Tag: Criticism (page 1 of 2)

Objective Criticism

The Critic

I don’t consider myself a critic. I don’t have the experience, the background, or the clout to saddle myself with that label. I’ve taken a stab at the life before, and as fun as it can be to put my thoughts together and then spew them out into a microphone, more often than not it got in the way of what I truly should have been doing. Part of that could have been time management issues, ones with which I continue to struggle, but I do have some inkling of what goes into the work of a successful critic.

Simply put, a critic is someone who’s paid for their opinion. I’ve discussed the nitty gritty of criticism several times, and I’ve taken in all sorts of critical analysis. I’ve read over the opinions of those who’ve carved out an entire career from criticism, and I’ve listened to the diatribes of those who have picked up a rather broad audience through one means or another. The most in-depth and compelling analyses I’ve seen come from those who remain objective throughout their writing, or at least encapsulate their more personal feelings and keep them from being a huge influence on the overall critique. What moves one person to tears, another might find laughable or contrived, yet if a story element is solid or a character’s performance earnest and realistic, it can be agreed upon by both people that said element was objectively good.

Objectivity, however, can be seen as cold or too intellectual. In recent years, critics who allow more subjective verbiage to move through their writings have become far more popular than mostly objective ones. The angrier they get, the more sarcastic and cutting their jibes, the more histrionic their behavior, the more hits they get and the more they get paid. While I do understand the logic behind this shift, and can appreciate how noble an effort it can be to bridge the gap between critic and entertainer, from time to time I catch a glimpse of something happening to some of these popular figures, and it worries me.

The problem is that if the critic in question allows their histrionics or eccentric behavior to color their objectivity as a critic, their merit as a critic becomes questionable. Having a knee-jerk reaction to an announcement from the industry is one thing; allowing that reaction to color one’s opinion of an entire entertainment enterprise from conception to execution over a production period of years is quite another. If you do this, I can’t take your opinion seriously. You may continue to get entertainment value out of this sort of material, sure, but how much can you trust the opinion of someone on a game or movie if you know for a fact they dislike the game’s developer, or have a particular hatred for the film’s director? Some content creators have a certain track record, sure, but going into an entertainment experienced with a pre-conceived notion when your job is to be objective about said entertainment, in my opinion, ruins the merit of the criticism that will emerge.

Now, I know it’s impossible to completely divorce emotional responses from objective observations. Hence my use of the word ‘encapsulation’ earlier. This is what I would advise others looking to review or criticize to do: isolate your emotional responses, and let them supplement, rather than inform, your opinions on the work. Judge the work by its merits from an objective standpoint: the construction of the narrative, the execution of timing, the dimensionality of the characters, and so on. Then, add your personal touches where they fit. This will allow the actual criticism to shine through the trappings. Simply put, don’t let the fact that others might read your work overwhelm the reason you’re writing the work in the first place. Stick to the facts and what you can prove and stand by, rather than hanging all of your opinions on your own perceived popularity. Avoid the cult of personality, or worse, believing you have one. If you go for the obvious jokes and let your reactions prejudice your observations, you may get some hits for comedic value, but your overall work and reputation are likely to suffer. This can be corrected, in time, but first you have to admit that the problem exists at all, and not everybody’s going to do that.

Just a piece of advice from a fellow amateur.

Your Worst Critic

Courtesy leadershipdynamics.wordpress.com

No matter what you try to do in life, regardless of your intent or how the end result turns out, chances are you’re going to have people who disagree with what you’re doing. Some will point out legitimate points of contention with your work, others will lash out when confronted with something they don’t understand or cannot appreciate. Some simply adopt contrary points of view, and others disparage due to their own bias and opinions. However, there is one critic you’ll never be able to truly avoid, and that’s the one that stares back at you in the mirror.

The problem with the critic that lives in your head is that it knows all of your secrets. It gives voice to all of the trepidation you already have concerning the endeavors before you. It turns the dials on all of your uncertainties up to 11. It can even blow the words of those around you out of proportion, slip a little paranoia and doubt into your perceptions, and alter your mood drastically based on the outlook that it is skewing to support its point of view. It’s a manifestation of our fears and our doubts, which is why it can seem so powerful.

