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BG47 – Hang All The Critics

January 18, 2012

Futurismic have just published my forty-seventh Blasphemous Geometries column entitled ‘Hang all the Critics: Towards Useful Video Game Writing’.

I originally wrote the column about ten days ago but last weekend I became aware of two significant blogospheric shit-storms that seem to provide an interesting context for the column.  The first shit-storm involves a bunch of people being upset by an article about yoga and the second shit-storm involves a bunch of people being upset by a review of an epic fantasy novel. Though ostensibly very different in their origins and subject matters, both shit-storms involve a community reacting very angrily to negative coverage from a perceived outsider. In the case of the ‘yoga community’, the outsider is the New York Times senior science writer William Broad and, in the case of the ‘epic fantasy community’, the outsider is the Strange Horizons reviewer and post-graduate student Liz Bourke.

The link between these blogstorms and my most recent video games column is that ‘Hang All the Critics’ is an attempt to confront the fact that the age of the critic has now passed. Criticism and its less well-heeled cousin reviewing rely upon the assumption that a person of reasonable insight and creative flair can consume a cultural product and issue an opinion or reaction to that will be of use to other people despite the fact that these other people might have very different tastes and interests.

It is no accident that the role of the critic has its roots in the cafe culture of the 17th Century as the coffee shops frequented by the likes of Samuel Johnson tended to be cramped places where all kinds of bourgeois intellectuals were forced to rub shoulders. One of the unfortunate side-effects of the Internet’s infinite potential for space is that people from a particular class and with a particular set of interests are no longer forced to rub shoulders with people with ever-so-slightly different sets of tastes. These days, if you are interested in steam locomotives but not other forms of train then you are in no way obliged to encounter the opinions of people who consider steam trains to be a quaint but outmoded form of technology. The more the Internet matures, the more interest groups fragment and the more interest groups fragment, the more isolated and tribal these communities become. There is no place for criticism in a world dominated by tribal conflicts and persecution complexes, this is why Liz Bourke and William Broad got it in the neck and this is why Rotten Tomatoes is filled with people reacting angrily to the idea that a film they haven’t seen might not be as good as they expect. The age of the critic is at an end and it is time to change the way we do business.

Needless to say, I am not the first person to notice the collapse of our culture’s public spaces. Indeed, many reviewers and critics have attempted to respond to the increasingly commercial and tribal nature of the public sphere either by retreating into the walled-garden of academia or by creating a tribal space of their own. While I can entirely understand this desire for retrenchment, I think that it is ultimately an act of cowardice:

As someone who has never once tried to review a game for a major site, I am not in the least bit opposed to the fracturing of public space in order to create environments in which inaccessible forms of writing are protected from the vagaries of commerce and popular tastes. A recent comment on one of my pieces described my style as “masturbatory” and I find myself absolutely powerless to disagree. There is something decidedly self-indulgent about sharing one’s opinions online — particularly when one makes little or no effort to reach out to the majority of people interested in a particular topic — and this kind of self-indulgence is not about subjecting games to serious intellectual scrutiny or ‘consolidating a continuous counterbalance’; is a cowardly retreat from the public sphere, driven by the recognition that my opinions are of use to nobody but myself. There is absolutely nothing brave or revolutionary about taking your ball and going home.

My problem with the critics of Bourke and Broad is not that they are wrong to feel the way they feel. Life in the 21st Century is frequently lonely and it is easy to begin thinking of one’s sub-culture as a kind of family that provides us with both an identity and a set of values. When you invest yourself that heavily in a particular sub-culture then it makes perfect sense that you should bristle when that elements of that sub-culture come under fire from outsiders. Even if you don’t like a particular novel or have your own concerns about the way that yoga is taught, it is one thing to hear those feelings from someone you trust and quite another to hear them from someone you don’t know. Ever bitched about a sibling to a member of your family? ever defended that same sibling when they came under fire from someone else? Some truths can only be spoken inside the family.

My problem with the critics of Bourke and Broad (or the people who complained about Uncharted 3 only getting 8 out of 10) is not that they are wrong, it is that they are being insular. As I said elsewhere, the most wonderful thing in the world is to have someone care enough to listen to you and tell you that you are completely full of shit. By wanting to protect epic fantasy from outsiders like Bourke, the defenders of epic fantasy (and those of yoga) are closing themselves off to a potential source of cultural renewal.

