money/attention.

* Exegesis: A critical examination or interpretation of the thing, not as a consumer object (or not primarily so) but as a thing in itself, and in relation to other things which the critic finds to be similar and/or relevant.

* Instruction: The critic wishes to convey an educational message to an intended audience, often a writer, group of writers, or a group with an existing interest in either the specific object or class of objects the critic is examining.

* Polemic: The critic wants to expound on a point of personal interest or on a critical observation and chooses to do so with some rhetorical force.

Note these goals are not exclusive; a critic may mix and match these goals in whatever proportions she feels necessary to convey her message most effectively. Alternately, she may choose to go with one primarily and have the others only in supporting roles, if they are there at all.

Whether the criticism is ultimately effective to a large degree depends on two things: One, whether the critic herself is, as a matter of craft, effective in reaching her critical goals; Two, whether the audience for the critique is well-matched with the goal of the critique.

As an example, let me trot out a critical piece of mine from a few years ago, called “The Lie of Star Wars as Entertainment.” As a piece of criticism, what is it? Well, it’s not really consumer reporting, as I don’t spend any time or effort trying to keep people from spending their money on Star Wars product (that ship has long since sailed, I suspect). There’s some exegesis and some instruction there, but they exist in supporting roles. What the piece is primarily — and unapologetically — is polemic. Quite obviously I have a bug in my ass regarding Star Wars, and in this piece I am (sorry for the upcoming image) pulling the bug out of my ass and showing it to you.

Who is the audience for this particular piece — which is to say, who are the people who will find this piece the most persuasive as a piece of rhetoric? Well, I can tell you who won’t, which is dyed-in-the-wool Star Wars fans, because they will perceive the piece — correctly — as an attack on something they have already determined to be of value to them. They will therefore either attack it as obnoxious or alternately ignore it with a “haters gonna hate” sort of shrug.

Are they correct to do so? That’s a matter of opinion, but as a practical matter and as a critic I’m certainly not surprised that hardcore Star Wars fans would reject it out of hand, and it would be disingenuous of me to assume that such a rhetorical blast would or should be well-received in those quarters. If I wanted to make an argument to that audience (or at the very least to actively include that audience), it would be incumbent on me as a critic to tailor the message in a way that addresses that audience intelligently.

Note that “intelligently” is not the same as “obsequiously”; there are ways to be negative — even confrontational — while at the same time persuading others to consider one’s argument. It’s a nice skill if you have it, and people do. One of my favorite critiques of Old Man’s War came from Russell Letson in the pages of Locus, in which he described tossing the book away from him… and then grabbing it up to read again. His review was not a positive review, and it was a confrontational review (at least from my point of view as the author) — and it was also a good and interesting and well-tooled critical view of the work.

All of which is to note that the act of public criticism is also an act of persuasion. If a critic intends a piece to reach an audience, to be heard by an audience and then to have that audience give that critical opinion weight, then an awareness of the audience helps. Writing a consumer review of a work in an academic exegesis is not likely to give one a leg up with one’s thesis review committee. Posting a thousand words on the use of the color red in another work is not likely to make happy the person who wants to know if the work will help pass the time on a plane. A polemic smack at certain groups or classes of people will make them less likely to give your critical comments credence. And so on.

Moving away now from the critic to the reader of criticism, the question now is: When may one safely ignore or discount criticism? One answer to that is pretty simple: when one determines that the criticism is fundamentally flawed in some way. For example, when Old Man’s War came out, there were critiques of it that were based on the assumption that I had American right-wing politics and proceeded from there. I don’t; I therefore found these critiques unpersuasive. Other critiques bounced off the idea that the book was a response to (among others) The Forever War by Joe Haldeman; as noted in my introduction to the latest edition of that book, I didn’t read Joe’s novel until well after I wrote Old Man’s War. Other critiques suggested that Old Man’s War (which was published in 2005) could have only been written after 9/11; in fact everything but the last chapter of the book was written before September 11, 2001. This isn’t to say these critical examinations of the book couldn’t be interesting or fun to read. But founded as they were on erroneous premises, I felt perfectly fine in discounting their critical conclusions.

Another answer is when the critic’s personal agenda or polemic makes evident the contempt they have for a person or class of people (who you may be, or to which you may belong) and/or makes evident they have a hard time modeling the idea that others who are outside their own brain or are not of their own small tribe might have valid and defensible reasons for critical choices with which the critic disagrees. This is essentially the difference between “I would not have chosen that” or “I don’t understand how you could have chosen that,” and “Only an idiot would have chosen that” or “You chose that; what’s wrong with you?” In all cases the critic may have a valid point to make, which may be worth considering. But in the latter two cases the critic is also rhetorically signalling that she believes you exist on some lower plane of existence. In which case I think you’re perfectly entitled to say, whatever, jackass, and ignore them moving forward.

To be clear, critics are perfectly within their rights to be as snobby or contemptuous or jackassed as they would like to be. As a critic, being so is often cathartic (to say the least), and for those of us consuming the criticism, it’s often fun to read. But when critics are, they should do so with the understanding that if their actual goal is to educate and inform those to whom they are being snobby contemptuous jackasses, well. They have likely failed. Alternately, if the critic is not aware of the level of snobby contemptuous jackassedness oozing from their critique, then they are not in control of their instrument, and they need to go back and try again. Now, it’s possible that the critic is actively attempting not to be a snobby contemptuous jackass, and someone reading them still considers them so. In which case: C’est la vie. However, as a practical and fiduciary matter, it’s probably best that a critic doesn’t leap to the assumption that the problem of others conceptualizing the point of her prose rests with the other party.

Much shorter version: If you’re an asshole to people, they’ll likely ignore you. Try not to be an asshole if you want them to listen.

The floor is now open. Please feel free to criticize.

79 thoughts on “When To Ignore Criticism (and How to Get People to Take Your Critique Seriously)

  1. Sometimes the critique says more about the critic than about the work under discussion. Like the assertion that OMW could have only been written after 9/11 – that implies to me that the person making that claim didn’t have knowledge of the history of conflict, and why average people go off to war.

    Wait – is it fair to criticize the critic? And can one who does so also be criticized?

    Now my head hurts.

  2. This is an interesting taxonomy of criticism – you should write a book. I’d buy Scalzi on Criticism.

    Your points remind me of Pope’s Essay on Criticism. http://poetry.eserver.org/essay-on-criticism.html

    It might strain your tolerance for iambic pentameter, but it’s full of good advice.

    Snip:

    ‘Tis not enough your Counsel still be true,
    Blunt Truths more Mischief than nice Falsehood do;

    K

  3. I think Damien Walter would have been somewhat more convincing had he led with a criticism he felt was valid, rather than requiring you to provide an example of a criticism you weren’t interested in. He’s the one more invested; it’s hardly a slam dunk to demonstrate that someone who’s said they dismissed criticism of an event can’t recall criticism of the event.

    I can’t speak to the criticism that the nominations were shallow in the major categories, because I don’t have much exposure to the breadth of sci-fi – perhaps it was a soft year? They happen – but I was under the impression the awards for more limited categories, like Best Graphic Novel, are there to encourage more sci-fi graphic novels, and the limited field is a feature, not a bug. I am under this impression because that’s how it works everywhere else – it’s not like the Best Feature Animation Oscar doesn’t go to one of about three animation companies at the moment. Anyway, the Best Novel is the ‘premier’ award, and the characterisation of the Hugo as the Nicest Science Fiction Author award would have been better backed up with, at the very least, a suggestion for what other work should have won and why it’s notable.

