Here’s a lesson from the Internet that we can probably all agree on: Anonymity plus access, it turns out, is not a recipe for great criticism.
We authors are sensitive to this topic, because we have so few measures of the value we are creating or the impact we are having. We cannot have conversations with all our readers, and since we don’t have point-of-sale contact, we don’t get feedback like merchants do. The muffin maker, the oil change guy, the insurance adjuster – all of these hear from at least some of their customers about how they’re doing.
We have reviews of various sorts. To make a generalization, the more anonymous the venue, the lower the tenor of the review. Anonymity takes away a measure of personal responsibility and a larger measure of civility. Amazon has tried to address this problem by certifying the authenticity of reviewers willing to use their real names.
I see a separate problem that doesn’t get talked about much: the decline of cultural criticism as its own form. Good criticism can be a joy to read – the great unwashed mass of “user” reviews, not so much.
When I buy consumer products, I always check the customer reviews if I’m shopping online. There, terse and honest feedback is what I’m looking for: I want to know, in a few words, what the majority of buyers thought of the lip balm or blender I’m considering. (Though, there have been some hilarious Amazon product reviews.)
When I want to learn about a book (or movie or opera or play) I want something both more detailed and more nuanced, with allowances for personal taste and, in the best possible case, an appealing voice. I understand that the professional critic is a disappearing breed, and so we can’t expect folks to give hours of hard work to an effort for which they won’t be paid; still, I think all would-be critics could learn a few things from those who do.
I am a big fan of film critic Anthony Lane. His prose is highly accessible and has a sort of jocular, intimate voice that makes you feel like you’re in on the joke. More importantly, he makes me feel like he believes the movie makers are in on the joke as well. In other words, even in a negative review, I don’t get the sense that he’s out to trash anyone or even any particular work, but rather to elevate a medium that he loves.
Lane’s reviews contain clever and succinct summaries, thought-provoking observations, and meaty language. Consider just a few lines from his latest column in the New Yorker (in which he reviews “Shame” and “Sleeping Beauty”):
“McQueen was lauded for Hunger, and rightly so, even though that movie was imperiled by the coolness of its own gaze.”
“His companions, in that climactic bout, are played by DeeDee Luxe and Calamity Chang, two names that made me happier than anything else in the film.”
“If Shame treats the libido as little more than a lonely subset of fluid mechanics, Sleeping Beauty deconstructs it as a weapon in the armory of patriarchal oppression.”
Ahhh! Love it. Not only does Lane take the time to ruminate about why a film works (or doesn’t), he presents his ideas in prose that is itself a satisfying entertainment.
Over the weekend I was talking to an acquaintance who admits to writing scathing Yelp reviews. “They’re meant to be funny,” she said in her defense. Ehh, I kind of get it. Mean-girl humor apparently never gets old in some circles. But too often, they’re not just negative and mean, they’re also inaccurate and poorly written.
I guess it all comes down to an ageless piece of advice from moms everywhere: “Just because you can say it, doesn’t mean you should say it.” At least, not if you can’t say it well.
What do you think – am I way off base here? A grumpy throwback to another time, poorly equipped to handle social media? Or do I have a point? One commenter will receive a $15 gift certificate from Amazon, home to so many amateur reviewers.
P.S. Thrillerfest gives a fun award – the ‘Worst Amazon Review’ award. Last year, John Gilstrap won for this: “The glue boogers in the binding were more captivating than Gilstrap’s torpid prose.”