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.)

12 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2020 #6: Pulling Punches in Criticism”

  1. I will say my life has gotten sufficiently weird (good weird) that there’s a non zero chance I’ll have to interact personally with the creators of anything I might criticize, and I’ve very happy I’m not an asshole – when I do talk creative works even if I don’t like them I try to be reasonable and fair.

    So no real change. But I have gotten more sensitive about making jokes about famous people.

  2. Damn, that Redshirts review is rough. You do generally come across as sanguine about negative feedback, but did that one throw you at all?

  3. Something else that I’ve become more aware of as I grow within the industry: it’s very hard to actually know why something is “bad” (for whatever metric you apply that word). Actor’s performance seems weak? Could be entirely the takes the editor presented to the director, based on a rushed assistant editor trying to organize dailies late the night before, and there’s a life-changing performance sitting on the cutting room floor. Or they have to cut around a production issue that’s visible on-screen but that they don’t have the VFX budget to clean up in post, and the two best days of performances are gone because nobody cleared the BG with legal before rolling.
    (There’s a reason “Check the gate” is a sacred chant after getting a good take.)
    Movie feels rushed, and like they’re skipping key narrative beats? Could be the writer or the director just aren’t good enough at storytelling, or it could be that there was a mandate to get it under 118 minutes because the studio just signed their 8-figure deal to run the film seven times each day in theaters and they can only do five per day at the current cut length, and if that happens the projections drop and they’ll slash the marketing budget, so do director/writer/EP/etc. want to have a big fall launch for a slightly-abbreviated version of their film (and promised “director’s cut” on home release), or do they want to see the “pure” version of it dumped in February? If the movie loses money, that “champion” at the studio who’s at least fighting to get a close version of the “pure” movie out is going to be the first person fired, and replaced by someone who’s going to do a better job of keeping costs down next time (i.e. heading things in the wrong direction).
    So I’m always hesitant to comment on something when I don’t enjoy it. I know the logic of why the final product didn’t work, but as to why that was what ended up the final product…
    Or going back to video games, where I started: primary reason most AAA games don’t push their releases back (or used to not) is that is costs tens of millions of dollars to buy shelf and advertising space in retail stores like Walmart and Target, and you have to buy it 6-9 months in advance, and you don’t get that money back if your game pushes and you don’t have anything to put on those shelves and walls on those dates. And doesn’t matter how good or hyped your game is, the math is hard and fast (pre *all this bullshit*) that eyeballs in stores account(ed) for the vast majority of sales. So you have to buy all that shelf and wall space all over again.
    It’s very hard to make a sequel to a brilliant game if it loses millions of dollars that’s just thrown away. So you get out the best version you can and hope you’re agile and caffinated enough to get through launch.
    It’s just so hard to make something that’s even “entertaining enough for two hours”, and requires so much luck and timing outside of everyone’s control (and often knowledge)…when something goes wrong, and it’s not what it was hoped to be (even just “middling but paid for a couple hundred crew and post folks’ salaries for a year, the Key Grip was able to afford braces for her kid, and the Asst. Sound Mixer finally paid off their student loans”)…why kick them when they’re down?
    What’s that meme from last year? “My review of the latest Star Wars: you’re watching a story play out in amazing detail on a tiny box in your home. Be grateful for the miracle you cretin.”

  4. Aaron:

    Nah. The reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly were pans, but it got a starred review from Booklist and a positive review from Library Journal, so it was fine. And then of course it landed on the NYT list and eventually won a big ol’ stack of awards, so if nothing else it’s a reminder that one bad review isn’t the end of the world.

  5. One thing that I have been realizing since doing more collection development work at my library is the extent to which reviews really are affected by the personal tastes of the reviewer– I will sometimes see the same book get four entirely different reviews from the four major publications, and then I will go read the book myself and think it was nothing like *any* of the reviews said it was.

  6. There are reviews and there are reviews. I’ve been writing them since around 1980, mostly of books, but also of recordings and home-office products. (I once had at least four fax machines set up in my 12×12 office. Wires everywhere.) But my longstanding romance has been with SF/F, and in the 30 years I’ve written for Locus, I have had the luxury of *not* having to produce buying-guide or star-ratings pieces. Instead, I find books I enjoy enough to finish and then I write about where that enjoyment came from and how it might connect with the rest of the SF/F environment. If my enjoyment was diminished by some feature of the work, I’ll probably mention it, but that’s not the point of the exercise.

    Maybe that’s not “reviewing,” but I suppose every one of my reviews is an implicit “try it, you might like it” recommendation. Maybe it’s my lit-crit training, which was analytical/taxonomic/historical–more interested in how things work than in where items might rank in the canon. The books talk to me (and to each other), and my columns are me talking back while my readers (both of them) get to eavesdrop.

  7. Perhaps Disney became the entertainment behemoth that it is today in part because many of its early films, and then those of the “Disney Renaissance,” indeed were “immortal cinema” at least as far as cinema goes. In marketing terms, they had legs, legs that lasted for decades. It might be good even for the studio’s bottom line to reflect a little on how they managed to do that.

  8. I used to do collection development in one f the departments at my library, and almost never read any reviews. 😄😄😄!
    I would just choose books based on if I personally liked them. But then, it was a massive system, with a massive budget, which could take a chance on buying almost anything, so I’m sure that was a factor. In a smaller library system I would not have been able to get away with that casual an attitude.

  9. I pretty much stopped reading reviews for a very long time after a review of An Officer and A Gentleman in a very big magazine started out with how he joined the Air Force…

  10. I agree with Pedro about the Lucas/Campbell line. Beyond awesome.

    Regarding your email from Ian Astbury, composer Max Reger wrote this letter in reply to a review “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review in front of me. In a moment it will be behind me!” This was considered downright scatological in 1900’s Germany.

    But not as bad as what Beethoven once wrote, though he didn’t send it to the critic. He is reputed to have scribbled “Was ich scheisse ist besser als du je gedacht!” on a bad review. This can be translated as “What I shit is better than anything you have thought.”