  4. That’s a good thing for people making critiques to keep in mind. I’ve read some literary agent blogs, where supposedly their goal for the blog is to help prospective authors improve their writing and/or queries. Many of them just end up being mean. They’ll take an idea or a query and tear it apart, showing how it’s complete crap, and essentially implying the author is an idiot. I’m sure it makes them feel better since they probably do have to wade through a lot of crap every day, but when the blog is stated to be a helpful tool to prospective authors, it just turns people off.

  5. is it fair to criticize the critic? (responding, somewhat, to Dave H. @1, but also, in general…)

    I’ve actually been sorely tempted to criticize “critics”. But in the main, from the perspective of, who the heck taught these people to critique? Is this not taught in school anymore? Then again, the largest sample I am exposed to is Amazon reviews and GoodReads reviews. A good number of them are thoughtful and critique the work in an acedemic way, but a larger portion of them seem to be that confrontational style John mentions, paired with… well, not much substance.

    I mean, from which could I take more information away?
    “The writing was awful! I threw the book across the room!”
    or
    “The writing style seemed to lack mature skill and could have benefitted from more editing.”

    My husband went to art school before the Internet was in everyone’s homes, and he recalls critique sessions where people were taught to talk about a work based on “head, hands and heart.” Does it have intelligence, and have a message? Does it exhibit skill in execution? Does it move the viewer in an emotional way? Which is a far cry from so much of what I see in criticisms on the web.

    Thanks John for a very interesting discussion topic.

  6. Lunamoth:

    “Then again, the largest sample I am exposed to is Amazon reviews and GoodReads reviews.”

    I think we do generally have to make a class distinction between consumers who rate the stuff they buy, and people who choose to identify themselves, either professionally, academically or as serious amateurs, as critics. The first group I don’t really hold to a very high rhetorical standard; the second group I do rather more.

  7. I was a book reviewer for a number of years, for The Armchair Detective, ForeWord Magazine, briefly for Mystery Scene Magazine, and for quite some time for The Oakland Press. For the most part, I tried to review books on the basis of two things. 1. Did the author accomplish what they set out to do? 2. Will this appeal to readers of this type of book?

    Not as much fun as a polemic, but probably more useful to the reader. I rarely see much value in, for instance, trying to compare the latest popular thriller with, say, some work by Charles Dickens or Eudora Welty. I just don’t think those writers are trying to accomplish the same thing.

  8. This is a subject near and dear to my heart–as a professional reviewer of science fiction and fantasy, I try very hard to keep my audience in mind (mostly women romance readers) which makes it very challenging to write up something like, say, Mieville’s Embassytown in 185 words or less in a way that’s going to make the book sound like something they may want to pick up while not reducing the complexity of the book to a point where it looks like I didn’t read the whole thing. I would love to do more exegesis, but really don’t have room in my reviews for it.

    Reviewing books is, for me, a lot harder than I thought it would be when I started. And I’ve been doing this for seven years now, and it’s still hard. I struggle with every review (in part because I do want them to be good and useful–sometimes I succeed and sometimes I reread what I wrote a few months after I wrote it and wonder what the hell I was smoking).

  9. I’m not a big fan of literary or art critique as consumer reporting. First, everyone is different and since criticism is by nature a subjective field, its hard to tell if you would agree with the critic’s view, had you read the book without any previous input by the critic.
    Once you have read the critic, your reading of the book is forever charged with their input, either consciously or unconsciously.

    On the other hand, the “big idea” coupled with reading the first section of the book is far more likely to get me interested in a book. The author’s motivation is a nice backdrop when reading the book. And the excerpt tells me if their writing style is to my taste. In the end, its my decision and its not influenced by anything but the author and their words.

    I think the only use a criticism has is for the possible education of the author. If there is constructive criticism that the author can use for improving their craft, that is good. But as a reader, it is of little value.

    Polemic is OK. But is hard for me to consider it criticism. Its more or less an interesting essay on the thought process of the critic and too often is a contrived idea forced into existence by the necessity of meeting a deadline.

  10. I am not a professional reviewer (more’s the pity), but I’ve written several “consumer reviews” on Amazon.com. One of the (if not *the*) lengthiest reviews I wrote was for Robert K. Tanenbaum’s novel, “Counterplay”. One of the major plot points of the novel dealt with skeletal remains which were discovered in 2006. Tanenbaum’s a criminal lawyer, he spent a good chunk of his career working for the New York (maybe Manhattan) DA’s office. Just after I finished reading “Counterplay” several years ago, I read a nonfiction work by a biopaleoanthropologist discussing how it’s now possible to do DNA analysis on prehistoric plant matter/human or animal remains (DNA analysis has been around since the mid 1980s). Yet, in “Counterplay”, apparently DNA analysis “couldn’t” be performed on the skeletal remains because they’d “been buried too long” and were “too old” to be analyzed?!

    I understand, John, how tempting it is to “not hold the amateurs to a very high professional standard”, but we’re not all clueless ignoramuses.

  11. The point I’m about to raise is something of a personal pet peeve, but it’s related to the subject at hand. So, y’know… caveat lictor.

    One of the things I often try to convey to people is that there’s a huge difference between “I didn’t like this book/movie/music/etc.” and “This is a bad book/movie/music/etc.” Indeed, the two are not mutually exclusive: I can name a number of books that I thought were exceptionally well crafted that I didn’t enjoy at all. I can also name books that I loved that I admit are not very good in any objective sense (as much as “objective” applies here).

    Then again, this realization may be one of those things that is the hallmark of distinction between the professional–or at least high-end amateur–critic and the aforementioned average Amazon/Goodreads reviewer.

  12. When it comes to buying decisions for books and film, I like to read a good mix of amateur and professional reviews. In my experience, few film or literary critics make consumer advice their focus. For that purpose, articulate amateurs can sometimes be more helpful than the professional reviewers because they are themselves fans and consumers of the genre and understand and will speak to that context.

    When it comes to exegesis, instruction or polemic, I really enjoy reading professional literary and film critiques more after I’ve read the book or seen the movie for myself.

  13. I don’t consider myself a critic, but I write lots of consumer reviews for a bimonthly fanzine I publish – essentially, I review every book that I read that I intend to keep for possible rereading, and also every book by a new (to me) author that I didn’t like enough to keep. I try, though, to give the reason why I disliked the latter books, especially if I disliked them enough that I won’t buy any more works by that author. To a degree this is because of my own quirky tastes; I’ve strongly disliked books I’ve started by, to give recent examples, China Mieville and Alistair MacReynolds, in both cases for the same reason. By the time I’d gotten about a hundred pages in and had yet to meet a character who appealed to me enough to care what happened to them, I had no interest in finishing the book. Doesn’t mean there was anything wrong with the book for other people; the kind of awards they’ve gotten and the praise from other people whose opinions I respect (including yours) mean that it’s me, not them. But I turn 75 in a few months and think I’ve earned the right to spend however many reading hours I have left to me reading books about people I care about. And everyone who reads my reviews (about 30 in all) knows this about me and makes allowances.

  14. Is there a copy of the Russell Letson review available online anywhere? I just completed the Old Man’s War series and would be very interested to read a different point of view. Doesn’t look like it is in the online Locus archives

  15. I’m a longtime reader of sf&f, but I’ve never been a member of organized fandom. I’ve been reading along with fandom blogs for a couple of years now, as an interested observer, and a lot of the Hugo reactions have been thought-provoking. This is my first time commenting here, so I hope you don’t mind if I take you up on your critique thing, specifically about the bouncing-off point for this post.

