Good Writing Springs From “Negativity”

I stopped talking about the whole brouhaha over “negativity” among comic critics because at least in my case, I was tired of getting responses with all the intellectual fervor of “get back in the kitchen, woman”. (Thankfully, geek sexism is a lot less common in the blogverse than it ever was on Usenet, but obviously, it still exists.)

It looks like several people used the opportunity for more thought-out pieces, though. Chris Tamarri (link no longer available) provides a lengthy history of various exchanges with a thoughtful consideration of underlying motives, his own included. He concludes

I don’t think its feasible to expect more from comics criticism. Too many critics are doing what they do without compensation (financial or otherwise), putting time and effort into a task that, more often than not, yields no more reward than a kind word. And it’s hard to stick your neck out with an honestly divergent opinion when you know that the result will be some malcontent going out of his way to malign you and steal books off your shelf.

I agree (boy, how do I agree) with him about the frustrations, but I don’t think that’s a valid excuse for settling for less than our best. You can always expect more, and you should. (You just won’t get it if your approach to the problem is calling names and tarring everyone, good and bad, as cruddy.)

Harvey Jerkwater takes some of the original criticism apart in his typically funny yet insightful way. He points out that the problem isn’t a lack of passion, but

Where many critics fail is their inability to sharpen and direct their passion. A lack of clarity and insight, not a lack of fire, is the problem. What makes bad critics bad is that they can’t explain their passions beyond “this rawks” or “this sucks.” Go back to any critic you admire, and examine his or her work. Why is it good? What makes the criticism worth reading? The good critics are able to explain their passions and relate them to readers. Without focus, without thought, a critic is just some jerk yelling.

Harvey also explains what a Cousin Larry joke is and why it’s embarrassing as a rhetorical defense. He then points out the opposite problem from what Chris describes:

You know what critics do suck? The self-anointed contrarians. Those who decide to hate what everyone loves or love what everyone hates, to demonstrate their “independence.” They are tools, plain and simple, and unworthy of note, because they abandon their first duty, honest criticism, in service of the lesser goal of reputation.

As someone who’s fallen into this trap occasionally, I don’t think it’s that conscious a decision. I think some people just like being different. And it can be valuable to read a well-reasoned piece that doesn’t follow the herd. Ultimately, it all boils down to motive. The first thing a critic must do is be honest with herself and her readers. If you don’t know what to say about a book, tell us that, instead of cribbing bullet points from what everyone else is saying. If you liked it but still don’t know why, or if you liked it in spite of itself, tell us that. If you’ve got a pitch in at a publisher and so won’t say a negative word about them in public, we should definitely know. Harvey concludes with

Larry later amended his rant to say that what he meant was that critics should be better. Which we file under D for “duh.”

Maybe I’m petty, but it made me giggle. The best piece of advice on the whole thing, though, came from Christopher Allen:

Moreso even than the publisher’s or creator’s livelihood, the critic should consider the spirit of that creator. Some have thrown in the towel after a really devastating review. Who wants to be that critic that made someone give up on their dream, give up on making art?

Okay. Now that we’ve done all this sensitive consideration of everyone’s feelings and wallets, here’s what the critic has to do next:

Forget about it. … It’s understandable that publishers and creators will often be unable to really see the value in criticism, or the purpose or even the necessary ethics of it, but that’s why the critic needs to, at times, tell that creator or publisher to politely f*** off and let you do your job the way you need to do it.

Sometime next year, I’m going to be at a convention, and one night in the bar I’m going to be talking to other comic journalists, and we might end up swapping horror stories about terrible things creators or their fans have said or done about or to us. But in the grand scheme of things, those events, while memorable, are few and far between. Our loyalty and our sense of protection must be to our work.

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