Yes, There’s a Point to Bad Reviews in 2019
Posted on January 12, 2019 Posted by John Scalzi 49 Comments
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.
A couple of notes left out of the piece above that I want to address:
1. In my own personal world, there are distinctions between “reviewing,” “criticism” and “commentary.” I tend to see reviewing as consumer-oriented (i.e., “should you buy this thing/give it your time”), criticism as medium-oriented (“how does this thing function as an example of its field”) and commentary as culturally-oriented (“where does this thing fit within the world at large”). These things are vertices of a triangle inside which any one piece of criticism is a point, incorporating one or all three to a greater or lesser extent.
2. All reviews/criticism/commentary is subjective. Anyone telling you different either doesn’t understand the nature of the field, or doesn’t want you to.
3. I note that I don’t tend to offer negative criticism of work in my particular field, but I’m sure others will note that during the Sad/Rabid Puppies nonsense a few years back, I mentioned that I found much of the work placed on the ballots by the Puppies to be “mediocre to awful,” without naming specific individual works. Well, a) yes I did, b) I stand by that assessment, c) I didn’t single out specific work for a reason.
I will say that of the people who comprised the Puppy ranks in general, there are some perfectly fine writers, and also, by the admission of some Puppy leaders themselves, their interest was not generally in offering up worthy material for Hugo consideration, but offering up bad work with the goal of devaluating the value of the Hugos. This didn’t work because the voters availed themselves of the “No Award” option when there wasn’t good work in any category.
The point is I don’t really have any problem agreeing with the leaders of the movement that they weren’t often submitting the best work. Indeed, it would be rude to disagree. I will say that out of the specific context of the Hugo Awards themselves, I haven’t tended to offer negative comment on the work of the Puppies (that isn’t specifically about or directed toward me), and that indeed I’ve promoted the work of several via my weekly New Books and ARCs stack.
Well, there you go then! However, when I’m writing my book reviews, I try to be as gentle as possible when something is bad. Even so, I’ve been called out on a couple of my critical remarks from time to time!
Thanks, John! I’m grateful for your (as usual) well-thought-out answer!
An example of bad review versus poor review was for me reading Roger Ebert. I could almost always tell if I would like a movie from his reviews. This did not mean if he liked it I would like it and if he hated it I would hate it. It worked out closer to 60% correlation for me. But he always wrote in such a way that I could tell if it was a movie I would be interested in (even if he was ripping it apart).
He might love it and yet I could tell from what he wrote I would not and conversely he might hate if for reasons that made me want to see it. He wrote many BAD reviews because there are many bad movies out there, but I cannot remember him (IMHO) ever writing a poor review.
This is a very helpful piece – it now gives me a context for my decades of dislike of NY Times reviews of movies and theater. Reviews in the NYT hold outsized influence (a bad review of out-of-town theater can keep a show from coming to NY no matter how good it is) and there are times the reviewers seem more interested in wielding that influence than in being helpful for the readers.
Similarly, I gave up on reading a certain New Yorker reviewer a few decades ago because she spent an entire movie review saying what a movie should have been (not technically, but plot-wise) and panning it for not being the movie she wanted.
I had never read the Ebert’s review of North. My goodness. He really hated it.
To be fair it was terrible. When I reviewed it I gave it an “F”.
I’m reminded of the Film Crit Hulk bit of “never hate a movie”, which I do, for the most part, agree with.
But, man, like Brussel Sprouts, some things need to be roasted.
You read that whole article, John. I am deeply impressed.
To be honest, I’ve never felt that reviews, per se, were the same thing as criticism in the meta-sense. Useful, yes. Especially when I have some sense of what, in general, the individual reviewer finds positive or negative in (a book, a film, a song, etc.)
I prefer reviews that are reasonably short and to the point, along the lines of “(Work in question) appealed to me/repelled me because of (whatever) and here’s an example of a bit I found particularly (whatever). On the other hand, if you’re looking for (something else) this probably is/isn’t the work for you because (reasons). Kudos/farts to (actor, musician, etc.) for a particularly (description) performance, and it’s worth noting that (other actor, musician, etc.) was a bit over/underused for their talents. (Particular technical aspect) was also impressive/disappointing because (reasons.) I’ll probably put this in my queue to watch again someday/avoid and/or other works by (author/director/band/etc.)”
Criticism, on the other hand, is a much more detailed and even intimate process that examines a work in various contexts, exposes the critic’s experience/point(s) of view on the work and its contexts, and explores structural elements, themes, technical skills, etc. in depth.