    What you say here about criticism is inarguable, but the question is, why say it? Why now, in this way? There’s a No True Scotman feel to the opening assertion that “science fiction fandom” is ignoring “condescending critiques” of the Hugos, and that’s why you got pushback from Walter, I think. It’s a rhetorical construction that goes right to SF’s traditional resentment of the snooty mainstream. But the fact is that any critic of the Hugos is by definition going to be a science fiction fan themselves. No one else gives a damn about them at all–I myself am only casually curious about the awards, and I’ve been a genre reader all my life. So this isn’t “fandom” defending itself against its old bogeymen, it’s different fans having different opinions–some of them, very interestingly I think, calling the entire project and/or process of the Hugos into question. It’s arguable that “fandom” as a single discrete body doesn’t exist any more, but has splintered and spread to such a degree that it’s impossible for a single genre-wide award to serve it.

    I read the Twitter exchange with Damien Walter. Like him, I understand why you don’t want to name names, and I think you’re probably right not to. But not mentioning any other specific criticism reduces your critique of other people’s present-tense critiques–not your examples of older Old Man’s War reviews–to a general warning that some people out there are being assholes, which, while probably true, isn’t true of any of the essays I’ve read in the past week, even the angry ones. If you’re not going to really critique those critiques, the putative reasons this conversation came up, why mention them at all? Proper criticism, and the proper reaction to criticism, are the same: specific and engaged, or nothing at all.

    “Criticisms are valid when they’re specific and constructive” is always a true thing to say, but it’s an interesting move to say it when you’re refusing–for perfectly good reasons–to say anything specific yourself.

  16. I’ve found, from reviewing books for SF Signal, but also for articles on io9, that the comments that I listen to the most are the ones that are well-reasoned, and exist to add something to the conversation (good and bad), rather than just taking up hot air. John linked to a piece that I wrote a while ago, Your Military Science Fiction Isn’t Military Science Fiction’, where I recieved some great comments that fundimentally moved my thinking on the subject along to something completely new, while I also got e-mails blasting me for having a Star Wars reference in my e-mail, and went on about how Star Wars wasn’t military science fiction. Critical thinking comes in supportive and unsupportive ways, and if it just exists to validate one’s ownership of a commenter membership, it’s not really worth dwelling over. I’d assume that the same is true for book reviews.

    That being said, if someone’s interjecting their own thoughts: Old Man’s War as a post-9/11 novel, or something along those lines, but does so in a way that makes sense, with arguments and evidence to back it up (in whatever form that might be), I don’t see that as something that’s to be rejected out of hand: everyone has a different perspective on everything. I’d assume that anyone who read my fiction might get what I’m trying to say, or might see something that I completely missed, but is completely valid regardless.

  17. nice article. I find most of the blogs posted here are polemic in nature when dealing with politics, religion etc.

  18. Seth E:

    “But the fact is that any critic of the Hugos is by definition going to be a science fiction fan themselves.”

    No it’s not. One, the Hugos are well known enough that that they can and will be observed by people outside of the genre. Two, “fan” in the case of science fiction fandom is different than “fan” in other contexts. So criticism of science fiction fandom can be done by people who don’t consider themselves in the fandom community, even if they are what is commonly accepted as a fan of the genre.

    “‘Criticisms are valid when they’re specific and constructive’ is always a true thing to say, but it’s an interesting move to say it when you’re refusing–for perfectly good reasons–to say anything specific yourself.”

    I don’t think it’s particularly interesting myself, nor do I see declining to single out specific examples of highly ignorable smug condescension invalidating the larger valid point. I certainly agree that not pointing out examples leaves folks frustrated and (as noted in an earlier thread) leaves me vulnerable to the accusation of making a “some people say…” argument, but I’m fine with that, actually. The alternative in my experience is to point out which person is making what I find to be a smug and condescending argument and then being accused of using my Internet might to have my minions hound them for daring to have an opinion I don’t like. On balance I’d rather be criticized for not providing the specific example than for providing it and accused of funneling abuse on that specific person, whether or not that accusation was warranted (today, anyway; tomorrow I might change my mind). If people don’t like that choice, my response is: Oh, well.

  19. The 20th century conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was once approached by the administration of his hometown university, on whose board of advisors he sat, with the idea of creating an endowed chair in musical criticism. Beecham, always quick with the one-liners, replied, “If there is to be a chair for critics, I think it should be an electric chair.”

  20. sara @ #9:

    Once you have read the critic, your reading of the book is forever charged with their input, either consciously or unconsciously.

    Depending on the critic, that can be a good thing.

  21. I think that, just as a reviewer has to keep in mind his/her audience, a reader has to keep in mind the perspective of his/her reviewer. For example: I don’t go to a “film critic” if I want a “movie review.” Reading an essay about a movie’s place in the scope of human culture is all well and good, but not if all I want to know is whether all of the good SFX were in the trailer, or it’s worth my $9 to see the whole movie. What I find annoying as a reader is when a critic baits you with one type of review, the switches you to another.

  22. When Charlie Stross says he hated Blackout, a book I liked very much, I have to take his criticism seriously. Tastes differ; but he brings to his view specific knowledge, not only as a writer and reader but as a Briton with a bred-in-the-bone understanding of the Blitz that I as an American can’t possibly have. (I hate it when furriners get things reely wrong about the States, too, as the military historian John Keegan inexplicably did in his book on the American Civil War.)

    Generally I go for reviews of the type I find in the New York Review of Books and its scion , the London Review of Books, both of which I subscribe to. These are discursive essays, sometimes hardly touching on the book that nominally is the subject of the article, but sometimes closely analyzing and praising or demolishing the work. They aren’t summaries of the contents or the plot.As buy/ignore recommendations, they’d depend on what you needed the book for, not whether you’d like it.

  23. John, I’m particularly interested in your observations about criticism that builds on a guess about your history, outlook, etc., and gets that wrong. I’ve run into that a lot, and so have pretty much all the authors I know. I wonder just why it’s so popular – personally, I have a lot more fun reviewing and critiquing the works in front of me than trying to be a mind reader, particularly since experience shows I’m not very good at the latter.

    (And it’s entirely possible, I know from experience, to say something like “it seems like there was a missed opportunity here” without it turning into tele-psychoanalysis.)

  24. Andrew@#18:
    I certainly agree that it’s quite valid to view Old Man’s War as a post-9/11 novel, but I think it’s important to do so in an exegetical (or even personal response) perspective. It wasn’t written as a response to 9/11, but reading it after 9/11 happened makes for a reading situation that the author didn’t necessarily anticipate. Changing historical contexts have that effect on reading–Don DeLillo’s White Noise is a much different book to me since Hurricane Katrina (when I had the experience of being an evacuee) than it was before Katrina, when the “Airborne Toxic Event” was just funny satire.

    I think the problem occurs when a critic or reviewer insists that he or she knows what the author’s intention was (which, at least in academic literary criticism, one is really not supposed to assume–there are some critics who think that even taking the author’s stated intention into consideration is wrong). I applaud Scalzi’s point that it’s important to be clear to whom and for what purpose a criticism or review is being written (and frankly, this applies to any kind of writing at all).

  25. I was, for a year, the arts editor at my university newspaper. When I would work with new writers, I would always stress two points about criticism.