Given that it’s inside our own heads, it also has no reason to coddle us. It gives the sort of criticism that slips right through the chinks in our armor and hits us where we live. It burns us with the sort of toxic, deprecating vitriol often reserved for the most caustic of exterior critics, the ones that question everything we do and loves to tell us how boring or stupid we are, all without saying a word. The critic that lives in our head is the one against whom we have the least defense.

It’s also the critic to whom we have the least reason to listen.

It can be difficult to shut that voice out, to ignore our doubts and our fears. Yet if we don’t, they can paralyze us. We can turn from what we want to accomplish towards something we see as easier, something less intense, something less likely to get us hurt when it’s rejected or panned. But that’s part of the reason fear exists: it makes us aware of danger, and in the end, it is meant to galvanize us to deal with what’s to come, not necessarily to turn us away from what must come next.

The criticism that comes from our own heads isn’t always constructive, just like the opinions of any other critic. And like any other critic, if there’s nothing of value in what’s being said, all you have to do is ignore it and push on past the belittling and the hate. You may be your own worst critic, but nothing says you have to listen.

Do It Different

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

Breaking into any extant field can be a daunting prospect. The argument that there’s nothing new under the sun can be made when discussing fiction, film, commentary, web series, criticism, journalism, comic books, you name it. You might look at the shelves at a bookstore, the offerings on Steam, the content on YouTube, or the blog of an eminent Internet personality, and believe there’s no reason to follow through on your creative idea.

The problem with this belief is that it is provably false. Tolkien and Lewis have already written about fantastical worlds, but that has not stopped Martin, Jordan, or Hickman & Weis from doing the same. Asimov, Dick, and Heinlein were pretty much pioneers of long-form science fiction, but if you look on those same bookstore shelves, you’ll see names like Abnett, Stephenson, and Zahn. And as one of my favorite cybernetic characters once said, “The Net is vast and infinite.” There’s plenty of room to start up a new web show if you want to.

The way to be successful with it, in my humble opinion, is to do it differently than others do.

I don’t mean completely change the format or your approach to the subject matter strictly to be different from what’s already being done. That can quickly become gimmicky or trite, and you’ll lose more audience than you’ll gain. What I mean is, instead of copying a methodology or setting or theme wholesale, use it as a starting point and let your own idea grow out of it. The idea should continue to grow, as well, and become its own entity, rather than remaining completely tied to the original inspiration.

I think that was part of the problem with IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! – I wasn’t doing anything to grow or change the idea. I was, for the most part, going through the motions of trying to gain traction and an audience for a medium that, if I’m honest, I’m not sure I’m cut out for. I may be passionate about things like gaming and politics, but a lot of people are, and a lot of people are also not qualified to talk about them from the objective viewpoint of a professional journalist or critic. I think most people would agree that most if not all of my attempts at criticisms are amateur at best.

Does this make them invalid? No. Does this mean I’ll never criticize something again? Of course not.

What I’m getting at is this: I don’t do enough differently as a critic or journalist to justify asking people to pay me for it. From where I stand, my voice is not unique enough to stand out in the ever-growing universe of online critics, and while I could possibly cultivate it to make it stand out more, it would take away from my calling to write fiction, an area in which I do have unique ideas that are working and will get me paid.

I simply need to focus on what I’m good at. I’m better at telling stories than I am writing objective journalistic breakdowns of what’s wrong with this movie or that game or this aspect of our culture. I can do all of those things, sure, but it’s never going to be more than amateur dabbling and a little running off at the mouth from within my little isolated bubble in an obscure blog perched on a corner of the Internet. And I think I’m okay with that.

I do not want to prevent anyone else from going that route, though. So, if you do, if you really want to set up a platform and podium from which to get the word out on something you think is really wrong out there, by all means, have at it. Just find a way to do it different, do it better, do it right. Don’t just imitate, innovate. And don’t be afraid to pimp yourself. Remember, if you don’t work, you don’t eat.

Savor the Flavor of Rejection

Courtesy United Artists

It’s been years since I’ve seen Rocky. I know, as someone who even tangentially identifies as a Philadelphian, I should watch it more often. But I remember Mickey. I remember him training Rocky, talking him up, telling him things about eating lightning and crapping thunder. In pretty much any story involving a fighter, the pep talks are meant to bolster the fighter’s confidence, before they step into the ring to take a few more punches to the face.

I’ve never, personally, been punched in the face. Not physically. Metaphorically, though, I’ve had my share of right hooks to the jaw.

