Reader Request Week 2020 #6: Pulling Punches in Criticism

Troy Gordon asks:

Do you ever hold back in your criticism of other artistic endeavors (movies for instance) out of fear or apprehension that it will open your own work to hostile/non constructive criticism and exclude you from future opportunities? You are successful and obviously intelligent enough to know how story and character arcs work, and how to bring a story to life, but sometimes your reviews on things can come across as… muted. I find this interesting, given how outspoken you can be on some topics, but very careful in your criticism of other’s work. Is it because as an artist, you appreciate the effort that went into that other piece of art, is it a political consideration, or a combination of both?

This answer is complicated! Strap in!

First: I mean, I was a professional critic for years, primarily in film but also in music and video games, so in fact there’s a long and rich history of me going deeply negative on things when I thought it was necessary. I even have some stories I can tell about creators getting pissed at me for doing so — if we’re ever in the same room at the same time, get me to tell my story of Ian Astbury of the Cult sending me an all-caps email after I gave his band’s (then) new release a less-than-entirely-shining review. I don’t feel like the argument that I’m overly muted in reviews is supported in the text, running across all of my career.

Also, if sometimes my criticism of something comes across as muted, it might be because I’m writing about something I didn’t feel all that strongly about. For example, last December when I wrote up a piece on The Rise of Skywalker, the tone of the piece reflected how I felt about the movie: I was reasonably entertained, but it felt rushed and there wasn’t a whole lot of emotional range in the film. I didn’t hate the film, and didn’t feel the need to be performatively angry with it or the filmmakers for not providing a certain level of catharsis; likewise, I didn’t love the film or desire to defend it, or the people who made it, from the criticism of others. It was just fine. The review’s tone reflected that.

“Just fine,” incidentally, is where the vast majority of films (and, honestly, most creative output) reside, particularly if they’re put out by large entertainment companies who know how to spot, hire and support technically proficient people who are competent at their jobs. With very few exceptions, Disney and Warner Bros and Universal and Netflix and so on are not all that interested in turning out immortal works of cinema that will shine through the years; they want to create something you’ll spend money on to watch. The “I’ll watch that” line for most people is not “immortal cinema,” it’s “entertaining enough for two hours.” If it turns out a film is immortal cinema as well as being entertaining for two hours, so much the better; none of them are opposed to that. But if they had to choose between “entertaining for two hours” and “immortal cinema,” they’ll go for the first. They understand the first. They can market it. Immortal cinema is much trickier, and hardly ever as commercially reliable.

When I was a professional film critic, I would say that 10% of my reviews were of amazing films and 10% were of genuinely terrible films, and in both cases writing a review was not difficult because there was so much to say either way. 80% of my reviews were of films that were some level of mediocre: Nothing wrong with them but nothing great about them either. Those were the challenging ones to write, because how do you approach “meh, it’s fine?” over and over again? One solution is to basically go to war with every film you don’t think ranks as immortal cinema, and, well. That’s a choice. It’s not the choice I usually go for.

So I don’t disagree that my reviews might come across as muted to some folks. But if they do, because that’s mostly how I feel about the film I watched. Meh, it’s fine! If you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you’ll like! And so on.

What’s often more interesting than straight review at this point is meta-commentary: What the film means in a larger context. So for example, my thoughts on Wonder Woman, which I thought was fine (specifically, I said, “a solid film with some genuinely great moments, cheapened a bit by the generic boss fight at the end”), but about which the most interesting thing was — to me — the perception of it being much larger success than its sibling films Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad, when globally it made just about the same amount, financially, as either of those two films.

Here on Whatever, where my commentary on film does not have to be straightforward “should you pay money for this or not” reviewing, I tend to do a lot of meta-commentary; for example, my observations of the last Star Wars trilogy are as much about the role of Disney taking over the franchise from George Lucas as it is about the individual films themselves, because I think that’s interesting. At some point I’ll probably write up something on how the Disney trilogy was about what happens when a major corporation loses its nerve and plays it safe (as opposed to the prequel trilogy, which was all about an auteur doing things exactly how he wanted to, even if what he wanted to do frankly sucked). But for now I will acknowledge that this sort of inside pool may not be as interesting to other people. So it goes.

Yes, yes, Scalzi, but do you pull your punches because you’re trying to do business in Hollywood? Answer the question!

UGH, fine.

The answer is: Not really? At least, not as it relates to doing business in film and television. First, bluntly, no one in Hollywood gives a shit what I write about film (or anything else) here on my blog because this blog doesn’t matter to them. It’s not Variety or The Hollywood Reporter or the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times, and it’s also not the aggregate Rotten Tomatoes score, so, really, who the fuck cares? I’m literally off their radar, and nothing I could say here has an impact on what they do.