    1. My approach is to try and understand what the artist was attempting to accomplish with the work, then to see if she has achieved what she set out to do. Too often, critics write about the book they would have liked to read rather than the book the book the author was attempting to write. If you really feel that strongly, write the story you would have liked to have read. (I know, over the years, I have.)

    2. I insisted on a limit of no more than a single paragraph describing the plot of a narrative work. (Keep in mind that this was a newspaper with limited space; had it been a magazine with room for in-depth articles, I might have relented and allowed two.) I have seen many critics (film reviewers are the worst) who spend half or more of their articles regurgitating plot. Not only is this lazy writing (requiring little critical reflection), but it does a disservice to readers who are looking for critical reflection and/or who do not want the joy of watching the work unfold to be undermined before they have the opportunity to experience it for themselves.

    That having been said, my experience, as a reader as well as a writer/editor of criticism, is that people learn pretty quickly which critics write articles that are of most value to them whatever they are looking for.

  26. I think it’s important to distinguish between reviewing a work and criticizing it.

    When I reviewed movies as a disk jockey, I had two questions in mind: will you and your date be entertained (as opposed to enjoy, some entertaining work is not enjoyable, but you’re glad you saw it, and I tried to point out the audience that I thought the work was targeted at) and was it worth the price of admission (granting that we were probably giving away tickets as prizes)? It’s an attempt to help my audience spend their lives in ways they find interesting.

    When I criticize, I tend to think of Goethe’s three questions: what was done, how well was it done, was it worth doing? This is much more about art as art, and improving it.

    It can be very hard to see your own work as others see it. The house and critics can be on their feet cheering your accomplishment, while you stand backstage weeping thinking you’ve failed; you cannot see what you achieved because you are distracted from that achievement by the vision of perfection you hold in your mind’s eye. A set design I can hold on my drafting table for as long as I want, trying to make it better, but the curtain’s going up on this show on Tuesday. What’s there is there, even if the paint isn’t dry on stage, and what’s on my board doesn’t count for this show.

  27. I do reviews, as a reader. So, from the consumer point of view.
    Even when I don’t particularly care for the work I have just read, I do keep in mind that the writer has put much more effort into writing the piece than I have had to expend in reading the tale. So, even on a piece I do not care for, I can usually find something positive. I also tend to be very picky about what I do read, so that makes it a bit easier.
    If I REALLY don’t like it, the qualifier will usually be something like “In my opinion”. Because, after all, it is just my opinion.

  28. Heh, this reminds me of the story Neil Gaiman recently told at the SF/Berkley stop of the American Gods reading tour. He was talking about Good Omens which was published by two different publishers. When the book initially came out, the book was receiving good reviews until it got to the New York Times where it was excoriated by the critic who made it very clear he was going through his divorce, his soon-to-be-ex-wife was British, and that it was British humor, written by English authors, that was making him hate the book. It had less to do with the story, in any fashion, rather than his situation and the details about the authors, really.

  29. Here’s what sticks is my craw about a lot of genre critics and reviewers in particular: too many of them are struggling and/or failed writers themselves, and too many of them exhibit contempt for the very audience they claim to be serving. Thus I am always surprised whenever a reviewer or critic can turn in a balanced or non-polemical piece that is essentially, “The book (or story) wasn’t to my taste, but I can see why it would be to someone else’s taste, which is perfectly OK.” Much of what passes for review — in my perception — is simply, “I think this thing sucks (or is awesome) and anyone who disagrees with me is too much of a lump-head to know better.” There was a fair bit of this sort of sneering following the Nebulas in May.

    Of course, it’s rather odd that any of us rely on a review or criticism at all. We’re essentially trusting total strangers to make up our minds for us about what we’re willing to watch, or read, or listen to. I suppose this works if you find a particular critic whose tastes closely align with yours. But it’s my observation that many genre critics and reviewers tend to be chronically dyspeptic, especially where overly popular or financially successful works are concerned. Ergo, the better a thing does in the marketplace, or among the lay consumer population, the more likely it is that the thing (and its creator) will come in for a keyboard-lashing with the self-assigned cognoscenti.

  30. As someone who’s been in the game for so long, how you do think the Internet has changed it? It seems to me that polemic views are becoming the norm because the outrage they cause leads to more clicks. It seems the goal is first for page-views and then to provide worthwhile content. For that reason i find myself actively ignoring reviews more and more.

    I’ve also found that, of all things, twitter is more deeply influential than anything else. For example I watched Archer after seeing tweet after tweet about it from people I know with similar senses of humor (glad I did, too!). If I see you or Wil Wheaton or any of the other authors I respect recommmend a book, i give that a tremendous amount of weight.

    I guess what it boils down to is that negative reviews won’t necessarily push me away, but positive reviews can sometimes sway me to try something I wouldn’t ahve otherwise thought of.

  31. This was my first year voting for the Hugos. I did so with some confidence because I had read enough of every literary entry to know which ones I liked, and why–as well as which ones didn’t work for me, and why. (Thanks to those who pushed hard for the electronic Hugo voting package. It helped immensely.)

    I was surprised to find that many authors’ works I would have expected to like didn’t receive my number one vote. (I say “expected” based on my past reading habits.) Some of those works won awards, which is fine, because I don’t think everybody should like what I like.

    To the point that this year’s slate of nominees was weak, or weaker than normal, or weaker than expected, I say, “whatever.” One data point is insufficient to draw a trend line. Get back to me with three, or five, years’ data, and then we can have a conversation about the process.

  32. @26/Monica – yep – I didn’t say that it’s correct to ID it as a 9/11 sort of book, but books certainly can apply to multiple times and climates: Lord of the Rings, for example, is called upon for just about everything. The way I see it, if your book can be applied to a bunch of things like that, it’s continuing to impart a relevant message to the reader, which I take as a good thing. Maybe not the author’s intent, but at the end of the day, it makes the reader happy, or at least thinking. If the reader is being deliberately obtuse to shoe-horn a book into their own political viewpoint, well, that makes them run the risk of being less credible, at least in my book.

  33. I am going to save this one and come back to it several more times, I think. Despite having a weekly podcast where I discuss books, I hesitate to call myself a “critic,” possibly because I have a tendency to focus more on books that I enjoyed rather than the ones I don’t. My reviews are, I think, a reflection of my background as an educator, and I tend towards a “What have I learned from this book?” point of view, which is usually more fun with the “good” books than the “bad.” To say nothing of the fact that I have limited time to read, and I don’t like wasting it on books that I don’t enjoy.

    But even for the ones I don’t like, I find that the need to follow Wheaton’s Law is vital. I always try to identify my own biases and try to come up with good, concrete reasons for not liking a book, which again I think comes from being an educator. I don’t want to turn my kids off reading or writing – that would be an egregious violation of my position, in my opinion – but at the same time their work has to be held to a high standard. If they fail to meet that standard, it’s important that they know why, and have visible, achievable means of improving themselves. The big difference, of course, is that my students have to (at least pretend to) listen to me, whereas the authors I review most certainly do not. But I always try to write as if the author were going to read the review personally, and I try to take a position where she could respond and say, “I see where you’re coming from, and I appreciate your thoughts.”

    Then I would giggle and SQUEE because OH myGOD, Famous Author reads my BLOG!!!

    In any case, this is something I do for fun, because I like reading and I want to share what I like on my podcast. Perhaps if I were doing this as a profession, where generating page views and building a large readership was vital to paying the bills, I might hit harder than I do in order to generate more controversy and “buzz.” Still, I’ll keep some of the issues you’ve raised in mind as I read and review more. One can never stop improving, after all….