And to be honest, I’m a better person for it.

I don’t mean that in the sense that I’m better than any of the people around me or any of you fine, wonderful strangers who’ve happened upon this blog. I mean that in the sense that I’m better than I used to be. By no stretch am I a perfect person. Hell, there are days when I struggle to just be good, or at least good enough. Good enough to hold down a dayjob, good enough to not suck at writing or gaming, good enough for a wife or my family or my cats to stick around.

This appreciation has come from rejection, and if I continue on this honest streak, I wouldn’t be where I am without it.

I’ve been told my work wasn’t good enough, that it didn’t live up to its promises, that I failed in this aspect or that way. And I’ve improved because of it. It’s tempting at times to let such things overwhelm one’s psyche, to let the negativity wash away potential energy as sure as a skier slamming into a tree or an offensive jab leading to your jaw getting rocked by a counter-cross. I’m not up on boxing lingo, so if I’m wrong please don’t hit me not in the face.

Anyway. Writers. You’re going to get rejected.

It’s the way things go. Even if you go down the e-publishing route, you should pass your work in front of other eyes – test readers, editors, etc. Strangers, if at all possible. And more than likely they’ll call you out on something they don’t like. Don’t shy away from this. Don’t avoid it. Do not, under any circumstances, tell these fine people that “it’s MY work” and “you just don’t get it.” You will not advance as an artist if you clutch your work to your chest, run to your cave, and proclaim that it belongs to you and nobody else has any say on the matter.

You do that and my knuckles are going to itch to say hello to your chin.

What, do you think art is immutable? Do you operate under the notion that once a word is set down, it can never be changed? Is a painter or film director some sort of demigod whose works cannot be approached by mere mortals? Are games quantum-locked in the state in which we find them on the shelf or our hard drives, only changing behind the curtain of a developer’s studios when we aren’t watching them? Don’t be an idiot. I challenge any film critic to tell me that any cut Ridley Scott made of one of his films is worse than the studio’s theatrical release. The Anniversary Edition of Halo is not only a lot easier on the eyes but also helps expand some of the less solid story points of the universe, and in fact does its job so well I have had to re-examine my feelings on that franchise in general. It is a better product than the original, and only because they changed stuff in it. Minor stuff, to be sure, but stuff was changed nonetheless. Change is good. To reject change is to reject the notion that art is alive, or important, or even necessary.

Let me be clear on something before I wrap this up. I don’t think my opinion’s the only one that matters. This is not the word of Caesar being dispensed from on high onto the unwashed masses. This is one opinion from one ultra-geek who happens to have a semi-established corner of the forum to shout from while he’s pelted with things.

But the fact remains. Rejection happens, and as much as it hurts, it’s good for you.

So suck up the punches there, Rocky. Take a few shots to the face. Bleed a bit. It’s going to happen, so you might as well get used to it. That’s not the important part.

The important part is you punch back. You don’t mind the pain. And you get back up.

If you can keep doing that, no matter how many times it happens, no matter how long it takes, no matter how much it hurts or how broken and lost and lonely you feel, you’ll make it.

As Chuck Wendig says, writing (or game development, or art, or anything that involves breaking free of cubicles and TPS reports and HR looking over your shoulder and long-ass meetings) is putting a bucket over your head and smashing it into a brick wall over and over and over again.

It’s you or the wall.

In Defense of Criticism. Again.

Courtesy leadershipdynamics.wordpress.com

I’ve been down this road before. I’m going to take bits from previous posts, paste them here and update my commentary on the points. I’m doing this because, it seems, there are those who do not take criticism well. I’m not talking about the artists behind a particular work, mind you, I’m talking about the population at large that enjoy those works. Before we begin this little exercise, though, here’s a caveat that I feel should be kept in mind when you read any criticism of public artistic works, be it my criticism or another’s.

You are the sole arbiter of how you spend your time and money in entertainment. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. You, me, everyone. Just because a critic or friend or stranger believes something is a pile of dogshit doesn’t necesarily make it so to you. Likewise, said critic or friend or stranger singing the praises of something they believe plated in gold may not make it look that way to you. Enjoy what you enjoy. Tell others about things you enjoy, and tell them about things you dislike, be it a little or a lot. We all learn more the more we share with one another.

Okay? Okay. Here’s what I’ve said before, and how I feel about it now.