Casual snark in reviews can be useful and sometimes even entertaining. It’s a marker, a shorthand. This particular reviewer believes clever snark will be more worthwhile to a potential viewer/reader/listener/etc. than an actual discussion of a work whose merits are so feeble there’s nothing else to discuss. Fair enough, especially if I’m familiar enough with the reviewer to have a sense of whether their POV is likely to overlap with mine.
Snark in a work of criticism, on the other hand, often strikes me as just laziness or self-aggrandizement on the part of the critic. I don’t want to know how clever you are or how much you resented the time lost in experiencing this work, I want you to put your supposed critical skills to work deconstructing what about it is wretched and why, and how that relates to your own biases and experiences.
Very different, criticism and reviews. And I think we too often mix them up.
One of the most surreal moments in my life is when I reviewed a mediocre ebook online and sparked a response thread from the author that was legendary. Here’s the review, including the comment thread: https://tidbits.com/2014/05/02/funbits-bears-in-boats-fighting-crime/
There is also something of a distinction between saying “this piece of art is bad” and “this artist is bad,” and the truly scathing reviews can sometimes slip from the former to the latter.
Both are valid points to make in a piece of criticism, but the seems to be a far more extreme position that should really only be taken after some very careful consideration.
I do book reviews professionally (nonfiction books, largely about technical and scientific communication), and fiction reviews when I feel inspired, and enjoyed your take.
Personally, I consider myself a reviewer, not a critic, since “criticism” tends to carry an aura of superiority. (I’m not saying that critics necessarily consider themselves superior, though some do. It’s more about what kind of union suit you’re wearing when you write. Critics tend to be more willing to make claims about the absolute objective value of a work, whereas reviewers are more relative and subjective.)
One thing I work very hard to do is infer the author’s goal (which may not be mine) and audience (which may also not be mine), and in my review, I try to distinguish between whether the author accomplished that goal and whether I personally like the goal or consider it worth attaining. To do so, I don’t just guess; I read the author’s foreword/preface and afterword if such exist to see what they have to say about their intent and the decisions they made. An author who does a good job of accomplishing their goal for a specific audience should have that accomplishment noted. But as a reviewer, I reserve the right to say that I didn’t like that goal or strategy. I just make it very clear that this is my subjective take, not some kind of moral absolute.
As a writer myself, I greet reviews with mixed feelings. A negative review often stings, particularly when the reviewer clearly didn’t read my foreword/preface and misunderstood what I was doing and why. A negative review that points out legitimate problems is a pearl without price, because I can fix those problems in the next edition or (on my Web site) add a “looking back” note to point out the problem and suggest a fix.
Michael E. Cohen: wow that author comment thread is indeed legendary. I’ve never seen anything like it! After a while he posted so many comments that I couldn’t read them any more on my phone.
Good writing, nice reading. Insightful work. Thank you, I enjoyed this.
I’ve never understood the hatred of negative reviews¹
I start with the negative reviews when I’m unsure about something. I’ve spent good money on things just based on negative reviews, and not expecting to hate them either.² People who hated things tend to be way more informative about why they hated something, compared to people writing gushing reviews.
¹Well, by people who aren’t actually connected to the thing being reviewed.
²Most of the time it works. Still regretting thinking Ebert was exaggerating about Men in Black 2.
Many years ago, Newsweek had a movie reviewer who was 100%n for me. If he liked a movie, I wouldn’t. If he didn’t like one, I would. And the less he liked a movie, the more I would like it. Utterly reliable!
Reminds me of the first time I heard of you, Nicholas Whyte’s negative review of OMW.
It was constructive enough that I thought it sounded like I might like it as our tastes don’t always intersect. 10+ books/years later I was right
BBC’s top film reviewer these days is Mark Kermode, he has the same ability, our tastes are similar but not the same and his enthusiasm for the medium always shows thru, if you like a type of thing you want the people doing the thing to be doing it well
If memory serves I actually quite liked that review, although I thought he had a couple of his premises off (in my opinion). He’s actually a good example of someone who generally doesn’t like my work much but can explain why in a way I find useful and interesting, and we are generally on friendly terms.
Kurt Loder reviewed the movie “The Martian” for Reason Magazine. I’ know he said nice things about it, but I don’t remember specifics except for the last bit.
He said that anyone who did not go to see the movie lost all right to criticize Hollywood for sticking to remakes and sequels.
