Yes, There’s a Point to Bad Reviews in 2019

Got a request:

So I read the piece. And here are some thoughts, informed by having been both a professional critic and reviewer, and a professional creative artist. These thoughts, perhaps not surprisingly, get longer as I go along.

1. The point of a bad review is to point out when something is bad, and give relevant context for that badness.

2. Some things are bad art. It doesn’t mean that the bad art can’t be popular, or enduring, or even, in time, a “classic.” “Bad art” means very generally that the creator(s) did not achieve in their art what that art was meant to be, or at the very least, what it was advertised to be by them to others. These failures happen (in my opinion) mostly for reasons of competence, or lack thereof. There are other definitions of “bad art” but this one works the most often.

3. It’s okay to call out what in your opinion is bad art, especially when your job description is “reviewer” or “critic.” And sometimes it is even necessary; someone has to point out when the emperor has no clothes.

4. Criticism itself is an art — the ability to gestalt someone else’s art and coherently, cogently, and persuasively comment on it is a skill, and a much more difficult skill to master than people often assume. Sometimes the criticism of the art is better (and sometimes arguably more important) than the art itself — Roger Ebert’s famous pan of North is a better piece of art than the film it criticizes, for example. I saw (and reviewed) the film. There is not a line in Ebert’s review that is inaccurate or undeserved, and his ability to so memorably and compactly assess the film’s flaws and shortcomings is why the review is remembered long after the film itself has been purged from the cultural memory.

Ebert was famously the first film reviewer to get a Pulitzer for criticism; there’s a reason for that. Ebert was an artist, whose medium was the film review. Other critics are artists as well.

5. Which means that their art is equally up for criticism! There are plenty of bad reviewers and critics and commentators out there, offering bad takes because they’re incompetent, or ignorant of the field or art which they choose to review, or poorly frame the context of their criticism, or are more interested in tweetable snark than cogent commentary, or whatever. Sometimes the frame for reviewing and criticism can be simple — “Is this film/album/art worth your actual money or time?” — and sometimes it can be more complex.

Critics and reviewers do not have to be artists in the field they are commenting on, but it helps immensely if they know about that field — and also, have a reasonable grasp of rhetoric and argument. Anyone can criticize, but not everyone can create good and useful criticism, the stuff that contextualizes the art in question.

6. There’s a difference between a “bad review” — a negative review of a work — and a poor review, which is a review that is poorly done. Bad reviews can be brilliantly done and useful to their audience; poor reviews can be negative or positive about the work in question but add no useful context or argument regarding the work. Poor reviews are bad art.

7. This is important: The critic does not work for the artist. The critic’s audience is (as examples) the readership/viewership of whatever media outlet they work for, a particular group with a specific aesthetic interest, future scholars of whatever medium the criticism focuses on, and so on. When I was a film reviewer, I was working for a newspaper and my audience was the readership of that paper. I was not writing for the filmmakers, or their studios, or their PR people (and most of the time filmmakers/studios/PR people understood this very well). I literally did not care what the filmmakers thought of the review; the review wasn’t for them. It was for the people looking for how to amuse themselves on a Friday night. I owed it to those people to say whether a movie was (in my opinion) worth their time and money.

8. This doesn’t mean that artist can’t or shouldn’t read reviews of their work — or have opinions about the particular reviews, or the particular reviewers — but I think it would be helpful to them to remember that reviews are almost never for them, and that a reviewer/critic/commentator has a specific fiduciary duty that is not in any way about them. And also: Sometimes a bad review can be good for you as an artist! Yes, it sucks to have someone review your work negatively, but it’s also useful to remember that a bad review isn’t always a poor review, and sometimes a negative review can cogently identify a bothersome issue that you yourself have not been able to put a finger on — and having identified it for you, you can now work to fix it in later work.

9. In the piece linked to above, there’s a bit where John Krasinski talks about mentioning to Paul Thomas Anderson that he didn’t think a new film (from a third director) was very good. Anderson tells him, basically, to keep it that to himself, realize that not everything is for him, and to support the other artist anyway, because it’s a tough field and all their compatriots need support.

And you know what? I don’t think that’s bad advice for artists generally. It’s very rare you will see me, as a science fiction author, write or otherwise publicly offer a negative review of work from other writers in the genre — I’ll tell you what I liked in the field, but I don’t go out of my way to tell you what I didn’t like. Because it’s a tough field, not everything is for me, and generally speaking I’m for helping out other people in my field even if their work isn’t something I’m personally excited about. I do this on the principles of paying it forward, and of a rising tide.

Can and should every artist do this? That’s for them to decide, and I’ll be the first to say that my position on the matter is more than a little informed by my position in my particular field, and the repercussions to me and others if I’m perceived to be “punching down” (note that both Krasinski and Anderson would be vulnerable to the same repercussions in their rather higher-profile field). It’s more to the point to say that there is a difference between the role of the artist in their community of peers, and the role of the critic, acting as a commentator and contextualizer of the field those artists inhabit.

10. Do bad reviews still have a point in 2019? Yes, obviously they do — there is still bad art out there, and it’s within the remit of reviewers and critics to comment on it, both for the sake of their direct audiences, and to help identify and explain the larger cultural context within which the work resides. The bad review runs the risk of hurting the artists’ feelings and/or enraging the admirers of that artist, but that’s their problem, not a problem for the critic.

What does the critic owe anyone? Competence, basically — the promise that a “bad review” is not a poor review. If the critic can’t manage that, then they’re as vulnerable as any other artist to justified criticism.

And that’s what I think about it.