  34. I’m not sure how you related this to literary criticism John. The critics of the Hugo awards aren’t making literary critiques. They are making practical criticisms of the award system and it’s outcomes. Other than that this is a fine piece. I’m just not sure why you’ve put my name at the head of it.

  35. I was eating balley’s chocolate cake, quite tasty cake, possibly my favorite kind of cake, and then I happened across this image of that bug up your butt and you pulling it out and displaying it for all to see.

    now I dont like Bailleys chocolate cake anymore.

    thanks a lot Scalzi.

  36. I generally find reviews more useful after I’ve read the book, especially if I can’t put my finger on why I reacted to it the way I did. An example–I really wanted to like a HUGELY popular novel and didn’t. Went to Amazon, read all the one-star reviews (just checked–there are currently over 2,000 reviews of this book, over 200 one-star). It broke down into three patterns of what they didn’t like, one of which I fit, and it did help me to understand my reaction.

    Even better is when I’ve read a book with some meat to it and I read the reviews and find one that has really chewy stuff in it. It can give me a far better perspective on the book. Yes, these are usually (though not always) written by the pro critics.

    I do sometimes read reviews before reading the book–used to follow some review sites–but find I usually end up reading books I’d rather have skipped. Reading reviews after works better for me.

  37. Once upon a time, CNN had one such critic whose reviews were so obnoxious that I must have seen a dozen really bad movies because his slams on really good movies ingrained in my mind the idea that “Well, this moron hates it, so it must be good.” Eventually, he started prefacing his reviews with “Why does everyone hate my reviews?”

    Thank God they had the late Paul Clinton to balance things out.

  38. Damien Walter:

    1. As to why your name is on it, I refer you to the tweet you made linking back to the site, on the subject of ignoring criticism. As you were the instigator of this line of thought that I have followed, it seemed both apt and appropriate to attribute it to you and to let people here examine the context. It was an interesting conversation.

    2. Your suggestion that the critics of the Hugo Awards weren’t making literary critiques appears to imply that you’ve read and evaluated every available critique of this year’s Hugo Awards and thus are able to make a blanket statement about their content. If this is indeed your assertion, allow me to suggest that I am skeptical.

    Likewise, the apparent suggestion that criticism of a set of literary awards has been uniformly accomplished without either the implicit or explicit criticism of the literature the awards celebrate is something about which I am also skeptical. I’m pretty sure you don’t mean to suggest that every criticism of the Hugo award results that you’ve seen (or alternately, that exists) is solely a lambasting of the Australian Rules Ballot and/or those who participate in its use.

    3. However, even if the criticism of this year’s Hugo Awards were not implicitly or explicitly about literature, this doesn’t in the least invalidate anything noted here — this article is about criticism in a general sense, not specifically criticism of literature. The information here would apply generally to a critique of voting systems, for example.

    4. I’m glad you enjoyed the article generally; thank you.

  39. I can enjoy a good polemic review as a piece of writing, but in the end I read reviews to decide what to read next.

    My favorite recent review is “People who like this sort of thing.” Being a review of Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns by Liz Bourke at Tor.com. As the title suggests, this is a negative review but it was informative enough for me to buy the book – which is very good and I recommend it to anyone not put off by Liz’s largely accurate description of its contents.

  40. Point (2) is ridiculous. I’m glad you were able to get it out of your system, but it’s nonsense. If you wanted to continue our conversation you only had to cite an actual criticism made of the awards. Which leaves me still uncertain why you have appended this long digression on Lit Crit under my name as though it was somehow related.

  41. Many years ago I used to wonder if my Shakespeare prof wasn’t full of shit when she was expounding on the deep hidden motivations of every line the Bard ever penned. Just like the people who were sure that OMW had to be post 911, she had to be wrong a lot of the time.

    Even when she was asking us to “discover his motivation”. Dude, maybe the guy was just trying to get a thousand words in the can and move the plot along a little. It isn’t sexy but it happens.

  42. Damien Walter:

    “Point (2) is ridiculous.”

    I agree completely. So why did you make such a foolish assertion?

    Beyond this, I admire your continued attempts to try to shift the goalposts of the discussion, but oddly enough, it continues not to work but because it is neither relevant to the discussion we had on Twitter, nor relevant to the current discussion. I’m not obliged to follow you off-topic.

    Likewise, as noted earlier, what we have here, now, is a discussion is criticism in general, not lit criticism specifically. Merely repeating that it is such will neither change that fact it is not, nor make you appear as if you are actually paying attention to the discussion at hand.

  43. Scalzi, you are getting as bad as Stross. He keeps throwing raw steak to the wolves and we all pounce on it. Both of you force me to keep reading the comments which takes away from my solitaire time. Between the two of you, you have some of the most interesting, articulate and thoughtful readers.

    This is a wonderful topic. It is also one which will probably yield a lot of responses. If you all doubt this go look at Charlie Stross’ last two postings on “most important” books and “most important” books by women.

    Thanks John. This really is fun.

    :)

    Have fun everyone! I expect to be checking back fairly often.

    By the way, the word critic is onomatopoetic.

  44. And now you’ve retreated behind a wall of utter rubbish. Seriously John, this is a very long winded way of running away from an argument that you started. You’ve invented and now apparently persuaded yourself of this fiction that we were just having some abstract discussion about Lit Crit. I’m not even sure why. Why not step in to the open ground and actually defend your assertion that critics of the Hugos are all guilty of ‘unwarranted condescencion’. Name a criticism. Tell me why it was condescending. I’m genuinely curious!

  45. I entirely agree that being a snobby contemptuous asshole is frequently a poor choice of a rhetorical tool, but someone can be a snobby, contemptuous asshole and still be right and worth listening to. I think Ignaz Simmelweis and the need for Doctor’s to wash hands as a place where a person had an act of criticism that has an empirical rightness which was ignored for the above assholery. Further someone like Thomas Paine was probably worth listening to in instances in a human rights criticism which should not be discounted for his anti-religious stances. Likewise all those uppity women for criticizing a society that did not allow women to vote. Further does Ezra Pound’s politics make what he says about poetry worth discarding? I don’t think that is a worthwhile idea. It can throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    It seems that the underlying reasoning of the critique is the important part. If one considers the writer’s assumptions wrong, it is probably worth discounting their conclusions. Garbage in garbage out. Likewise if their logic seems flawed again this probably a bad sign. But these points. sadly, seldom has much to do with one’s assholery.

    It is not that I think that one should be a snobby contemptuous asshole. It is just that sometimes, whether we like them or not, how they behave in those terms can actually be irrelevant to the issues at hand. Frequently it is those people who are going to be the most likely to turn against the tide of prevailing opinion purely because getting along is of less value to them personally. They are frequently the whistleblowers- the assholes in the coal mine.

    Frequently those who can dress it all up in wonderful language and get along can be the real threat, also. All those people we call assholes, but only in retrospect. The Bernie Madoffs of the world. The sycophants who will in very pretty ways play to one’s confirmation biases. It is just as important to be skeptical of those propositions coming we know will play to those biases as those who do not.

    I am surprised that one point of when it is probably a good idea to listen to a critic is past performance. If the critic has been stupid in their reasoning in the past that is probably good information.If the critic dislikes everything you like then there is probably a good chance one’s tastes do not agree. But again this does not really have anything to do with the critic’s assholery.