From Willing To Explain Why You Suck:

In addition to being comprehensive and funny, Chuck often reminds us that his criticism of a given episode, series or movie is just his opinion. He welcomes discussion and even opposition to his ideas. He […] encourages the audience to think, rather than sit back & switch off higher brain functions in order to take in some shallow, pandering, distracting colors & sounds that call themselves ‘entertainment.’

Okay. Let me make this clear. Not everything you want to enjoy as entertainment is necessarily shallow or pandering just because you like switching your brain off for it. And referencing my earlier statement, just because I happen to think that Attack of the Clones was perhaps the weakest Star Wars film made that I’ve seen doesn’t make it so. If you enjoyed it, great. I know people who didn’t like Thor or Captain America but I thought they were fine films. Guess what these are? Opinions!

Which brings me to Opinion is Not Fact:

Critical analysis and review is everywhere on the Internet. But you will never catch any such entertainer worth their salt telling you point-blank that they are 100% right in their opinion and everybody else is wrong. Go ahead and take a look. Yahtzee, MovieBob, SFDebris, Confused Matthew, Red Letter Media, TotalBiscuit, the Extra Credits crew – none of them end a discussion with “I’m right, you’re wrong, your mom agreed with me last night” in any serious discussion. Some of them may play this sort of thing for laughs, but even the most satirical and cynical of these folks are also intelligent enough to know that anything upon which they might pontificate involves the exposition of their own subjective views.

Sorry, that was a lot of big words. Put simply: None of these people believes they are a holy authority on anything they talk about. Yes, some of them are professional critics, paid to give their opinion based on the years of experience they have weighing objective and subjective criteria of various media, but each and every one of them are human beings, and human beings are fallible, subjective creatures. Yahtzee and MovieBob might not like shooters, but that doesn’t mean shooters are bad. People like those caricatured by MovieBob’s Anti-Thinker may consider retro games to be stupid, but them saying it does not make it so. These people I’ve mentioned know this.

I hope that’s pretty clear. I may not have the audience, appeal or even potential of any of the aforementioned critics, but I would like to think that I have this level of self-awareness. When I say something is good or bad, and I either recommend paying for it or giving it a pass, that’s my opinion on it. It’s not a salient, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt fact. I never mean it to be taken as such. Nor am I so arrogant as to believe that anything I say in the vein of reviewing or critiquing entertainment will or should be taken as gospel. I critique for a very specific reason, one I elaborated upon on the third and final previous post I’m going to mention.

Are you ready? I’m ready. From Don’t Fear the Critic:

Criticism is a powerful force for good. Nothing ever improves without coming to terms with its flaws. Without critics telling us what’s stupid and what isn’t, we’d all be wearing boulders for hats and drinking down hot ebola soup for tea. – Zero Punctuation: Overlord 2

I could make all sort of analogies for criticism. There’s the bonsai tree example, the fat on a steak visual, the sanding of a bat to remove its splinters for a nice clean hit; I could go on. But suffice it to say that the best criticism is one that sees what a work is going for and points out the flaws so that the crux of the work can be improved while things that don’t work can be discarded.

If I say that “there’s nothing here” when talking about a story, or that a part of a game let me down, or something frustrated or confused me, it’s not me saying the entire work is worthless. More often than not I can get the gist of what the original artist or artists were going for in the work, and if there are obstacles between us and that objective that they either did not completely clear or set up themselves through sloppiness, being rushed or just plain laziness, it bothers me. Why? Because I know there are always obstacles between where the artist begins and where they want to be. I review and criticize other works in order to better understand the creative process from my end. And I’m not going to enjoy everything I choose to review. It is impossible to do that. I want to sample a lot of entertainment to find where I fall in the spectrum and where I can go with my work, and on average some stuff will be good while some will be bad. At least in my opinion.

I hope this made sense. I’ve taken flak for putting opinion out in front of the public. So have the aforementioned critics, as have Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, Charles Baudelaire and the like. I’d like to think that those critics who break into the public domain are doing said public a service, even if it’s just in generating debate. In defending a given work, the defender should at some point be able to cite why it’s worth defending; by contrast, if the work has flaws, they should be recognizable even if the critic does not believe them to be detrimental. We all want the entertainment we enjoy to improve, and by pointing out how or when it doesn’t, we all in effect become critics.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we abide by Wheaton’s First Law: Don’t be a dick.

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