I would like to believe that there is a place for people like Bourke and Broad because I would like to believe that there is a place for cultural generalists and for people who take the ideas and values of one culture and carry them into those of another.  This blog is very much devoted to the idea that a single person can look at radically different forms and subject matters and say something of value about them. Unfortunately, while I would like to believe that there is a place for that form of cultural generalism, I think that the Internet is growing increasingly hostile to it. After all, why listen to random strangers when you can only listen to fellow academics, fantasy fans, yoga enthusiasts, republicans or furries? Why listen to anyone other than yourself?

10 Comments
  1. January 18, 2012 6:37 pm

    But Bourke isn’t an outsider when it comes to epic fantasy. She freely admits she reads it extensively, and she’s reviewed books of that genre previously on Strange Horizons. Of course, she is an outsider when it comes to Michael J Sullivan fandom…

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  2. January 18, 2012 8:23 pm

    I can’t help but feel that H. L. Mencken probably also inspired his share of nasty letters-to-the-editor. Just because some people lash out against some critics is hardly reason to herald the end of the age of the critic. (When would the Age of the Critic have been, would you say?)

    There’s an audience for criticism, and thanks to the Internet it is probably larger than it has ever been. There’s also an audience that hates that kind of thing, and thanks to the Internet, it’s more vocal than it’s ever been. Amidst the troglodytes commenting on the Bourke review, there was also a healthy population of people lauding the review or at least pointing out its value. It’s not terribly surprising that those populations don’t have much overlap, but I think that’s beside the point.

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  3. January 18, 2012 9:06 pm

    “Why listen to anyone other than yourself?”

    Because… you’ll eventually get on your nerves?
    Because that way lies madness?

    Actually, the Internet is so big now that you can always “go somewhere else” — so if you look hard enough, you will find even a community of SF/F-reading people who enjoy criticism.

    To receive criticism has certainly helped me. (Thanks, Karen.)

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  4. January 18, 2012 9:47 pm

    Ian — She is perceived as an outsider though and she’s clearly an outsider to the community that her review managed to antagonise. This is one of the reasons why I think there is no real space for criticism anymore: People hear what they want to hear and they find a means of blotting out the rest.

    Karen — I think there is an audience for criticism but I think that that audience is like the audience for poetry and short fiction; it is shrinking and increasingly limited to practitioners of the art. I think of myself as a critic and I like to think that there’s a small audience for the stuff I write but I think my audience is limited to people with an interest in criticism and not people with an interest in the fields I comment upon.

    Admittedly, my lamenting the lack of shared cultural ground has become something of a motif recently. On a purely personal level, I’ve recently put my place on the market and I’m planning on moving out of London. One of the reasons why I’m doing this is because I’ve lost any kind of faith in my ability to exist in London’s shared cultural spaces. I can live and function in the city, but I can do so purely as an individual. However, having started looking for houses I came across a town that seemed to have quite a lively cultural life and I immediately began thinking about the possibility of joining these various organisations and participating in that town’s shared cultural spaces. So on the one hand, I have no faith in shared cultural spaces but on the other hand, I yearn to participate in precisely those spaces.

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  5. January 18, 2012 10:51 pm

    The more the Internet matures, the more interest groups fragment and the more interest groups fragment, the more isolated and tribal these communities become.

    I think that you have this backwards: the Internet brings people together who don’t share cultural values, and that’s where these conflicts arise.

    Before the Internet, people who read literary criticism and people who read pulp fantasy could live out entirely separate lives. The people who enjoyed The Sword of Shannara in 1977, say, were not likely to encounter the criticism of Marshall B. Tymn or Lin Carter. But now, these two worlds are much more likely to collide: someone is sure to bring the criticism to the attention of the fans.

    So I think this could be an opportunity for critics: there’s a big audience out there who are passionately interested in this stuff. Sure, a lot of them interpret criticism as personal attacks (and respond in kind), but some might be reachable.