    I might even go so far as to say that if the critic has not been an asshole in the past yet in this instance the passion sends them that direction, assholery may be a positive whether we like it or not. It just happens that because it is not sugar coated, and easy to swallow we may, like the doctors Semmelweis dealt with, not see the value.

  46. Damien Walter:

    “And now you’ve retreated behind a wall of utter rubbish.”

    Well, no. I’m not obliging your desire to shift the discussion, which is an entirely different thing. I understand that you want to shift the discussion, but again, where you want to shift the argument is not relevant either to your initial point on Twitter (about the desirability of ignoring criticism), nor is it relevant here, where I’ve expanded on the original discussion. You are free to disagree with this, of course, but I’m not obliged to indulge you.

    “You’ve invented and now apparently persuaded yourself of this fiction that we were just having some abstract discussion about Lit Crit.”

    Well, no. Over on Twitter you made a general characterization on my position on ignoring criticism; I commented on that and had a conversation with you on that basis. I fully entertain it’s possible you did not understand that was the discussion I was having with you, despite repeated notation of that fact.

    My suggestion to you is to stop attempting to have the discussion you think you want to have and focus on the discussion you are actually having. If you can’t do that, you should probably go away, because you’re not going to have that discussion with me. I don’t think it’s relevant, so it’s not going to happen.

    Edward Brennan:

    I agree snobby contemptuous assholes can still have something useful to say. But the trick is getting people to listen.

  47. If you don’t think discussion of the Hugo awards is relevant why on earth did you start shouting about all of its critics being condescending assholes? Surely it occurred to you that you might be asked to justify that statement? Well, I’ve asked you to and you’ve repeatedly refused. That speaks for itself.

  48. If you don’t think discussion of the Hugo awards is relevant why on earth did you start shouting about all of its critics being condescending assholes? Surely it occurred to you that you might be asked to justify that statement? Well, I’ve asked you to and you’ve repeatedly refused. That speaks for itself.

    Oo, popcorn!

  49. I generally skip any sort of professional criticism or review of books/films/tv shows/music etc. Too many seem so desperate to appear intelligent/important that they completely miss the only point I care about – will I enjoy* it? Of course, as enjoyment is entirely subjective, there is no way for a critic to know – rendering them completely pointless, to my mind. I certainly don’t need anyone else to tell me what I *should* think or feel, so I’ll stick to reading the synopses, watching the trailers and general word of mouth. Reviews are for when you’re buying a new washing machine; a washing machine’s performance can be quantified and objectified. Not every critic is a pretentious tosser, obviously, but I don’t seem to evaluate on the same criteria.

    However, I do enjoy reading opinion pieces on other (non-art) subjects. For example, George Monbiot recently changed my mind about nuclear power, and I can honestly say I NEVER saw that one coming.

    *I understand not all art is made to be enjoyed, as such, but I’m sure people know what I mean.

  50. “If you don’t think discussion of the Hugo awards is relevant why on earth did you start shouting about all of its critics being condescending assholes?”

    1. I didn’t say “all,” nor did I call them assholes in the entry, nor did I shout (which one presumes would include exclamation marks/ALL CAPS/italics), so that’s sloppy characterization on your part. Sloppy characterization is poor argument; you can and should do better, because it will detract from your general set of assertions.

    2. Once again, the discussion I was having with you was not about the Hugos, it was about your characterization of my position regarding the appropriate response to criticism. Now, I’m perfectly willing to grant that it appears you are unable to separate the two into different discussions. However, that’s your karma and not mine, and once again I’m not obliged to hitch one discussion to another because you are either unable or unwilling to parse them in your head.

    3. You’ve asked me and I’ve repeatedly refused because, per point 2, I don’t see it as relevant to the actual discussion. Also to the point, I don’t particularly care that you do see it as relevant to the discussion, because I disagree, and given the general sloppiness of your argumentation, per point 1, I’m inclined to trust my assessment of its relevance to the discussion over yours.

    Once again, you are free to disagree, but inasmuch what you appear to want from the discussion has to come from me, good luck with that.

  51. “If you don’t think discussion of the Hugo awards is relevant why on earth did you start shouting about all of its critics being condescending assholes?”

    Wait, when did this happen? Because I don’t recall any value judgement being made on the people who were complaining about the Hugos, and that their arguments aren’t especially novel.

    “Surely it occurred to you that you might be asked to justify that statement?”

    You keep asking him to demonstrate the non-existence of decent criticism about the Hugos instead of pointing out one piece of criticism about the Hugos that you think is relevant and worth discussing. We’re already aware that Scalzi didn’t really pay any attention to criticism. Asking him to recall a piece of criticism he didn’t pay attention to and then treating that as a triumph is disingenuous.

  52. And yet again you just can’t bring yourself to defend your original statement. Of course you know it’s simply not defensible. Which of the critiques of the Hugos were condescending? You can’t even point to one because then you have to actually discuss the real problems with the awards, instead of hiding them behind an ad hominem attack on their critics.

    The irony is I don’t actually care that much. Your original post made me a bit sad, because the last thing SF needs is more encouragement to ignore its critics. But it’s not exactly a life or death issue. So you win John. The SF awards are fine, their critics are condescending. The whole think isn’t just a conversation in an echo chamber between a group of aging fanboys, and I’ll go back to forgetting these awards even exist.

  53. John-

    By addressing both the writer and the reader I believe you would agree that there are tricks for both. Using good rhetoric and not being an asshole are great starts on the writing side, for instance. On the reading side though it can be more complicated.

    Everyone always has the right not to listen, and not be part of an act of communication. This right not to listen is more important in many ways than the right to speech. Using the mallet, “whatever, Jackass.” are definitely part of the toolbox of listening. But these really are more “tools of last resort,” than “tools to begin with” if you want to get what is valuable out of communication.

    I notice that you, for instance, often warn people before using the mallet in this forum, and will call someone out on bad behavior before exiting an exchange. In reading criticism, where one does not have so direct a method, there is still a similar response. One of looking concentrating on that which might have value. More of a mental “whatever (jackass), continue,” mode.

    “whatever, jackass.” by itself seems to reek of the Christian “not suffering fools gladly.” A feeling of great righteousness that might be justified but frequently reduces one to a point closer to assholery than one of more careful consideration. A point where both sides speak past one another.

    Further, by concentrating on the offense, as in “only an idiot might have chosen that” or a “what is wrong with you” might lead the reader to actually missing the point. It might even in a mentally defensive way, make you feel justified in missing the point. In this sense the reader is probably best off reading in such a way to try and get the point the author is trying to make vs. taking offense as a more easy way out.

    Likewise with logic. Seldom do people me always, when they say or imply it. They generally mean “some more than half” in a logic sense. So when some people might write “the critics of the hugo’s aren’t making literary critiques,” to intentionally miss-read it as “all critics of” and then call out the writer as not having read all might be good courtroom rhetoric, but to those others like me it is an intentional misreading of their actual position. It is trying to score points and not communicate. It is using one’s better understanding of rhetoric and logic not to prove a point, but to win an argument. Consider how demeaning this is to the person you are dealing with. I can out argue you with one hand behind my back. Bwhaa ha ha.

    It is especially hard on someone who does not have the communication skills in this form that you do, and is there fore flailling around trying to make their point. Which I have to admit I am confused as to what exactly that point is. But I think you know this.

    A reader and a writer both have, more than rhetoric and tricks, should be trying to achieve reliable communication instead of muddying it. Otherwise those are tricks used with mean intent. It is like using etiquette to exclude instead of smooth social interaction.

