Bad Review! BAD Review!

siskel and ebertWhy 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.”

The great H. L. Mencken

The great H. L. Mencken

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.

Martin Scorcese

Martin Scorcese

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.

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12 Responses to Bad Review! BAD Review!

  1. Pingback: Bad Review! BAD Review! | Tinseltown Times

  2. Reblogged this on More Has To Happen and commented:
    Is there any real value to harsh criticism? Crooked Eclipses (my friend Steve Matuszak) looks at a vicious critical attack he once suffered, and digs into Mencken to find an answer.
    I would only add that I think critics are becoming more valuable the less relevant they are. With such a flat world, and so much competition for the art consumer dollar, most art comes with a phalanx of hyperbole around it. And as art consumers , we’ve grown so accustomed to it, we are suspicious of anything that doesn’t have hype. In film, there is a small, small audience that’s willing to go see the latest “pretty good” film, anything that’s less-than-overwhelming but interesting in its own way. Most of us save our dollar for the must-see.
    Even if we know that that hype is partly self-generated, it affects us, and there’s a complex of not just compromised critics but social media and search engine-optimizing consultants who know how to inflate the value of a piece of art. The critic is the only person who is allowed to call Bullshit.
    As someone who wrote a few hundred film reviews back in the late 90s, I can say that the times I was too harsh were times I was either just plain careless (which happens), or I was reacting to what I felt was a faction of the critical establishment going soft on some principle or other, which isn’t always fair to the actual artist.
    I agree that criticism can be revelatory, but I can also say with certainty that readers are more interested in the Consumer Reports-type of coverage: Thumbs Up or Down, or the “Tomatometer.” Good criticism, like good art, walks a line between engaging the reader and having the integrity to not give a rat’s ass about him.

    • chaszak says:

      Thanks for re-blogging my post and for your considered response. I appreciate it. I would like to point out, though, that I wasn’t trying to address the question of whether or not harsh criticism has any value. Re-reading my post, I can see how you might think that, so I would like to clarify my position. I’m claiming instead, as Chronik Spartan picked up on, that there seems to be a consensus that a critic’s worth is based on how harsh his or her criticism is. So in spite of other faults that Ebert had as a critic (his tendency toward hyperbole comes immediately to mind), A. O. Scott seemed most chagrined that Ebert’s bad reviews ceased to be as nasty as they’d once been. The question I pose in my post is why is viciousness so frequently used as the yardstick for good, gutsy criticism?

      You offer one possible answer: harsh criticism offers resistance to the vast hype machine used to sell mediocre art. So perhaps it is thought that only a critic who dares to savage a work of art is fighting the good fight. OK, though I think that is an inflated view of the importance of criticism. You and I definitely agree that critics have never been more irrelevant than they seem to be today: people will see what they believe they want to see regardless of what critics say. For example, TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION received 18% on the Tomatometer yet went on to earn $244 million dollars in domestic box office sales and over a billion dollars worldwide.

      Relevance aside, though, why would vicious reviews be the only way to fight the hype machine? After all, while extolling crap, the hype machine also dismisses and marginalizes the challenging or idiosyncratic. For years, critics dismissed Elaine Mays’ unjustly maligned ISHTAR as one of the worst movies ever made, a claim that is simply untrue, and at the time of its initial release, David Lynch’s masterpiece LOST HIGHWAY was largely panned. Wouldn’t championing such films in the face of almost universal opposition also be a way of calling “Bullshit” to lowered or suspect standards?

      Where I think you and I disagree, is where you say, “Criticism can be revelatory.” I think it *must* be revelatory. Or illuminating, or about *something* other than whether or not a work of art is good or bad. You “say with certainty that readers are more interested in the Consumer Reports-type coverage.” I say that while such coverage seems to make criticism relevant, it is precisely that type of coverage that renders criticism irrelevant. I discuss this at more length in another blog post, “Critical Disdain,” but suffice it to say here that sites like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritics thrive because they understand that if all a critic is saying is whether or not something is good, what they say really doesn’t matter. What matters is the bottom line—whether or not the critic liked it—which can be turned into something the hype machine can easily circulate, which can’t be done with real ideas.

      You want to fight the hype machine? Resist Consumer Reports-style coverage and actually say something.

  3. Excellent article and something I truly agree with. I tried to describe something similar in my own blog, albeit not so eloquently.
    Its almost as if people have more respect for negative criticism.

  4. Pingback: Projecting: French New Wave, Negative Criticism, Depression, Actual Offense - Next Projection

  5. Kitty says:

    What a great topic. Steve, as you might imagine, I’ve been reading theater reviews in the TCities for 20 years. I can surely remember harsh reviews of good shows for about six or so theater companies/directors. Some of those “reviews” resulted in theater artists giving up on their work and leaving town. I thought that was sad. It would seem to me the critic didn’t get their relationship to that…. another director bites the dust, one less show/company for them to review, one less job for them….

    • chaszak says:

      “It would seem to me the critic didn’t get their relationship to that…. ” Yeah, if a critic doesn’t care about the consequences of his or her diatribes–which you would HOPE would be somehow for the common good, whatever that means–then the critic is being careless, a disease that needs to be struggled against as often as possible. That doesn’t mean there can’t be excoriating reviews, but critics who write them should think about what is achieved by writing them and whether or not it truly is worth it.

  6. I’m sorry that you had to endure a classic TCJ rant. It’s a toxic level of snark that is deeply entrenched over there whether coming from low tier columnists or high profile reviewers. Their house style involves a desire to skewer the book and creator. Of course, if it’s someone they simply like, or know, or deem a fellow traveller, that person gets a positive review. Otherwise, they will gleefully show you why they know best. I don’t get the appeal. It’s just not funny anymore, if it ever was. If anything remotely insightful results from this wiseass process, it is despite all the blowhard hatred.

    • chaszak says:

      I always liked that TCJ demanded a lot from comics but disagreed with Gary Groth’s theory that the only good criticism was abusive criticism. The guy who reviewed my comic praised the cover art for the elegance and grace of the drawing–which I attributed to a friend who had designed the cover, not drawn it–just so he could further slam the clumsiness of my art. Any person who was paying the slightest amount of attention could see the drawing was mine–it came from the first panel of the comic–just by opening up the book. For what it’s worth, the first TCJ review of Chris Ware’s THE ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY was harshly negative.

      • You know, my heart sank a little after I posted my thoughts on TCJ’s usually harsh methods. I’m only assuming that they would have heart-felt justifications for the overly harsh criticism. Ah well, I also fully recognize that these folk are only human. And I do feel for the loss of Kim Thomson. So, somewhere, you just know, there’s a heart and some logic, and a love for comics, etc. But, man, to create the culture of the savage critic, it hinders far more than it helps. I guess it’s their thing and it’s hard to let go of tradition. Something like that. Still, not much of a justification.

  7. Pingback: To Live!: It’s a Wonderful Life and Wings of Desire | Crooked Eclipses

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