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  6. January 19, 2012 9:33 am

    Hi Gareth :-)

    I think in genre circles you may be right though there were certainly serious critics working the fanzine circuit back in 1977. However, the problem is that the increasing hostility to critics is not just limited to genre, it is also present in the world of film where there has always been a clear cultural center where film critics operated. However, look at RT and you will find people being horrified at the idea that the next big superhero is anything less than awesome. These are not people who grew up unaware of the existence of film criticism, these are people who feel oppressed and insulted by the opinions of outsiders.

    I think there is an audience for writing about genre, film, art, theatre etc but I get the impression that tribal communities like to have their trusted in-house advisors… there’s no longer any interest in the cultural center and the shared spaces where different sets of perspectives and opinions rub up against each other. This is why I raise the idea of curratorship because currators have a very different relationship to their audience than critics.

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  7. January 19, 2012 2:22 pm

    “This blog is very much devoted to the idea that a single person can look at radically different forms and subject matters and say something of value about them.”

    And long may it continue to be so!

    I think you are quite right in saying that a byproduct of fragmenting sub-sub-subcultures is an extremely insular attitude; I’ve become particularly aware of it over the years with internet communities based around anarchism or certain forms of punk rock. I think it ties in very strongly with something else you’ve written about before; the desire of people to have their lifestyle choices affirmed. (Or, less generously, their consumptive patterns justified.)

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  8. January 19, 2012 9:44 pm

    I have nothing but sympathy for the desire to belong and the desire to feel as though your life has meaning. As Voltaire said, we must cultivate our garden and the reason why we cultivate our garden is because there is no God out there to do it for us.

    If your garden is built around the precepts of Catholicism, I say good luck to you.
    If your garden is built around the lyrics of Fugazi, I say good luck to you.
    If your garden is built around fictional genre persecution complexes, I say good luck to you.

    We all need meaning in our lives and meaning comes from having your worldview validated by people other than yourself. This is why tiny sub-cultures flourish and this is why those same time sub-cultures go to the mattresses every time someone says something mean about the things they like.

    I think it’s very easy to stand back from that process and scoff at the parochialism but my belief in cultural universality is just as deluded and just as ego-booing as the beliefs of the people who get annoyed about articles slamming yoga, I just frame my beliefs in a slightly different fashion.

    While I can completely and utterly empathise with the people who feel as though they are under attack from outsiders, I can also see why that attitude would be intensely problematic. To be completely honest, I am completely torn on the whole issue.

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  9. January 20, 2012 10:21 am

    When I was 17 I noticed patterns of this sort of behaviour in online communities and thought to myself, “fuck tribalism”. And if a precocious, socially awkward teenager can recognise a problem like this why can’t everyone? Maybe I expect too much from people.

    I self-identify in a number of ways, most obviously as a punk rocker, but I fundamentally believe in pushing myself outside self- or socially-imposed boundaries, retaining an open mind, and trying to understand perspectives other than my own. I guess it helps a lot that I find learning and new ideas fun but I struggle to imagine life with a mindset that doesn’t lean that way (which, sure, is a failure on the whole “trying to understand perspectives other than my own” front, but hey).

    Ugh, hope that makes sense. Guinness hangover.

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  10. June 15, 2012 1:48 am

    I agree that tribalism thwarts the efforts of criticism for all the reasons you stated above. There seems to be so much invested in the “tribe” these days that it has gone beyond being just a hobby, a passion or an interest, whether it be yoga, fantasy or punk rock. It is its own subculture complete with a dress code, music list, menu, belief system, and authenticity is important. My tribe is more authentic than yours … So criticism, yeah, that’s dangerous.

    Yet so much is inauthentic, or at least no more authentic than any other tribe. I was at a stoplight once and across the intersection from me were two vehicles, an older guy in a suit in a shiny, red sports car and a twenty-something girl with tattoos on a tricked out scooter. Very different tribes, yet both those people were adorned in the fashions of their respective tribes for the very same reason: They both wanted to get laid.

    I guess I’m not cynical enough to think that nobody in whatever tribe won’t consider the view of the critic. Yet.

    Another problem, though, most of what is billed as criticism seems less criticism to me than consumer advice. Rather than analysis, I get, ‘this [movie, comic, book, cd, etc.] is worth x amount of money.’

    I’d rather read something that challenges my take on a movie or book than just financial advice.

    I enjoy your criticism, Jonathan, and appreciate that you don’t rate stuff by doling out stars.

    thanks for the reads.

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