  54. Damien:

    “And yet again you just can’t bring yourself to defend your original statement.”

    And yet again you fail to comprehend it’s not relevant to this particular discussion, and never was. Your continued insistence on it suggests you’re having a hard time dealing the discussion at hand, and would prefer a deflecting tactic. In this, you are at least consistent.

    “The irony is I don’t actually care that much.”

    Oh, please. You’ve pursued the discussion over the course of two separate days, on two separate sites. Attempting the disaffected flounce at this point is just adding a disingenuous cherry on top of a poor argument sundae. Own your own interest, at the very least. Otherwise you simply look foolish.

  55. This reminds me of the guy that brought a knife to a gunfight. In this case, one guy may enjoy pissing fire – but the other guy is pissing napalm.
    …………………………………..

    My favorite thought when it comes to ‘critiques’ and similar discussions – “Jane, you ignorant slut.”
    http://youtu.be/KKta134PZIk

  56. I never read criticism of my own work if I can avoid it. It’s not good for me. Am I ignorant? I feel confused about what the guy is so upset about. Am I supposed to be reading and paying attention to criticism of others’ work? I don’t…

  57. Brad @ 32:

    a reviewer or critic can turn in a balanced or non-polemical piece that is essentially, “The book (or story) wasn’t to my taste, but I can see why it would be to someone else’s taste, which is perfectly OK.”

    But what is the value of such a review? Why would anyone want to read it? And why should it be the obligation of a critic to pay lip service to all possible points of view? It’s like the myth of the “objective review” (which is usually code for “review I agree with”).

  58. Doc @62

    Have you ever bought a gift for someone and it was something that, although you had no desire for it, it was perfect for them? I have read many a book that I thought was ok, but I could think of people who would like it more. How about buying books for kids?

    It isn’t about it being the “objective review”, it is just about bringing in nuance beyond your own desires. An empathic review. Is it the obligation of the reviewer to try and match a good work with a receptive audience? If the reviewer has those people with in the audience they have in mind for the review I would think that would actually be a positive.

  59. a reviewer or critic can turn in a balanced or non-polemical piece that is essentially, “The book (or story) wasn’t to my taste, but I can see why it would be to someone else’s taste, which is perfectly OK.”

    But what is the value of such a review? Why would anyone want to read it? And why should it be the obligation of a critic to pay lip service to all possible points of view? It’s like the myth of the “objective review” (which is usually code for “review I agree with”).

    If a listener knows that I like “up tempo” performances of Handel’s Messiah, for example, then when I say the current guest conductor’s production is not to my taste, I’m saying something my audience will understand (I should probably explain in more detail, but if I have only 30 seconds available for that performance’s comment that may be as much as I can devote to that.) I can, however, while preferring such, recognize a well-done performance in a different style, and praise it as such.

  60. Reading the back and forth between John and Damien Walter, it looked to me like they were addressing different points. So, I went back and read the specific quote that inspired the discussion over whether criticisms should be ignored: Fandom does what fandom does with folks like that: it ignores them, which I think is generally the correct response to such wholly unwarranted condescension. The folks like that are the core of commenters whose problem internalizing that other people have other tastes is overlaid with a more-than-mild contempt for fandom.

    There is nothing remarkable or offensive about that observation. John doesn’t call out the core of commenters name, and candidly acknowledges (see, e.g. @20) that his failure to do so limits his argument somewhat. In effect, he makes a broad assertion about criticism, not a fine-grained point-by-point discussion of whether particular folks like that should or shouldn’t be ignored. And, if names were to be named, presumably reasonable people could disagree on the validity and/or persuasive power (assuming there’s a difference) of particular criticisms. But the broader point would remain intact: Try not to be an asshole if you want them to listen.

    That’s not to say that criticisms have to be soft to be effective. To the contrary, it’s generally unsatisfying to read criticism that says, in effect, “some people say x, some say y, and gee, I think they both have a point.” No, take a stand, defend it, and see if the argument works. Sometimes contempt for a certain viewpoint is a natural consequence of a tight argument. Christopher Hitchens, for example, is pretty openly contemptuous of — well, lots of people — and though I find that distracting, his work generally lines up to leave the reader concluding that, if his point is correct, certain other views are necessarily utter nonsense. But if contempt is the starting point, then the criticism won’t be very tight or effective, and will end up feeling like so much window dressing. And the critic in question will have self-identified as being one of the folks like that.

  61. I’ve been trying to come to terms with – I guess like your Locus reviewer experienced with OMW – the issue of finding a book flawed but being unable to stop reading. Do I say that the book has plot holes you can drive a truck through, but the pacing is so well crafted that you can’t put it down? I’m currently re-listening to Goblet of Fire with my daughter and finding so many things wrong with it, but it’s still a book I’m enjoying thoroughly. I once read a book that had me reading till 2am, then up again in the morning to finish it, and I hated it, and yet still couldn’t put it down. (I have, however, not picked up anything else from that author, so I guess the book was a failure in that regard.)

    My point is I’m trying to take some criticism with a new grain of salt, because some issue that could totally ruin the book for someone else (“Why the hell didn’t the bad guy give Harry a port key the first time they were alone together instead of go through months and months of the school year and the entire TriWizard Tourney?”) could be for me just a nagging bit of bother in the midst of an enjoyable read.

  62. Mur: (“Why the hell didn’t the bad guy give Harry a port key the first time they were alone together instead of go through months and months of the school year and the entire TriWizard Tourney?”)

    I’m pretty sure this can be generalized to “why didn’t the bad guy just do whatever he was going to do to Harry Potter as soon as he planned on doing it, rather than coming up with these gigantic Rube Goldberg plots that invariably take exactly one school year to play out?”

    The main reason the Harry Potter stories “work” (by which I mean she gets away with this nonsense) is that you don’t realize how unbelievably stupid the bad guys are until the very end. It isn’t revealed that Mad Eye is actually a death eater with polyjuice potion who has direct access to Harry Potter for an entire school year until the end of the story. At which point, you’re wrapped up in the big finale excitement and emotions, and it isn’t until the credits roll or so when you’re going “hey, wait a second”.

    Scalzi/Damien:

    I have heard complaints over the years that the Hugo voting process is flawed. I’m sure *some* of those complaints are simple condescension. I’m also sure that there is *some* validity to the complaints. No democratic process is perfect. Some democracies are actually better than others because they have better processes by which they achieve their results. Majority wins versus an instant runoff ballot, for example, can create wholly different results. And yet, both are democracies.

    I would assume that someone somewhere has written something that describes the Hugo process and the issues inherent in that process, given its been around for a number of years now. Perhaps with a conclusion that says its the worst method of determining the best SF/Fantasy, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

    Scalzi’s argument seems to hinge on the fact that *some* criticism of the Hugos are condescending criticisms. But that doesn’t prove the Hugo process is infallible and immune to valid criticism. Damien’s approach seems unable to acknowledge the existence of condescending criticism of the Hugo process, which makes it difficult for him to find some solid, defensible ground.

    The crux of it all seems to come down to whether or not the Hugos can be validly criticized and whether because that criticism is highlighting valid flaws, the Hugo process can be improved. But that seems to be the issue no one is actually addressing.

  63. The crux of it all seems to come down to whether or not the Hugos can be validly criticized and whether because that criticism is highlighting valid flaws, the Hugo process can be improved.

    “I know what this argument should really be about, and no one but ME is paying attention to it. ME! ME! ME!”