Which is a sentiment, incidentally, I get, since as a writer, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus, and Library Journal serve the same function in my industry: They’re the trades, they’re what everyone in publishing (and also library and bookstore acquisition people) read. Because of this, we writers remember when, say, Kirkus gives one of our books a pan (and boy, have they!).

So I could write whatever I wanted here, secure in the knowledge that literally the only person who cares, vis-a-vis doing business, is me. I know this because, despite writing a piece where I saidStar Wars is not entertainment. Star Wars is George Lucas masturbating to a picture of Joseph Campbell and conning billions of people into watching the money shot,” I’ve been offered work in the Star Wars universe more than once. When I pointed out to the people offering me work that I actually wrote those words, they more or less shrugged. Because no one gives a shit, except me.

With that said, it is entirely accurate to say I don’t post very many negative reviews here in film, music, TV and so on, especially in the last several years. This is because:

1. Since I’m generally no longer being paid to write criticism, I mostly don’t bother to write about the things I don’t like; I think it’s better and more useful to point out the things I do like.

2. Over the course of time I have becomes friends or friendly acquaintances with all sorts of writers/musicians/filmmakers/artists/etc, and I’m sensitive to publicly criticizing in a negative way the creative output of people I like (and sometimes, especially in film/TV, their participation is not always immediately evident; one might be surprised by an IMDb listing).

3. In the one field where my public opinion does have weight — science fiction and fantasy publishing — I am very sensitive to the fact that if I thoughtlessly crap on someone else’s work, it could have a negative impact on them and me, since I will look like a real dick punching down on others. Generally speaking I don’t want to be that guy. So even if I have public beef with someone in the community, and at this point it’s been years since I have had, by and large I leave their work out of it. There have been exceptions to this, but very few, and I don’t think any of them were actual in-depth reviews.

4. Finally, philosophically speaking, creating is hard, and outside of some vanishingly rare examples of people trying to simultaneously sabotage a contract while still fulfilling it to the specific letter of the law, no one starts creating with the intent to make something bad. At this point in my life, unless I have a really good reason to do otherwise, when I see creative output I think is bad, I try to remember someone at least tried to give someone else joy with their work. And, sure, they fucked it up, but I can honor the attempt, and not call out the failure — which, among other things, might be a failure only to me; someone else might love it.

None of this is really about worrying about curtailing my business opportunities; it’s more about trying to be a decent person to other creative people.

Now, nothing here should be understood to suggest that negative criticism a) shouldn’t be allowed, b) isn’t useful, c) is put out by shitty people just to be shitty. As noted above, over the course of time I’ve written plenty of negative criticism. Negative criticism can be useful and is often necessary, and importantly, it’s almost never for the creators themselves. I’ve written about this in full elsewhere, so you can go look at that if you like. All that I’m saying is that unless I personally have a truly compelling reason to write a negative review, these days, I don’t.

(Also, and almost as an aside, I am entirely unconcerned about whether, if I write a negative critique of something, I will get a negative critique back. It almost never works that way, and also, dude, I get so many negative reviews anyway. I’m not worried about negative reviews in a general sense, because I was a pro critic and I understand better than most that negative reviews are just the cost of doing business. Also, and this may just me, I enjoy a good negative review and kind of always have. It’s nice someone cared enough to really hate something I did.)

So, no. I don’t pull punches in reviews or critiques because I worry about repercussions. But I won’t punch something if a small tap will do, and most of the time, these days, I won’t bother to punch at all.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)

The Big Idea: Tone Milazzo

Get out your comic books: Author Tone Milazzo is thinking about the super humans that populate our popular culture, and how they relate to the themes of his new book, The Faith Machine.

TONE MILAZZO:

It took me decades realize some pretty obvious things about superheroes.

For example: Batman will never stop the Joker from killing, not for good. When Bats takes the Joker back to Arkham Asylum at the end of a comic, it’s a carpool. Just a guy giving the Joker a ride home after work. For all his struggles, the best Batman can do is maintain the status quo. He has to if there’s going to be more Batman vs. Joker stories. Batman wins the battles, but he’ll never win the war, and the Joker gets away.

I think a lot (too much) about what if superpowers were real. How would the criminal justice system, economics, technology, intelligence, and the military accommodate even bottom-tier superheroes and villains? Superheroes are in their own printed world, but aren’t a part of their world. Heroes want to fix their world’s problems. But the publishers won’t let them. If you drop someone like Superman or Spider-man into a world like ours, they start changing things, and that world spins off into something unrecognizable (and, from a publisher’s point-of-view, unmarketable).

