September 23rd, 2020


Criticism is conversation, not an assault on your identity

Sonny Bunch

By Sonny Bunch

Published May 10, 2019

 Criticism is conversation, not an assault on your identity
It's open season on critics. As Alison Herman compiled for the Ringer, over the past few weeks we've seen musicians go after music writers, actress Olivia Munn attack the proprietors of the fashion site GoFugYourself and "Saturday Night Live" star Michael Che suggest that a writer for Uproxxx performs sexual acts on homeless dogs.

Since then, Joe Carnahan ("Smokin' Aces") took issue with critics who panned "El Chicano," a tepidly reviewed movie he produced about a Mexican American Batman-like vigilante. Carnahan described one critic as "a man who makes a loaf of Wonder Bread look gangsta" and suggested that another shouldn't have reviewed the film because he's based in Mexico City instead of Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, fanboys and girls remain as snitty as ever when you dare to criticize the single most dominant cultural force of the past 20 years: nerd culture.

The "let people enjoy things" meme reached its apotheosis last week when an aggrieved fan of Pokemon implied that a (Jewish) film critic who gave "Detective Pikachu" a mixed-to-negative review was a modern-day concentration camp guard.

Artist and fanboy angst fused together in writer/director Alex Ross Perry's essay for Indiewire, in which he lamented being picked on as a kid for enjoying the dorkenkultur and suggested that anyone who believes comic book movies have become too dominant is little more than "a square, flat-topped father drinking a beer in a barca lounger while the game is on, telling his son to quit playing guitar/painting/writing/reading comic books/daydreaming and get a real job."

As a critic, I've generally been of the opinion that critics shouldn't be too surprised when they receive pushback, be it from fans or artists. I'll never forget what Fred Barnes told me when, as a junior editor at the Weekly Standard, I asked if he'd like to reply to a letter about one of his articles: "Nah, I've had my say. Let them have theirs." I've had my say (my review); let them have theirs (angry tweets calling for a jihad against me for suggesting that something they like or something they made is bad, actually).

Still, what's striking is the way that criticism of criticism is often couched in terms of identity. This is what Perry is getting at when he spends so much of his essay establishing his nerd bona fides, by recounting the comic books he liked and the gym classes he hated and the lockers he was shoved into. His nerd-dom isn't just a collection of preferences - it's an identity; it's who he is.

This successful writer/director whose childhood obsessions are now the biggest business on the planet is attempting to recast himself as an oppressed minority in need of protection from even the mildest of criticisms of said obsessions. When fans tell critics to shut up and let people enjoy things, they are attempting to shield their conceptions of themselves from dissolving.

Similarly, when the musician Lizzo was riled by a review, she shouted on Twitter: "PEOPLE WHO 'REVIEW' ALBUMS AND DON'T MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED." This is an all-caps variation of a standard refrain, that critics are merely frustrated artists, that what they really want to do is make movies or write books or sing songs, but they simply don't have the talent to get the job done in that field. If you don't identify as an artist, then you have no business critiquing art.

Critics have responded by suggesting that criticism and art go hand in hand - indeed, that criticism itself is an art form, appropriating the identity argument for themselves. The best version of this idea is probably found in A.O. Scott's book "Better Living Through Criticism," in which the New York Times film critic suggests that criticism "is an art form in its own right" and that "a critic (is) anyone who is, at a given moment, practicing criticism." Mark Harris' rejoinder to this line of thinking is pithy enough: "It's a craft and a skill that merits respect. It's not an art, and reviews are not peer-to-peer counseling or coaching."

Again, the questions of identity mount: Who is a critic? Anyone? Is anyone then the artist's peer?. When you understand that all of these arguments are couched in terms of identity, the touchiness of artists, fans and critics alike all makes sense. When you make what you enjoy and what you do a core aspect of your being, you are likely to be riled when your enjoyments and labors are criticized.

And if the past few years of silly fights over "Ghostbusters" and "The Last Jedi" and representation in comic books and video games have taught us anything, it's that nothing is uglier than a spat over identity politics.

As a critic, then, I ask you to try to remember when you read something you don't like about something you do: Criticism is not an assault on your identity. It's an effort to help you better understand what you do and don't like about the things you love.

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