  64. The crux of it all seems to come down to whether or not the Hugos can be validly criticized and whether because that criticism is highlighting valid flaws, the Hugo process can be improved.

    “I know what this argument should really be about, and no one but ME is paying attention to it. ME! ME! ME!”

    I thought it was more “You know what would be an infinitely more interesting topic? Exploring the criticism of the Hugos that Scalzi originally referred to, and whether the Hugo process could be improved, because, really, it’s already pretty obvious that being a dick is a bad way to convince people of your point.” I gather that suggestions for such tangents are discouraged, though, sometimes by Scalzi, at other times by dickish commentary.

  65. David, dont know where you read that as being about me. its about Damian and Scalzi. Since they brought the original argument onto this thread, it seemed a valid point for commentary.

    and since you seemed to miss how my comment was about them, not me, let me clarify.

    Damien, if he has some actual criticism of the hugo process that is valid and not simply condescension, needs to make that criticism (perhaps somewhere else and provide a link here). So far, all he has argued is essentially “some criticize the Hugos” rhetoricals.

    Scalzi responds with “some of that criticism is simply condescension”.

    either Damien presents some valid criticism of the hugo process or he has reached his rhetorical limit. sp

  66. and since you seemed to miss how my comment was about them, not me, let me clarify.

    I think I’ll stick with my translation.

  67. Edward @62 and htom @53: Yes, I have, in fact, done both of those things Edward mentions. However, I have not done so while acting in the role of critic, professionally or otherwise. Thus, my obligations to my “audience”, such as it is, are different.

    The role of critic is not to speak the the personal tastes of every member of hir audience, even if divided into reasonably large groups. The critic’s obligation is to speak to hir own tastes, hir own reactions to a work. It is the audience’s job to understand what tastes the critic is expounding upon. (This should be easy, if the critic be a reasonably good communicator, and the reader does a modicum of research into the critic.) The audience always has the option to discount the critic’s tastes and reactions. Thankfully, readers have many choices of critics to choose from.

    I disagree with htom about a critic appreciating the quality of something zie dislikes. How can you be sure? In htom’s simple example, sure, you can, with reasonable confidence, say that a listener who prefers a more laid back tempo would likely enjoy a rendition more. But that is a simple binary problem, with limited application. When multiple criteria a re being evaluated, how can you ever be sure who would like something you don’t? For instance, in Transformers 3 I hated: the story; the acting; the effects; the pacing; the writing; and the direction. Where I writing a review, should I be expected to go through all possible iterations on those criteria and make a claim whether a person there would enjoy Transformers 3?

  68. I disagree with htom about a critic appreciating the quality of something zie dislikes. How can you be sure? In htom’s simple example, sure, you can, with reasonable confidence, say that a listener who prefers a more laid back tempo would likely enjoy a rendition more. But that is a simple binary problem, with limited application. When multiple criteria a re being evaluated, how can you ever be sure who would like something you don’t?

    It’s easier (and more accurate) for me to be a critic of something I didn’t like because it’s simpler to filter my likes out of the approvals and disapprovals. Was it good because I liked it, or was it good because it was well done? Both? Neither? It’s easy, especially on first exposure, to let flaws — even giant ones — slip by because you’re having such a good time. I tried hard to get to things I’d given glowing reviews (not criticism) to a second time, preferably before publishing, preferably by myself.

  69. doc, in answer to your last question, I would say no.

    there are a couple of movie critics I tend to read before seeing a movie. They generally have tastes simular to mine. they generally like what I like and dislike what I dislike. I dont need them to ponder the possibilities as to whether someone else might like the movie. I read them specifically because I want to know if THEY like the movie. because I have found odds are they have similar reactions as I do.

    That plus the tomato rating generally indicates how much money I will spend to see the movie. opening night. a week later in the evening. a month later as a matinee. wait for rental. wait for it to be free on cable.

    Unfortunately I havent found a similar critic for my reading choices.

    but the critics job is to say whether they liked it or not. and the readers job is to find critics that have similar tastes to theirs.

    whether someone *else* would like the story is pretty much irrelevent.

  70. I basically agree with Monica #26 above.

    I think I read the series of books differently after 9/11 and while watching wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that seemed to have no end in sight. It was interesting that Old Man’s War was written before….

  71. Doc @ 72

    First off, As a critic, what are you expected to do? I think that Scalzi has rightly pointed out that there are at the very least a number of different approaches by that one can take (consumer reporting, exegesis, etc) that one could chose to take. Really, based at the freest sense, at the whim of what the critic wishes to communicate.

    I disagree however that the critic is just suppose to address one’s own tastes. Yes it is through one’s own thoughts (it is not objective) but as with any writing where writing with the audience, however abstract in mind is probably a good idea.

    Take a movie with children as a target audience and I have been hired to write a review of the new Justin Bieber concert movie for a magazine aimed at preteen girls. Now, I might not be the best hire for this job, but if I watched the movie, I still think I might, through my consideration music and movies in general, concert movies in more specific and the limited knowledge I have as to the preferences of preteen girls might be able to come up with a pretty good review for the acknowledged audience. A certain aspect of my preferences, a certain aspect of my chosen audiences preferences, can all be important.

    If I were writing for a publication aimed at their parents, the review is different. Likewise a polemical review dealing with the state of pop music, will be different than a review that compares current teen stars.

    Are all these my ideas, all these are still my thoughts and impressions and all of them are filtered through my tastes. Yet, my obligations are quite different under many of these circumstances and they do take both the variations with in my own desires, and what I think might be of value to my potential audience.

    I think I could very easily write a review of the Justin Beiber movie which says that teenage girls I believe will shriek with pleasure, their parents will shriek with horror, and if as a man in is late thirties someone like me shows up people should shriek and call the police. I actually think a multivalent approach like this need not be exhaustive to be more valuable to some potential readers. Likewise, many might find a more personal approach more appropriate to what they want to get across.

    Yet, to say “the role of the critic is just” to use any one approach is sadly limiting to what a wider world of criticism can be.

  72. I think the key word in John’s initial post was, “Kevetch.” A truly, fantastic word. People kvetch after the Super Bowl FFS! Someone is always going to be dissatisified, or that their team was robbed as the case may be. My own opinion is that if you have a problem with the way the Hugo does its voting, than you need to bring that up before hand. Not wait until after and use the winners as an example of why it’s broken. Otherwise, frankly, it just comes across as so much kvetching.

  73. Edward @76: Well, since I didn’t use the phrase “the role of a critic is just”, I don’t think you can attribute that thought to me. What I said is that a critic is only obligated to hir own reaction. If a critic feels that, due to being desperately out of hir depth, it might be prudent if sie speculated on the opinions of others, that’s fine. But the critic is under no obligation to do so, and hir opinion on other people’s opinions should be take with at least a teaspoon of salt. Frankly, I don’t think such a review is really all that useful, and it has a dangerously high likelihood of being amazingly wrong.

  74. Only obliquely on topic, but since you’re speaking of criticism, and since I’ve been wondering, is there someplace where all your old CD reviews of indie artists are all collected and accessible to ordinary folk? I miss them. I’ve found a few at blogcritics but the listing seems to be quite incomplete and as I’ve been listening to Jenny Bruce again, and grateful to you for putting us onto her music, I’ve been thinking that I’d like to go back through the archives of your reviews and explore other stuff that I missed at the time. (Tip of the hat also for Gramophone.) Is all that stuff someplace obvious (and I’ll take the hit points for being dim if it is) or even not so obvious, and if so, could you point me, please? Thenkyewverymuch.

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