I would love to hear your thoughts regarding reviews of movies based on books? Stephen King maintains that books and movies are completely different entities and should be judged alone. Is that a legitimate stance, and is that even possible?
Also, in terms of reviewing I think it’s essential to review art on it’s own terms–you can’t slam a superhero movie for not being a thoughtful commentary on contemporary life, a genre fiction book for not being literary fiction, a cubist/impressionist painting for its lack of realism, experimental off-Broadway for not being appealing to the larger public, and so on. It’s important to consider the art on its own terms (while identifying those terms, of course, so the reader knows the context)..
While reviewing and criticism are not exactly the same thing, they do overlap–good reviewers understand what’s being looked at (historically and formally) *and* understand their own reactions. Objective reviewing is a contradiction in terms, since what is being reported on are the subjective responses of one member of an audience. If there’s an objective component, it is limited to what anyone can see: this is a novel; it is long/short/part of a series; it identifies as/carries the traits of the space opera/alien-encounter/time-travel subgenre. (And even here we’re getting into spongey footing.)
My own reviewing is much informed by my truncated academic career, during which I produced “criticism”–a combination of analysis/explication, commentary, and research/scholarship. I can’t imagine producing a review that isn’t rooted in that kind of accounting–understanding historical/genre context, the rhetoric of fiction, a writer’s previous work, and anything else that operates in or affects the writing/reading environment. (Well, maybe not contemporary, theory-heavy lit crit–that’s after my time.)
The evaluative part of my review is the fact that it exists at all–that I finished the book and decided that I had something to say about how and why I enjoyed it, how it might fit in with other books I’ve read, how it uses the materials and traditions of SF. Better-than/worse-than judgments I’m not comfortable with airing in public, and stars ratings or comparative rankings I find useless. My personal favorites are just that–personal–though anyone who follows my columns can probably do a little parallax correction and figure where their preferences and mine converge or diverge. (FWIW, I was usually comfortable following Ebert’s movie reviews and Siskel’s quite rarely.)
Mostly what I’m doing in a review is holding a conversation about books I find interesting with an audience that might not even be listening. Bruce Gillespie has it right in the running title of his SF Commentary columns: “I Must Be Talking to My Friends.”
When i watch a Lindsay Ellis video about a movie, wow, she invariably drives a stake into the heart of the problem with that movie. Sometimes i watch a movie and something about it rubs me the wrong way, but I cant say exactly what it is. And then I watch her video aboout the movie and Im like, omg, thats it! Thats what was cheesing me off!
When I watch Movies with Mikey, he tends to find the things in a movie that worked really well, even if the movie overall was fundamentally broken.
I can watch a Lindsay video and tell if i should bother watching a movie or not.
If I watch a Mikey video, it might end up watching a movie that wasnt very good, cause he is positive about almost everything. Which isnt helpful for choosing what movie to see this saturday. If I already saw a movie, Mikey might point out some of the gems in the movie, and maybe i get a better appreciation of the movie.
Not sure where either lands in the review, criticism, commentary spectrum.
Re: film from books, King is correct that they’re different beasts. The movie almost always is significantly different from the book, that’s why it’s an adaptation. I think it’s generally more useful to judge whether a book captures the spirit rather than the letter of a book, if (in fact) you choose the consider it in relation to the book at all. I will say a movie that either assumes you have or requires you to have knowledge of the book in order to appreciate the movie is probably a failure of art.
I would be interested if Reiner ever commented on the movie or Ebert’s review. Sometimes the artist themself is the biggest critic. Perhaps Reiner realized this film just didn’t work and pleaded with the studio not to release it. I would be surprised if it turned out this bad and Reiner did not recognize that himself. As an author you can tear something up and start over or at least edit and re-write. Not sure a movie director has that option.
I have noticed in the past that people are negative about the word “criticism,” for example someone above thought it could mean superiority. It could. But let’s separate connotations (emotion) from denotation. (objective) A critical article, or criticism, about Shakespeare or Picasso is apt to be very sweet and praiseful.
I am reminded of self help expert Zig Ziglar pointing out that the signal lights that avoid traffic gridlock are not called go lights. How negative we can be.
This will answer your question. He appears to have largely taken it in stride (and Ebert positively reviewed a number of this films before and after that one).
Also check out this piece by Alan Zweibel, who wrote North (both the novel and the screenplay for the film).
