Why are bad reviews supposed to be so good? Toward the end of Life Itself, the documentary about Roger Ebert, when it was revealed that late in his career Ebert often developed friendships with the people whose work he was reviewing, it was implied that his criticism went soft. A. O. Scott, as I recall, concedes that Ebert’s bad reviews weren’t as cutting as they’d once been, as if that somehow meant that Ebert’s standards had slipped or his criticism was corrupted in some way.
I’m not sure where this idea comes from. It could have been H. L. Mencken, who, bristling against the audacity of “constructive criticism,” which usually involved some idiot telling him how he might have improved his writing, declared, “All the benefits I have ever got from the critics of my work have come from the destructive variety. A hearty slating always does me good, particularly if it be well written.”
Mencken remarks certainly seem to have been an inspiration for the editorial policy at The Comics Journal, a magazine that at least once upon a time was notorious for the nastiness of its reviews. I received a bad review from them once, for my comic Most Likely to Succeed, and it was one of the most evil things I’ve ever read. True, my feelings are partly colored by the fact that it was directed against something I’d created, but that’s not entirely why I think of it as evil. Instead, it was the fact that the review was so unethical, engaging in slipshod readings of my book just to make the review as unrelentingly negative as possible.
It seems to me that the valorization of “destructive criticism” misses what is the key to Mencken’s view of criticism, that “it be well written.” Its being negative or positive isn’t what is important—so long as the criticism isn’t “constructive.” By Mencken’s reckoning, the role of criticism isn’t to determine what is and isn’t great art, though it might do that. Rather, as Mencken states in “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism,” the critic serves as a catalyst between the work of art and the one perceiving it. He effuses:
It is [the critic’s] business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism. But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment — and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.
And, in fact, the greatest impact that Ebert had on artists wasn’t from his negative reviews; it was the result of the praise and support he offered to often unknown or undervalued filmmakers like Martin Scorcese, whose career and life had gone into a tailspin until Siskel and Ebert celebrated his films at the Toronto Film Festival; Erroll Morris, who attributes the fact that he makes a living as a filmmaker to Siskel and Ebert’s enthusiasm for his early documentary Gates of Heaven; and Steve James, director of Life Itself, whose Hoop Dreams was fervently championed by Ebert.
It’s not that reviews or criticism shouldn’t be anything but positive. But they need to be revelatory. They need to allow us to experience the work being analyzed with fresh eyes and ears and mind. In the end, people could care less whether or not a critic likes a work of art. They only care why.