Criticism is sleight of hand. It's three-card monte. It's whatever you call that game with the cups where there's a ball under one of the cups.
What I mean by this is that criticism is a personal essay that either needs to put the personal front and center, or that needs to pretend it's being written from an incredibly objective point of view. It is, in other words, sort of like a political opinion column in that regard.
I think I've written about this before, but the thing that draws most people to criticism is the idea of sharing their thoughts and having people care what they think. I certainly know that I was intrigued by the notion of getting to give star ratings or turn in top 10 lists and have readers who would say, "Wow, I can't wait to hear what you think about X!" For those of us who are obsessive about critics and criticism, this makes sense. We read our favorites and nod in agreement or shake our heads in frustration. And so it goes.
But as we've seen with the Star Wars reviews kicking up angry fanboy reactions, the vast majority of people who consume criticism don't consume it in conversation with the writer's work. They haven't read everything that person has written recently to know that, say, they aren't really susceptible to the kinds of things Star Wars does well or what have you. They are, instead, approaching the work solely as a binary opinion — a rotten or fresh rating on the Tomatometer.
The paradox inherent here is that the readers who are most likely to follow what you're saying are also those who are least likely to really care about your raw opinion of "I liked it!" or "I didn't like it!" Sure, they are curious on some base level, but what they're really reading you for is your argument. Did you like Star Wars? Cool. Why or why not? And can you back that up with evidence from the film? It's, again, a magic trick.
I've been reading a lot of TV criticism lately that forgets about this sleight of hand trick, that places entirely on the front burner the idea that all we really care about is the writer's opinion, instead of their argument and evidence. It ends up being self-serving, never making the leap from opinion to something else.
This is, granted, something that will ultimately be in the eye of the beholder. But the longer I write, the more I find myself impatient with criticism where the focus is entirely on the writer, rather than on the work being discussed. (And, yeah, I have written some incredibly self-serving stuff in my career.) I think there is a way to make the self-focus work, if you're able to really zoom in on your own reaction and are willing to show off something other than your raw opinions. But too much of this stuff is just there to draw attention to the one thing you never want to draw attention to — the fact that all you're basing this on is your own brain.
Because brains, ultimately, are faulty and stupid. They forget stuff, and they miss stuff, and they completely misread things. Maybe you're in a bad mood. Maybe you need to go to the bathroom. Maybe you're hungry. Maybe you just weren't in the right headspace for something. Circumstances matter.
I recently read a truly awful piece (no I won't tell you what it was, except to say that I have almost certainly written something quite like it over the years) that started from the premise that the writer didn't like something that lots of other critics liked. Our writer pointed out the central thing within the work that they didn't like, but they didn't really go beyond that, instead turning the post into an opportunity to pound upon their chest about how they shouldn't be judged for not liking something others liked.
Which, I mean, whatever. That's fine. But I kept waiting for the piece to go deeper. The writer, in effect, was saying that something many other critics loved about this work was precisely what they didn't like about it, but they never found a way to talk about it beyond, "This was my preference. Now, the show is doing something other than that preference, and I don't like it."
Some of this is unavoidable. But a lot of it turns into trying to micromanage the shows we watch. This is tempting in TV criticism, because we are theoretically in the midst of an evolving relationship with the work. But I really don't think showrunners should be reading my criticism in order to receive notes about what they're trying to do. I'm not giving them a performance review — I'm talking about the gap between what the show is trying to do and my own perception of what's happening.
This is probably of no interest to 99 percent of the people who subscribe to this newsletter, but it's something that fascinates me. The more I write criticism, the more I find myself trying to build arguments via the work itself, or via larger societal theories introduced by others. If I'm ever writing a paragraph that essentially boils down to "I think," I try to figure out if there's a way to prop it up. Sharing opinions is a necessary part of what we do. It shouldn't be the ONLY part of it.
Next week, I'll probably write about some Christmas stuff, assuming my schedule allows (which is a big concern). Please nominate Christmas-y things for me to write about via the channels below.
Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.
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