As usual, I find your take on things to be intelligent and well thought out, John. Having been a semi-pro reviewer (Amazon Vine Reviewer and for a time a top 100 Amazon reviewer), I found how difficult it can be to accurately review anything resembling art. A tech book will fail if it’s full of errors, or so dense that it can’t be parsed. A gadget fails for being poorly made or having a poorly thought out interface. Fiction, music, fine arts, and crafts are so subjective.
Honest reviewing is tough. It’s so easy to mix my reaction to a creator’s politics into a review when it has nothing to do with the work itself. I find one author’s pro-gun attitudes ill thought out and reactionary, yet consider him quite a good novelist. Having read so many reviews for so long I sadly realize that few people can separate a work from their strongly held beliefs. I’m not even sure whether that is a good or bad thing. In the fields of speculative fiction politics certainly plays a strong part. Criticism is too often not separate from politics, race, gender, and class.
This is not a personal knock. I have agreed with the vast majority of your political opinion pieces.
One of my favourite writers is Jay Rayner, restaurant reviewer for the UK Guardian and Observer newspapers. This morning’s offering is delightful, and makes coffee-through-the-nose a pleasure. His bad reviews are always a treasure
“Stephen King maintains that books and movies are completely different entities and should be judged alone. Is that a legitimate stance, and is that even possible?”
In theory it’s a legitimate stance. In practice, Hollywood is using the popularity of the book as the selling point; movie-makers want you to think of the film as being something close to the book. I’ve never heard ‘you can’t judge this movie by the same standards as the book’ until after the negative reviews come in. So it’s kind of bullshit too.
Thanks for all the links, as well as your post. Lookie, 4 people who can be both sincerely committed to their work and mature and gracious when encountering the slings and arrows that accompany it.
Even a bad review may make me want to read/see a work, if I understand the viewpoint of the reviewer. The late Bosley Crowther was a useful guide to me. If he hated a movie, I’d probably love it, and vice versa. (Case in point: He thought Fail-Safe far superior to Dr. Strangelove.)
The problem I have with contemporary reviewing is that it’s turned into something of a blood sport, where reviewers appear to be throwing out criticisms solely for the literary equivalent of counting coup amongst their piers. I’ve spent too many years operating under the rule that if you’re going to point out a problem, then you better have at least one good solution. And no matter how bad I may think a book or movie might be, I stop short of criticism realizing the effort and logistics involved in the production of these cultural items.
Regarding “bullshit too” by frasersherman, who questions the difference between two media, and has never heard you can’t judge this movie by the book until the negative reviews:
Literally decades ago I bought a button at a sf convention that read “Never judge a book by its movie.” An example, although of a TV show not a movie, would be The Beastmaster by Andre Norton…. Most viewers of the low tech fantasy show would not have read the high tech science fiction book or its sequel, Lord of Thunder. I liked both books. (The hero, a demobilized military scout, had PTSD/insanity because his home planet had been turned into a cinder)
…Back in the 1990’s a TV writing textbook used the example of a classic (translated) French short story, using only a young cadet and a prostitute. The story, although classic, if made for media, would have to make significant changes, such as including an antagonist, perhaps the cadet’s commandant…
Judging by the sheer low numbers of readers (and fanboy readers) as compared to media consumers, it would be foolish (but make good take-up-space entertainment copy) for Hollywood to worry about fanboy readers. A dimly possible, but unlikely, exception would be for household-name writers. Not many of them around.
Proof of the number variation would be the size of the crowd for local reader conventions, compared to local media conventions such as Hollywood, anime-manga and comic books. The difference in attendance is staggering at first. (Now I’m used to it)
(Should I thank you or condemn you for verbing “gestalt”?)
I’ve never forgiven Kubrick for making the studios release his movie, Strangelove, before Failsafe, since the public, once given the chance, would rather escape into comedy than face the nightmare and face their need to take action. Plus Kubrick hurt the box office of Failsafe.
I remember reading that teddy bear author’s response to the review around the time it came out. It was astonishing and alarming and also, I guess, darkly funny.
John, one aspect of that article that I thought you might address was the vitriol critics receive from the general public when they pan something (or don’t praise it highly enough). Video game reviewers have been talking for years about the inflated ratings they give to games to avoid backlash from fans. Maybe there’s nothing to say about it but “That’s bad,” but I do think it’s part of what’s happening with modern criticism.
Along with poor reviews by people being vicious for traffic.