That hasn’t stopped superheroes from lurching toward realism since Marvel’s initial line up was set in New York instead of Fictional City, USA. A decade later, Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams challenged Green Lantern/Green Arrow with the real problems of drugs and racism. They brought Batman down to earth as well, abandoning the last traces of his TV persona and redefining him as The Dark Knight. A few years after that, Chris Claremont and John Byrne would bring complex, human relationships into The Uncanny X-Men at Marvel. Each of these legendary creative teams brought superheroes a step away from the simple, pulp origins of the 40s.

Come 1986, and two titles, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns dragged superheroes as far as they could into the real world, and dragged me, as a reader, along with them. I wanted stories that brought my childhood heroes into adulthood with me, a thick layer of nostalgia to protect me from the real world, but without the corniness. Any comic that professed, “This is what real life superheroes would be like,” had my money. Thus began the Dark Age of comics. The age of gritty anti-heroes whose imperfections outweighed their virtues. That’s what I thought I wanted. Until ten years ago, when two grassroots political movements emerged and were destroyed.

Occupy Wall Street was oppressed as law enforcement persecuted its members and leadership. Meanwhile, the Tea Party was exploited by Republicans for their votes and funds while giving nothing back. I saw new powers destroyed or manipulated by the existing powers. If this is how upstart political powers were treated in the real world, why not superpowers?

In this context, I finally realized this reality informed both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. The Comedian and Dr Manhattan worked for the government, while the rest of the Watchmen were outlawed. Superman worked for the President, while law enforcement hunted The Dark Knight. I hadn’t seen this message about power under the Dark Age’s thick layer of grim and gritty.

The only way I could come to terms with superhero fiction was to write my own. Superheroes whose actions change and improve their world, but with a tension between superpowers and the established powers. My own lurch toward realism. For that, I needed a setting.

That came to me while reading The Men Who Stare at Goats, Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book on Cold War psychic warfare programs. According to first-hand accounts by the participants, members of the US Army’s First Earth Battalion were capable of clairvoyance, stealth, and the titular remote slaying of farm animals. They were superhuman and part of the intelligence community under the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency). What if these “agents of the mind” existed, operating among us? Striking in secret with subtle powers, but still servants to greater, mundane powers?

Psychic espionage became the framework for exploring these themes of power in the The Faith Machine. A clandestine world where power doesn’t flex along a strict line between flashy good guys and bad guys. It’s hundreds of factions aligned to nations, criminal justice systems, economics, technology, intelligence, and the military, all at each other’s throats, usually for selfish reasons. When nascent powers manifest in this world the extant power structures move in to destroy or employ them to maintain the status quo. A story about one of those nascent powers learning to fight back, and to win once and for all.

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The Faith Machine: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter|Facebook|Instagram

Reader Request Week 2020 #5: Me and Sports

A “Hilketa” player, ready to bash another player. Art by Tim Paul.

Go, team! Kevin Sims asks:

What are your views on professional and amateur sports? Do you have a favorite sport/team? You’ve created a fictitious sport in the Locked-In universe and one of the characters from those books was a legendary basketball player, but I’ve never read a blog or a tweet from you about sports in general.

Here’s a fun fact: In the late 90s/early 00s, I wrote several weekly newsletters for AOL, which they used as member retention tools, i.e. reasons for people to stay subscribed to the service when by that time one could just go out on the Internet. One of the newsletters I wrote was on sports, in which I, in the guise of a sports fan named “Bucky Blast,” would opine of the sports news of the day and solicit reader comment for the newsgroup forum.

It was, far and away, the most popular of the newsletters I wrote, with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and the feedback I would get from them was that they really appreciated how knowledgeable and passionate “Bucky” was about sports. And truth to tell, it was also my favorite of the newsletters to write — it was fun, and it was nice to write something that a lot of people enjoyed and engaged with on a regular basis. I was sad to stop writing it when AOL eventually quit the newsletter business — or at least, quit wanting to pay me for them.

People who knew me were surprised both that I was writing a sports newsletter and that I enjoyed it, because, like Kevin here, as far as they knew I had never expressed much particular interest in sports, either as a fan or as an athlete. Likewise, Krissy is occasionally dumbfounded when at family gatherings or the company functions she brings me to as a spouse, I can fluently speak sports to cousins and coworkers even though she never ever sees me evince even the slightest interest in the activity at all.

