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.