Before I started publishing my own books, I used to post criticism of novels and movies and whatever. I considered it part of my practice for creating stories of my own, but I feel ambivalent about it now. Some of it seems too harsh, and some reads like I’m not knowledgable enough to be putting together arguments in this way. But I did it and its out there and I took the responses to it when it happened. At least I didn’t engage authors about it unless they engaged with me first.
“Criticism is the crafting of an argument, not the having of an opinion.” – Sam Adams.
Writing a decent review is work, and takes analysis and an ability to say what you mean pretty precisely–and some reviewers are better at negative than positive reviews (Dorothy Parker, who would write sideways at a problem in something she was reviewing without leaving a reader in any doubt of what the problem was, flailed into incoherence when she liked something).
On the issue of the quality of a piece of art being related to “competence (or lack thereof)”:
Is Steven Spielberg a competent artist? Almost certainly.
Is “Ready Player One” a bad movie? Almost certainly.
So I don’t agree that incompetence is a reliable precursor to bad art.
On the flip side, M. Night Shyamalan showed tremendous competence for 2 1/2 movies, then it evaporated. Was he ever actually competent? If so, what happened? If not, how are those 2 1/2 movies good?
I think bad art happens for a number of reasons. Competence is at best just one.
Sean Crawford: Are we talking about a work being good artistically, or morally? Because they’re orthogonal concepts.
This post is orthogonal to the OPs ‘art criticism’.
But ‘Bad Art’ is separate from ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’ which is in turn separate from ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show.’
And I should remind everyone that there was a movie Rodger Ebert did want to award negative stars. So there can be a grade lower than ‘Bad Art.’
Theophact: regarding the orthogonal concepts of judging a work artistically or morally… I don’t think of angles, but I look upward to bowls.
In a corporation, my department must not make a profit at the expense of the over-arching corporation. The CEO, to invoke a still larger bowl, must not pollute the community river, (even if that’s not quantifiable) while under our national bowl, we would be foolish to turn military service into a job the way the city fathers of Carthage did.
The Cold War was a far more clear and present danger, to the average person in the street, than is man-made global warming today. If we scorned nuclear justice warriors for inventing the peace sign it was because we felt so helpless with no clear path as to what to do. Easier to blame the victim rather than to act ourselves. We suppressed our fear and guilt.
To me Kubrik with his art was responsible to his citizen bowl. Surely he would have made just as much box office, has just as good a movie, if he had not forced the studio to release his picture—in January!— because he learned Failsafe was coming out. No man is an island.
In the footsteps of Shakespeare, as an artist, Kubrick would have instinctively known the difference between clown and comedian. The clown helps the group to escape, run away, be distracted from the great work that lies before them. But the comedian jokes simply to help the group to face up to their task. (from group dynamics theory)
The comedian is like Ben Franklin when he and his fellow “dirty traitors” were fearfully gathered, and feared to sign the Declaration of Independence. They signed right after Ben quipped, “We better hang together, or we will all hang separately.”
Failsafe was shot in black and white, not musically scored, with a very unusual for Hollywood ending, all for a purpose— a purpose diverted by a clown.
“It’s so easy to mix my reaction to a creator’s politics into a review when it has nothing to do with the work itself”
I find it rare for a creators politics to not creep into their work on some level. If someone is a second ammendment radicalist who thinks anyone should be able to buy a machine gun without a shred of paperwork, their fiction invariably involves a world where guns and war solve problems in their worlds that never works in the real world.
Bigots invariably write the bad guys as the minority character. Sexists invariably have cardboard characters for women.
Writers driven by fear and scarcity invariably create worlds where all the panhandlers are secretly rich and welfare recipients drive cadillacs.
Especially in science fiction and fantasy, where world building is a major component of the work, the political stance of the author often makes its way into the work.
However, one should not use “it’s genre fiction” as an excuse for Bad Art, which is a problem sci-fi suffered from in its early decades. The first few years of Astounding are available from Project Gutenberg; with the exception of a very few writers who became moderately well-known over the following decade (Murray Leinster, specifically, his writing was always decent), almost all of the stories are absolutely terrible. They are just plain bad writing–cardboard characters, bad dialogue, plots that range from absolutely predictable to stupid to nonsensical, and a lot of “Of Its Time” casual racism/sexism/etc that will make a modern reader wince. (There were a few gems: I remember a “Lost Worlds Romance” in which the doughty hero trains a group of scantily-clad native priestesses to be a rifle squad/fire teams, and they turn out to be damn good at it. A refreshing change from the usual trope of “Lost Civilization” women being only good at fawning over the hero and being rescued by him)
Nowdays, the standard of published sci-fi is almost infinitely higher. Even the more mediocre Sad Puppy stuff is better than those very early days, though it does show a certain relationship in theme. At some point, there was enough sci-fi being published that readers decided they didn’t have to pay for crap, so crap stopped being considered “good enough” to publish.