So what gives?

Simply: I’m not actually a fan of sports — which is, I don’t passionately care about a particular sport or team, or the world of sports in general — but I find the phenomena of sports fascinating: How it functions in our society, how people respond to its structure and celebrities, and how we talk about it — and also, the conditions of excellence it requires, and the commitment one has to undertake to achieve that excellence. It’s an active part of the human condition and how could one (at least, the one that is me) not be interested in that?

Also, and I think this is important, I never really subscribed to the nerd/jock division that was prevalent in the culture when I was growing up, and still exists to a greater or lesser extent. I played sports in high school — I ran track and cross country and played soccer — and I went to a small enough high school that nearly everyone played sports of one sort or another. And so a lot of our nerds were jocks, and a lot of our jocks also did theater and so on. Then I went to the University of Chicago, where everyone was a nerd, even the jocks, and we were Division III in any event, i.e., the NCAA division where college sports were an affectation, not a revenue generator. All this was and is useful because it means I don’t have any deep-seated resentment of sports or the people who love them passionately. They’re not my tribe, but they’re not my enemy, either.

Anecdotally, that seems to be more often the case these days. It’s not a new or particularly interesting statement to make that there’s not all that much of a difference between sports fans and “nerd” fans. One wears their favorite team jerseys while the other wears t-shirts with their favorite media characters; one cosplays and the other paints themselves up in team colors; and so on. This is even more the case with the immense commercial rise of nerds in the last two decades: San Diego Comic Con and DragonCon (and all the other immense media conventions) fill up hotels and restaurants as effectively as a Super Bowl and have just as many celebrities showing up to be part of the proceedings, albeit different celebrities. And in these COVID times, both groups are feeling the same uncertainty of wondering when, if ever, they are going to gather again in their tens of thousands to celebrate their thing. The similarities are enough that to also note that there is these days a non-trivial overlap between sports fans and nerds — that people are entirely comfortable expressing their love for both the Cubs and Firefly — seems anticlimactic.

(And even more anticlimactic when you factor in the rise of eSports, which these days is the only sports anyone is getting at the moment! But that’s a subject that would require its own whole piece.)

Here’s another thing which I think contributes to my knowledge and interest in sports: As a journalist, I found sports writing consistently some of the best and most interesting journalism out there — some of the most readable, in fact, so I enjoyed reading it. Sports journalists were allowed to write with style and sarcasm and sentimentality that journalists reporting on news and politics were usually not allowed, for various reasons. Like entertainment reporting, where I worked, sports journalism was more “feature-y” on a regular basis, which allowed the writers to get away with more. It’s fun to write and fun to read. So I would — and do! — read a lot of it. And when you read a lot about anything, you tend to pick up a knowledge base about it.

Add this all up and it means that I have an interest in, and knowledge of, sports, even if at the end of the day it’s not “my thing.” It’s not! But it’s cool if it’s your thing, so long as you’re not a dick about it to others. Please note that “Enjoy your thing, but don’t be a dick about it” is a general mantra, not one relating directly to sports fans.

Now as relates to me directly: I don’t really have favorite sports teams, excepting some vague residual affection for the Dodgers, Lakers and Kings because they were the local teams when I was growing up. I don’t watch sports on TV although I enjoy going to live sports events with friends, because, you know, friends. I think Division I college football and basketball are a racket, but living in Ohio I’m also aware the entire state’s mood is affected by how well Ohio State’s teams are doing, which I find fascinating. I have affection for minor leagues and weird sports and will sometimes buy jerseys from minor league teams/sports with amusing names.

I play in a fantasy football league every year with friends and let the computer pick my team, a fact which everyone else in the league knows, so when my team beats theirs (occasionally) or wins the season (much rarer, but has happened) it annoys the fuck out of them, because they all made an effort. I like the sports movies of Ron Shelton, particularly Bull Durham, which I think is probably the best movie about baseball ever made. If I had to pick two sports to watch for the rest of eternity, I would probably pick curling and Australian Rules Football, the former because it’s a ridiculous sport right down to its pants, and the latter because I have absolutely no understanding of how it’s played even after looking up the rules. It just looks like dudes in togs running around with a ball, and honestly, that level of complete chaos appeals to me.

Finally: Hilketa, which is the sport I created in Head On, was an immense amount of fun to create and put together and I would absolutely love to make a video game or table top game based on it, I think it would be absolutely huge — the perfect eSport, in fact. Game makers, talk to my people about it.

I think that covers me and sports! Bucky Blast, heading to the showers.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)