For quality going up, the same thing happened at my local (now defunct) sf and f yearly convention. We had a short story contest. After a decade or so (I forget), the previous winners would not have even made it to the finals of the later contests.
Incidentally, I don’t expect the defunct convention to ever be resumed. The human capital that might have volunteered is now, as you can tell by the name (from the Philip Wylie novel) engaged in putting on a convention for “readers, writers and publishers.” The name of the con? “When Words Collide.”
Certainly there’s a point to bad reviews. This is especially true if the reviewer is authoritative in tone, securely employed at a major media outlet, and shielded by sweet, comforting money and a hawk-eyed legal department. He (it’s often a he) can say pretty much anything he damn-well wants, sans repercussions.
Not so true if the reviewer is an aspirant in the field, un- or underemployed, and lacking in money and/or helpful connections. She (it’s often a she) had better think carefully before she uploads a diatribe to her blog or social media account, or awards a single star with barbed remark on Amazon or Goodreads. At best she’s supplying a commercial entity, gratis, with valuable data about her cultural preferences. Maybe the object of criticism responds with a virtual head pat: “My dear, [insert mansplaining here].” Worse, a disgruntled author might show up uninvited on her doorstep, doxx her, then spill the juicy details online and (insult to injury) via a cozy book contract.
On 18 October 2014, The Guardian published Kathleen Hale’s “‘Am I being catfished?’ An author confronts her number one online critic.”
From the incredibly rancorous discussion:
shaymus1218: “Critics are people who can’t create anything themselves, so they pretend they have talent by critiquing the work of others.”
R042: “Oh, shut up.
“This blitheringly entitled attitude is pathetically anti-intellectual. We should never think, criticise or challenge ourselves because feelings might be hurt. Anyone who ever thinks about anything critically is just a bitter talentless troll.
“We might as well never discuss anything except on the happiest, most inoffensive levels of ‘isn’t it all so wonderful’ because if you dare to talk about some things being better than others you’re just an embittered talentless hack.
“Might as well stop thinking entirely and just consume, consume, consume.”
The chill is on. It’s on the street.
I used to write the occasional review for books that I’ve read, either purchased or have borrowed from my public library. Amazon has made it tougher to do so as of late, since they’ve instituted a policy of either spending a specific dollar amount per year or you actually purchasing the item in question before you can leave a review.
I’ve actually gotten semi-trolled over a review that I left for a particular book (I think I gave it a two star review). The book was written by a prominent civil rights lawyer and I didn’t think too highly of it. Anyways, someone took exception to what I wrote and actually left me a few comments about it, of which one was actually pulled by Amazon. Ultimately, about 9 comments were left on the review, mostly by that person and another civil rights lawyer who was having a discussion with that person about my review and the contents of the book.
Sean: “I’ve never forgiven Kubrick for making the studios release his movie, Strangelove, before Failsafe, since the public, once given the chance, would rather escape into comedy than face the nightmare and face their need to take action.”
Uh, do you really think “Failsafe” was a world-altering movie that would have set the superpowers on the path to nuclear disarmament, but for the existence of “Strangelove”?
SANE put out a full page ad against nukes in 1957. SANE became the most influential nnuke disarmament organization in the country.
Heinlein put out starship troopers in 1959 in direct opposition to SANE, arguing we needed nukes to fight the commies.
Both “Failsafe” and “Dr Strangelove” came out in 1964 in support of SANEs mission.
I dont think either movie gets credit for starting the movement. Nor should Strangelove be blamed for the slow progress that SANE made.
It would seem that fear had a total grip on us and ussr military policy and Strangelove pointed at that fear and rightly mocked it. Whereas Starship whipped up and reinforced that fear. And Failsafe tried to reason with a fear that wont listen to reason.
Looking at the numbers over time here
It would seem the only thing that ended that fear and reduced stockpiles by any considerable amount was the collapse of the soviet union and the end of the cold war.
Something tells me that had Strangelove been somehow erased from history, that Failsafe would have had no noticable effect on that graph.
Greg, et al — this isn’t the right place for Strangelove vs. Failsafe. Take it into email if you wish to continue it further.